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Symbolism and Duality in Young Goodman Brown
Written by Anthony J. Pisco

In his story "Young Goodman Brown," Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbols fraught with double meaning to epitomize the eternal conflict between good and evil. This turmoil forces the title character to glimpse into the iniquitous hearts of men while questioning his own moral fallibility. His inability to stare at and absorb this propensity for evil teaches a valuable lesson. A young man must recognize the inherent dual nature of humanity before he can reach any knowledge and experience of righteousness.

The story starts inauspiciously for Goodman Brown as he doubts the piety of his fellow man and observes darkness in the human heart. He sees the capacity for evil all around him. However, he cannot cope with such a notion of innate iniquity. Worse still, he sees this disposition of decadence within himself. This is why he must make his journey into the deep, dark forest of colonial New England. If he did not already question himself, there would be no need for such an expedition. Hawthorne masterfully uses symbols to illustrate such duality, and the setting of Salem Village, which was the center of the late seventeenth century witch trials, serves as an apt background of human fear and misdoing.

One way in which Hawthorne underscores the dual nature of man theme is by his naming of the characters in this short story. Many of the names have a double meaning. Although one can attribute this to Puritan lifestyle, it would be difficult to dismiss the importance of the titles as symbols. These characters include Goodman himself, Goody Cloyse, and perhaps most significantly, Faith, his wife. After being asked to put off the journey by his spouse, Goodman proclaims: "My love and my faith, of all nights in the year, this one must I tarry from thee." Goodman is not only tarrying from his wife but also from his faith in his fellow human beings. He will succumb and glimpse at the transgressions of man. Upon encountering his companion in the woods, Goodman states: "Faith kept me back awhile," and when he hears the voice of his consort among those journeying to the commune of evil he cries: "My Faith is gone!" The double meaning of the proper name, Faith, and the abstract idea of the general attribute interweave to undermine the theme of duality. Goodman is losing Faith, his wife, and belief in his fellow man.

Hawthorne also uses inanimate articles to illustrate the two sides of man. One symbol the reader immediately discerns is the pink ribbons in Faith's cap. In western society, certain abstract colors imply a traditional concrete meaning. For example, red symbolizes passion and sin. White, on the other hand, represents purity and innocence. The combination of these colors forms the color pink. Goodman wants to believe that his wife is innocent and free of sinful temptations. However, the pink ribbons in Faith's cap exemplify the dual nature he sees in her. Not wanting to acknowledge the existence of such carnal capacities, he embarks on a voyage he hopes will eradicate his fears.

The journey itself is symbolic as well. The deep, dark forest represents the depths of man's soul where lustful temptation and vicious wickedness reside. In fact, Goodman encounters his fellow traveler, Satan, in the forest. The devil, Hawthorne therefore suggests, dwells in the human soul. It is into this darkness Goodman plunges himself. It is into the deepest depth he needs to explore before he can understand the duality of man and attain moral maturity. Goodman comes closer to reaching such maturity as he notices the devil within himself and follows all those he reveres to the satanic ceremony of conversion. However, when the true test presents itself, when the "Shape of Evil" prepares to baptize and reveal the secret guilt and sinful deeds and thoughts of others, Goodman chooses to look away and not recognize such immorality. The inability to stare at evil causes him to commit a far greater sin. Living the rest of his life completely cynical of others, he neglects his neighbor of love and compassion while detaching from humanity, leaving him both socially and morally isolated.

One must indeed accept the dual nature of humanity. It is only when an individual recognizes that all humans are capable of both good and bad that he or she can resist wrongdoing. The Manichean rhetoric of "good versus evil" and "us versus them" is as debilitating now as it was in the seventeenth century. The idea is to accept this capacity and choose against that which is negative, that which separates human beings and imprisons us in the seemingly never-ending cycle of war, poverty, and misery. A young man can never reach any experience and knowledge of so-called virtuousness without grasping this innate capability in all human beings. In short, it is not a matter of denying any temptations or immoral proclivities one may possess. It is how one chooses to act upon them that truly constitutes morality.