Young Goodman Brown, universally acclaimed as one of Hawthorne’s best short stories, presents the student searching out its meaning with not only several possibilities but several rather ambiguous ones. D. M. McKeithan, in an article entitled ” ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation” (Modern Language Notes, 67 , 93), has listed the suggestions that have been advanced as “the theme” of the story: “the reality of sin, the pervasiveness of evil, the secret sin and hypocrisy of all persons, the hypocrisy of Puritanism, the results of doubt or disbelief, the devastating effects of moral scepticism .
The demoralizing effects of the discovery that all men are sinners and hypocrites. ” Admittedly, these themes are not as diverse as they might at first appear. They are, with the possible exception of the one specifically mentioning Puritanism, quite closely related. But meaning is not restricted to theme, and there are other ambivalences in the story that make its meanings both rich and elusive. After taking into account some matters of text and genre, we shall look at “Young Goodman Brown” from our traditional approaches.
Textually, “Young Goodman Brown,” first published in 1835 in the New England Magazine, presents relatively few problems. Obsolete words in the story like “wot’st” (know), “Goody” (Goodwife, or Mrs. ), “Goodman” (Mr. ) are defined in most desk dictionaries, and none of the other words has undergone radical semantic change. Nevertheless, as we have seen, although a literary work may have been written in a day when printing had reached a high degree of accuracy, a perfect text is by no means a foregone conclusion.
With Hawthorne, as with other authors, scholars are constantly working on more accurate texts. For example, the first edition of this handbook used a version of “Young Goodman Brown” that contained at least two substantive variants. About three-fourths of the way through the story the phrase “unconcerted wilderness” appeared.
David Levin, in an article entitled “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown'” (American Literature, 34 [November 1962], 346, n. points out that nineteen years after Hawthorne’s death, an edition of the story by George P. Lathrop printed “unconverted” for the first time: Every version before that, including Hawthorne’s last revision, had had “unconverted. ” In that same paragraph the first edition of this handbook printed “figure” as opposed to “apparition,” the word that Levin tells us, occurred in the first published versions of the story. Obviously, significant interpretive differences could hinge on which words are employed in these contexts.