Symbolism in Young Goodman Brown and the Rocking Horse Winner

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 A young man embarks through the woods, at night, to keep a date with destiny.  His destiny is to know'. When he leaves the woods the following morning, he departs with the knowledge of evil.  A young boy frantically rides his mysteriously enchanted rocking-horse in search for love and peace through material gain.  He achieves nothing, however, accept an early demise. Using symbolism these two fantasy short stories, Young Goodman Brown and The Rocking Horse Winner, convey powerful moral themes.

         This story, Young Goodman Brown, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a retelling of the Bible story of Adam and Eve, uses rich and powerful symbolism to discuss the human struggle against hypocrisy and man's need to know'.  Hawthorne uses the complexities of New England's Puritan roots as a backdrop for his story.    The first line of the story reveals that the tale is set in the Puritan town of Salem Massachusetts.  A deeper understanding of the history of this town, and that history's relationship to the author, helps to unveil how Hawthorne uses the setting of his story as a symbol for hypocrisy.  The Puritan faith was rooted in Calvinism, which stressed internal purity and a return to a covenant with God similar to the theocracy outlined in the Old Testament between God and the Israelites.  Puritan New England was, in effect, an experimental model society'.  John Winthrop, a Puritan founder referred to this society as a City on a Hill'.  Puritan New England was a strict and legalistic society. Nonconformity was not tolerated as the church controlled most aspects of the community.  Plainness and simplicity was required.  Submission to the church and Biblical authority was not even questioned by the average citizen. Hawthorne was not an average citizen.  Although, his works were published after the Puritan era had ended, their ideals still lived on.  In, both The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown Hawthorne challenges his reader to question the power of institutions such as religion.  In, Hawthorne's story, Goodman Brown, the main character, has doubts about his religion and looks to his appointment in the woods to support his concerns. While in the act of questioning his faith, by consorting with the devil, he is plagued by the religious standards impressed upon him since his youth

 'My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him.  We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs.  And I shall be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path .

Hawthorne beckons the reader to question, as Goodman does, why and what do I believe' through the symbolism of the town of Salem.

The connection between the Puritan's beliefs and the story's theme continues to reveal itself through the other symbolism found in the tale's setting.  The story begins as Goodman is preparing to leave his home in the village.  Using the village as a starting point for the protagonist's journey implies that he is embarking from a place of order, comfort, and safety.  Goodman's belief in the security of his hometown is demonstrated through his parting words to his wife, 'Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee. Furthermore, the values of upright living that a Puritan village was founded on are left behind as Goodman passes beyond the town's borders:

The young man pursued his way until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him with a melancholy air Poor little Faith! thought he, for his heart smote him.  What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand!  Well; she's a blessed angel on earth and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose.

The meetinghouse mentioned in the above quote is the place where the townspeople met for church.  His thoughts of Faith as he passes beyond the church' are not coincidence.  His dismissal of his concerns for his wife is really a dismissal of his guilt of straying beyond the borders of his faith represented by the borders of the town.  It may be interesting to note that the lines immediately following the above quote describe the wilderness outside the safety of the village.

        Goodman's journey takes him into the woods.  The forest is the exact opposite of the village.  A person can easily lose their way when walking in the forest even during the light of day.  The path Young Goodman takes is a dark and haunted one as the images Hawthorne's words inspire:

He had taken a dreary road darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!

The devil himself was at Goodman's elbow and the setting of the wood allows this character to hide' his sin of wanting to know the truth about evil.  The wood's concealing symbolism is demonstrated in Hawthorne's description of Goodman's response to the sound of approaching horses, Goodman Brown heard the tramp of horses along the road and deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither... 

        The darkness of the wood is intensified by Hawthorn's use of time to symbolize the parallels between good and evil.  The Puritans upheld a black and white view of the world; it was either good or evil.  There were no in-betweens or shades of grey.  In, the Puritan's world the light of day is connected to pure upright living. Similarly, the dark of night hides the deeds of the wicked and is thus, black with sin. The story begins by telling us the time of day, Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street of Salem village. The fact that this story begins at dusk when the light of day is waning shows Goodman's choice to follow temptation, thus leaving the world of light. As the young man continues in his foray of sin, his consort with the devil, the night deepens, and darkness surrounds him, It was now deep dusk in the forest, and the deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying. Another connection to time and the story's theme is the possible parallel between day and night and the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.  In, this story the character of Adam lives in Paradise and after pursuing a desire to know evil is forced to leave his garden home and enter a world down cast in the shadow of his sin.  Similarly, Goodman embarks on this journey at the end of day.  The day' may represent the beauty of paradise. The end of the day thus reveals Goodman's departure from Paradise. For, he has chosen to eat of the knowledge of good and evil', so to speak, and is thus cast into the darkness of night as he pursues this knowledge.   Hawthorne also uses time to demonstrate the prolongation of hypocrisy from days of old to today.  The story was published in 1835 but was set in the 1600's and by choosing this time for the setting of his story the author reminds his readers of the past's relationship to truth today. 

In like manner, D. H. Lawrence uses symbolism in the fantasy tale, The Rocking-Horse Winner, to convey this difficult truth: materialism is an inefficacious pursuit. Compared to Young Goodman Brown the setting of The Rocking-Horse Winner seems an underdeveloped element.  However, like Hawthorn, Lawrence uses a key part of his setting symbolically. The house where most of the story's action takes place symbolizes anxiety. A home should be a place of refuge for a child where the love and support of family nurtures the youth along the road to manhood. This house is devoid of all nurture however.  It is instead the location of the children's anxiety and torment:

And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time, though nobody said it aloud They would look into each other's eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. There must be more money! There must be more money !

This powerful symbol emphasizes the story's theme for it is this feeling of anxiety that drives young Paul on his fruitless search for luck' which will supposedly silence the whispering house.

        In, Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorn uses other forms of symbolism to further enhance his theme. Near the beginning of the story, Faith's pink ribbons are used to symbolize the innocence of pure faith; as is shown in the following passage, 'Then God bless you! said Faith with the pink ribbons .  However, as the story progresses this innocence is lost.  In, his search to know evil, Goodman's faith is shaken; losing its innocence as is symbolically revealed through Faith's loss of her ribbons:

But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it and beheld a pink ribbon. My Faith is gone! cried he, after one stupefied moment. There is no good on earth, and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given .

This passage further reveals that the name Faith itself is a symbol of Goodman Brown's personal faith. Like the loss of the pink ribbons, Goodman loses his faith in the woods and is left jaded by the hypocrisy he sees in those around him.

        In The Rocking-Horse Winner Lawrence also uses other symbolism to powerfully express his moral theme. Literary critic, W.R. Martin in his article, Fancy or Imagination? The Rocking-Horse Winner,' explains that it is this use of symbolism that reveals the story's technical excellence.  He states, Much significant meaning so successfully conveyed through objective correlatives [deserves consideration] . One such correlative is the rocking-horse which symbolizes the unattainable.  The rider of the toy never arrives at his destination. Instead, its circular forward and backward motion represents a journey that fails to reach a satisfactory conclusion.  As Martin explains:

For all this frenzied effort the horse rocks backwards and forwards on the same spot, still-swaying.' Lawrence does not have to score this heavily, but the rocking motion evokes with poetic economy and precision the futility of the parents, whose prospects never materialized .'

In an effort to evade the unlucky' condition of his parents, young Paul becomes victim to the same materialistic condition.  This sickness is symbolized in Paul's eyes as revealed in the following passage at the end of the story, His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second . This sickness claims the protagonist's life but in the real world this same illness rarely kills the body, but it can kill the soul. As the old proverb says: You cannot take it with you. Therefore, a life spent accumulating things that are not eternal is a wasted life. 

        Each of these stories are moral tales about human sin. Goodman Brown's quest for knowledge concerning evil leaves him disillusioned and judgmental of the perceived hypocrisy around him.  Poor Paul's search for luck' drives him insane and results in his early death.  Both protagonists are searching for something only to end up discontented in their sin. The reader is similarly left feeling dissatisfied wondering if more change will ever be made.  Will the townspeople of Salem become sincere in their faith?  Will they turn away from a legalistic belief system or will they discover that Jesus plus nothing equals true freedom from sin?  Will Paul's death impact his mother's cold heart?  Will she realize that the things that matter most in life are the people in it not the things she owns? 

         The questions these stories inspire in the reader are part of what gives them their literary value. Stories that inspire readers to think deeply about the nature of life are the stories that are remembered. 

Although, each story does this well, one of the strongest differences between these two literary works is their quality. Hawthorn provides rich and developed literary elements such as: theme, plot, characterization, setting, symbolism, and use of language that gives his story more depth than Lawrence's tale. Literary Critic Graham Hough in his article, The Dark Sun, calls The Rocking-Horse Winner, "fancy not imagination . This critique may be too harsh.  However, Lawrence's story does rely primarily on its use of symbolism to convey it's message and many elements are arguably lacking depth compared to Hawthorne. 

        The symbolism used by these skillful writers enriches their stories making, Young Goodman Brown, and The Rocking-Horse Winner, strong works of literature.

Hawthorne artfully uses symbolism to convey messages concerning hypocrisy and man's desire to know both good and evil. Is understanding worth the price, however, of leaving the safety of the village to enter into the perilous woods?  Likewise, Lawrence intertwines symbolism into his tale to warn his readers, not to get caught in the, there must be more money trap. These stories leave the reader wondering, can sin like hypocrisy and materialism ever be conquered?

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Symbolism in Young Goodman Brown and The Rocking Horse Winner. (2019, Jul 23). Retrieved February 25, 2024 , from

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