Setting in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown
By Melissa Miglioretto
Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for his novel, The Scarlet Letter, which is a dark and riddled with sin. In Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne continues to depict “the dark side of human nature” (427). The time period, the location and the physical structures are all elements of setting that Hawthorne uses in his short story, Young Goodman Brown, to enhance the theme that experience and involvement with evil will ultimately lead to a loss of faith and to isolation.
The time period is the first element of setting that enhances Hawthorne’s theme. Young Goodman Brown is set in the Puritan Time Period. Hawthorne gives evidence of this on page 348, when he directly states that they are in the Salem Village, and by using words such as Goodman (348) and Goody (350). It is common knowledge that the Puritan time period was marked by intolerance and suspicion. This builds to the theme because the loss of faith is a result of suspicion of evil in everyone and everything. In addition to the Puritan time period, Hawthorne uses Faith to hint that it is All Hollow’s Eve. On page 348, Faith begs of her husband, “Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.” She is obviously afraid of what might happen on the night when the spirits are about. She knows, in part, what the night of All Hollow’s Eve holds for her. This particular instance upholds the theme because she knows that her impending experience with evil will separate her from her husband. Furthermore, Hawthorne uses the time of day to help influence the theme in the story. “Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset…” because his journey was one that needed to be done “’twixt [sunset] and sunrise.” (348) Night is an isolated time of day, when people are alone. This supports the theme because, even before he had a direct encounter with evil, Goodman Brown was already isolating himself from his wife and the other people of the village.
Hawthorne also uses the location of “Young Goodman Brown” to enhance the theme of the short story. Young Goodman Brown is set in the Salem Village. This part of the setting is of historical significance because the “Witch Trials” occurred in Salem, Massachusetts. This knowledge gives the reader an idea that witchcraft and deviltry. The fact that the story is set in the Salem Village builds to the theme about evil and isolation because it adds to the ideas of evil and intolerance that characterized the Salem Village. The significant part of the story occurs in the “old heathen forest.” Through this forest, the path “grew wilder and drearier… leaving [Young Goodman Brown] in the heart of the wilderness.” (353) The words used to describe the forest; “heathen” and “wild;” add to the theme by supporting the idea of evil. These words are usually associated with things not associated with Christianity, such as evil. The forest setting helps support the theme because it adds to the theme of isolation, especially when words associated with evil are used to describe it.
A third element of setting used by Hawthorne is the physical structures within the short story. For instance, the path through the forest that he had chosen was “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest… and closed immediately behind [him]” (348). The journey with evil that he was embarking upon was much like that path- there was no way back. Hawthorne uses the path to show that once a person has some involvement or experience with evil, he can never go back to the innocence of before. In the clearing in the woods, there are four trees that are on fire. On page 354, they are described as “four blazing pines, their tops aflame, their stems untouched, like candles at an evening meeting.” This structure builds to the setting within the clearing, making it seem more like hell. The simile involving the pines and the candles at an evening meeting are key in supporting Hawthorne’s theme. The simile shows that even though the clearing was a hell on earth, there were still structures that reminded Goodman Brown of the Puritan Church. These commonalities are really what ruin the faith of a person who has an experience with evil. All the things they have associated with their faith and with holiness are now also associated with the devil and hell. There are several other images that make the clearing seem like a church. One of these is the “rock, bearing some rude, natural resemblance either to an alter or a pulpit” (354). This physical structure within the clearing bears a striking resemblance to another thing that people associate with faith and holiness that has now become associated with evil.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, known for writing about the Puritan’s intolerance, uses the time period, the location and the physical structures in Young Goodman Brown to develop the theme that involvement or experience with evil leads to a loss of faith and to isolation.
Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Longman Masters of Short Fiction. Ed. Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn. New York: Longman, 2002.
© Melissa Miglioretto