Ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown”
There is no end to the ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”; this essay hopes to explore this problem.
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. . . . Where traditional allegory was secured in certitude, however, Hawthorne’s allegorical proceedings yield only restlessness and doubt. The stable system of correspondences that tied allegory’s images and ideas together was lodged squarely upon the religious orthodoxy that Hawthorne rejected. In his belated version of the sacramental world, the links binding visible to spirit have become vexed and problematic. . . . The flickering, uncertain revelations offered by the physical world in Hawthorne’s fiction allow simultaneously for confession and concealment, for discovery and disguise. This doubleness generates tensions that can be felt throughout Hawthorne’s work. . . . (82-84).
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...