The Ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown”
The literary critics agree that there is considerable ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” This essay intends to illustrate the previous statement and to analyze the cause of this ambiguity.
Henry James in Hawthorne, when discussing “Young Goodman Brown” comments on how imaginative it is, then mentions how allegorical Hawthorne is, and how allegory should be expressed clearly:
I frankly confess that I have, as a general thing, but little enjoyment of it, and that it has never seemed to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. . . . But it is apt to spoil two good things – a story and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible for a large part of the forcible-feeding writing that has been inflicted upon the world. The only cses 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 sleepin his own bed that night. . . . Mulling over the guilty purpose that has brought him into the forest, Goodman Brown recalls Faith’s talk of dreams. . . . In the forest he goes through a...