Ambiguity in Young Goodman Brown

July 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s popular short story “Young Goodman Brown” incites mystery and intrigue in its readers for several reasons. “Young Goodman Brown” produces a multitude of questions and interpretations as to the precise events of the protagonist’s nocturnal journey. Who does Goodman Brown really meet in the forest? Was his experience in the forest a dream, or reality? This ambiguity is central to the form of the story as a whole. Hawthorne intentionally creates ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown” with the forest setting, which is conducive to optical illusions, his use of dubious descriptive language, and the narrator’s doubt as to the reality of events to explore the ramifications of perceived reality. One of the most noticeable elements in “Young Goodman Brown” is the eerie setting, which plays a key role in the ambiguity of the story. The deep, dark forest that Goodman Brown enters on his nighttime journey sets the stage for the doubt that consumes his mind for the remainder of his life. The darkness of the thick forest acts as a veil so that the reader does not truly know the reality of who or what Goodman Brown encounters on his excursion. As the narrator states, “The traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude” (610). From the moment Brown enters the forest, Hawthorne alerts the reader to the fact that the idea of doubt plays a central role in the story. The narrator also explains that the “uncertain light” may allow for “ocular deception” (614). This statement acts as a cornerstone from which the reader can build a case for disbelief in the reality of the night’s events. Another instance of deliberate ambiguity through a possible illusion occurs when Brown’s senses detect figures and events throughout the story. “He could have sworn…he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin” (614). Still, even in this example, when Brown seems sure of their existence, he never clearly sees the figures. His line of sight is obscured by the blackness of the night and the forest growth, and thus his recognition of his fellow townspeople relies only on his sense of hearing. Hawthorne purposely sets the tale in the depths of the forest, an environment that fosters a sense of illusion and doubt in both Brown and the reader. Similarly, Hawthorne creates ambiguity through dubious descriptions of the characters Brown encounters on his journey. Even when Brown does see figures in the forest; the narrator describes them as just that, “figures” – an ambiguous term in and of itself. The term “figure” connotes a representation of a thing or person, and does not describe the actual thing or person itself. When describing the characters Brown meets along the way, Hawthorne also uses the term “visage”, which also implies the appearance or representation of a person, and not necessarily the true person (617). Hawthorne deliberately describes the events and characters of the story in such a way as to evoke questions from the reader. A prime example of another questionable description is when Brown first meets his traveling companion. Upon entering the forest, after Brown asks, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow,” a figure appears (611). Because Brown’s question precedes the appearance of his traveling companion, it leads the reader to wonder whether the traveling companion is indeed the devil – a fact never confirmed by the narrator. Additionally, the narrator notes that Brown and this male figure “might have been taken for father and son” (611). This statement is supported when Goody Cloyse asserts that the traveling companion is the devil appearing as Brown’s father, Goodman Brown (613). Is the devil merely taking the form of Brown’s father, or is Hawthorne implying a deeper connection between the devil and Goodman Brown? The reader cannot be certain. The continual use of language such as “might”, “may yet be”, and “as if” further blurs the line between reality and fantasy and plays an integral role in Hawthorne’s formula for ambiguity. The reader can find this deliberate use of qualified and conditional language throughout the story. The doubt of both the narrator and Brown lead the reader to doubt the events of the story. Just as the descriptions given for the events in the forest evoke uncertainty in the reader, so too do the direct statements of the narrator’s doubt regarding the events of the story. Throughout the text, the narrator continuously raises explicit questions concerning Goodman Brown’s experiences, thereby intentionally confusing the reader. When Brown hears the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin, the narrator questions, “Whither, then, could these holy men be journeying so deep into the heathen wilderness?” (614). When Brown detects the figure of a woman warning him back during the black mass, the narrator inquires, “Was it his mother?” (617). And finally, after Goodman Brown reenters the village a changed man, the narrator challenges, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed of a witch-meeting?” (618). This series of questions, along with others found throughout the text, leads the reader to question every aspect of the tale, including the location of the events, who was present at the black mass, and the validity of the tale as a whole. Hawthorne deliberately sprinkles these questions throughout the story to throw the reader into a state of inquiry and disbelief. Though Brown, the narrator, and the reader all question the reality of the night’s events at various points throughout the story, it is clear at the conclusion of the tale that Brown’s experience has very real ramifications on his life, regardless of whether the events are real or imagined. After the narrator questions whether the events were a dream or reality, he states: “Be it so if you will. But alas! It was a dream of evil omen for young goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative…man did he become, from the night of that fearful dream” (618). The narrator explains that the real effects of the night include a distant relationship with his wife, children, and community and asserts that: “his dying hour was gloom” (619). The perceived reality has lasting effects on Brown even though the reader picks up on Hawthorne’s deliberate ambiguity and is thus moved to question the validity of the tale. Hawthorne explores the nature of imagination and reality in this mysterious and grim tale by allowing the reader to actively question the tale despite the fact that the protagonist seems to believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the night’s events. He combines a multitude of elements in “Young Goodman Brown” to create a sense of mystery. The dark setting of the forest, which provides camouflage for the figures, the use of language which alludes to possible double meanings, and a narrator who seems to be unsure of the events of the story himself, are all examples of how Hawthorne utilizes ambiguity as a key element in the formation of this short story. However, despite the ambiguity, the reader witnesses the real ramifications that the events have on Brown’s life, which in turn leads them to question the very concepts of imagination and reality.

Read more
Leave a comment
Order Creative Sample Now
Choose type of discipline
Choose academic level
  • High school
  • College
  • University
  • Masters
  • PhD

Page count
1 pages
$ 10