Although written relatively early in Hawthorne’s career, the story nevertheless contains some of his most characteristic themes and techniques. Had it not appeared six years before Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841), it might have been regarded as a counter or antidote to the radical individualism that essay preaches. Whereas Emerson tends to see things in black and white and as either/or issues, Hawthorne’s tale eloquently depicts how inaccurate perception can be and how often ambiguity attends reality or illusion cloaks it and, therefore, how recognition of these complications should discourage simplistic judgments. In the forest with his companion, for instance, Brown is shaken by the revelation that the Puritan community and his own family are not as perfectly virtuous as they seem, and he precipitously leaps to the extravagant conclusion that they are totally wicked.

Technically, the tale is highly sophisticated. The story is told, for example, by an omniscient but unobtrusive—almost to the point of effacement—narrator who, with few but important exceptions, is restricted to the limited functions of narrating the plot and channeling the protagonist’s thoughts. The protagonist seems to be a good young man with whom it is easy to identify. Readers are therefore inclined to sympathize with him and to overlook the considerable amount of evidence subtly introduced throughout the tale that indicates that most of what he believes he experiences on his night journey into the forest is a dream and that, because he never suspects this, his impressions are not to be accepted as prima facie truths but are to be interpreted. In large measure, therefore, “Young Goodman Brown” is a tale about what goes on in Brown’s mind. But the narrator never identifies with Brown, whose perceptions are erroneous, or endorses the conclusions Brown reaches that unfairly malign not just his own community but the world at large. Readers who sympathize with Goodman Brown are led by almost imperceptible degrees to the slippery position that he alone is good and everyone else is evil.

When Hawthorne wrote the story, he was already a master of symbolism, allegory, ambiguity, and irony, four of the story’s outstanding features. As with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a literary progenitor, each character in Hawthorne’s tale has symbolic in addition to dramatic value, and while the narrative succeeds at a literal level, the interplay of the symbols effectively constitutes an artful and absorbing allegory. The central personage of young Goodman Brown, who symbolizes youth (although he is no longer young at the end) and goodness (although that value is qualified), focuses the story into an allegory of the plight of every human being who seeks to achieve and maintain mature integrity in a murky world.

A wide spectrum of irony colors the story, from the obvious , such as the comment that the devil “would not have felt abashed at the governor’s dinner table, or in King William’s court” (p. 76), to subtle revelations that emerge gradually, such as the fact that Brown is faithless to both Faith and faith, his wife and his religion. Controlled ambiguity, together with irony, thoroughly but deftly permeates the narrative. Indeed, the majority of sentences have ironic capabilities, and certainty is the victim of the invitation of many passages to be read in more than one way, a consequence of Hawthorne’s use of the device of multiple choice, one of his favorites. He clearly wanted readers to ponder the text carefully. The least effect of so much alternate possibility is to render literal readings of the story line unlikely. However, not all alternate possibilities lead to full interpretations. The tale has main themes that supply purposeful direction through the ambiguities and ironies.