Ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown”
Peter Conn in “Finding a Voice in an New Nation” makes a statement regarding Hawthorne’s ambiguity: “Almost all of Hawthorne’s finest stories are remote in time or place. The glare of contemporary reality immobillized his imagination. He required shadows and half-light, and he sought a nervous equilibrium in ambiguity” (82). There is considerable ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and this essay will examine this and its causes.
R. W. B. Lewis in “The Return into Rime: Hawthorne” mentions the ambiguity associated with the key imagery in “Young Goodman Brown”: “For Hawthorne, the forest was neither the proper home of the admirable Adam, as with Cooper; nor was it the hideout of the malevolent adversary. . . . It was the ambiguous setting of moral choice. . . .” (74-75). Henry James in Hawthorne, when discussing “Young Goodman Brown” mentions how allegorical Hawthorne is, and how it is not clearly expressed with this author:
The only cases in which it is endurable is when it is extremely spontaneous, when the analogy presents itself with eager promptitude. When it shows signs of having been groped and fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent, and the failure complete. Then the machinery alone is visible and the end to which it operates becomes a matter of indifference (50).
When one has to grope for, and fumble for, the meaning of a tale, then there is “failure” in the work, as Henry James says. This unfortunately is the case of “Young Goodman Brown.” It is so ambiguous in so many occasions in the tale that a blur rather than a distinct image forms in the mind of the reader.
The Norton Anthology: American Literature states in “Nathaniel Hawthorne”:
Above all, his theme was curiosity about the receses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent [my italics], for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invsion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind (548).
Ambivalence, or the simultaneous and contradictory attitude and/or feelings toward an object, etc., may well be the cause of the extreme ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty in the mind of the reader of “Young Goodman Brown.” Intentional ambivalence on the part of the author in order not to offend too many is a plausible explanation, as I would see things.
Terence Martin in Nathaniel Hawthorne expresses what I interpret as a possible source for the ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown”:
Assumed in the tale is a radical distinction between dream life and real life; the question proposed to Goodman Brown is into which of these categories good and evil naturally belong. At the outset of the story, Faith asks her husband to postpone his journey until sunrise and...