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Young Goodman Brown: Effectively Completing a Circular Plot

In the concluding paragraph of “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne uses the forest experience to its fullest effect, moving Brown through another series of separations to the ultimate separation, from life itself. To some critics, in fact, the concluding paragraph itself has seemed a separation, breaking the neat circularity of Hawthorne’s plot, moving in linear fashion through time from Brown’s figurative death at the threshold of his house to his literal death at the threshold of the grave.

Yet I agree wholeheartedly with Richard Abcarian, though for different reasons, that the paragraph is not anticlimactic, a digression, an example solely of Hawthorne’s penchant for heavy moralizing, or a violation of the neatly unified circular form [Abacarian, “The Ending of ‘Young Goodman Brown’,” Studies in Short Fiction III, No. 3, Spring 1966]. First, the paragraph is replete with echoes, especially verbal echoes, which tie it to incidents in the forest experience while the effect of that experience reaches its highest peak.

That Goodman Brown has become permanently stern and sad as a result of his one night in the forest is linked to his stern and sad look into Faith’s eyes on his return, and is further linked, ironically, to the soft and sad plea she whispered into his ear on his departure. That Brown has become “darkly meditative” contrasts his “pleasant and praiseworthy meditations” after the meeting with Goody Cloyse. The “anthem of sin” that he henceforth hears at Sabbath service in the meeting house corresponds to the “dreadful anthem” swelling out of the forest at the beginning of the Black Mass.

The blessed strain of the holy psalms is “drowned” by this anthem, recalling that Faith’s scream of resistance was “drowned” by laughter in the black cloud. The minister’s pointed reference to “saint-like lives and triumphant deaths” suggests Brown’s proud reference to his pantheon of ancestors: “We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs. ” Brown as a “hoary corpse,” just described as shrinking from the bosom of Faith, ironically resembles the “hoary-bearded elders of the church [who] have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households.

Even death provides no escape for old Goodman Brown. He is borne to the graveyard, the site of the good old minister’s morning promenade, where no hopeful verses are carved on his tomb, recalling the “verse after verse” of the lore of fiends sung in the wilderness, for his dying hour was gloom, final verification of the black man’s prophecy that “Evil must be your only happiness. ” Second, the concluding paragraph in a subtle way actually cements the circularity of the plot by reaching back to complete, ironically, images set forth in the introduction.

Since this completion is done with irony, the paragraph satisfies a sense of achieved form by the artist without subordinating the sense of havoc wrought on the chief character. In the introduction Faith invites Brown to her bed, and in the conclusion we see him shrinking from her bosom at midnight. In the introduction Brown asks, rhetorically, if Faith doubts him; and in the conclusion, in response, we see that it is Brown who doubts her.

Faith hopes that Brown will find “all well” when he returns, and, of course, he finds all evil. Brown’s reply to Faith includes an admonition to “say thy prayers,” but in the conclusion he continually turns away “at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer. ” In the beginning Brown affirms that it would kill Faith even to think of the evil in the forest, but in the end the evil in the forest has killed Brown, and it is his death that we witness.

The last thing Brown says before plunging into the forest is that he will return after this one night, cling to Faith’s skirts, and follow her to heaven; the last thing in the story we see is Faith following Brown, on another journey which “must needs be done,” to the edge of the grave. One image in particular, however, haunts the reader, momentarily threatening to explode the somber periodicity of the concluding sentence.

After seeing Brown ignore his wife’s embrace on the morning of his return and shrink from her bosom time and again later, the presence of his “children and grandchildren” here at his death inevitably suggests moments at least of consummate union with Faith. The average reader probably wants a happy ending, or at least a spark of happiness at the ending, but any expectation of that kind quickly evanesces. The suggestion really only enforces the terrible beauty of Brown’s position between two worlds.

The evil process in the forest has disqualified Brown from relation with the “goodly procession” which follows him. He must live in the village with the sight of the forest, till death calls him. In the symbolic terms of the story, Brown literally has no place else to go, and even death provides no escape. Hawthorne treats Brown’s death neither as the time of triumph for the godly, nor as the time of the solace of annihilation for the tortured; and his sonorous but studiedly objective language here simply does not encourage emotional commitment. So, gloom inevitably has the last word.

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