Source: Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1958, pp. 331-36. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 29
Criticism about: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
[In this essay, Walsh discusses the threefold symbolic pattern of Goodman Brown's experience in the forest which results in his surrender to despair.]
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
The above question, found in the second to the last paragraph of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous short story, Young Goodman Brown, has perhaps inspired more comment than any other sentence of the author's works. But it is futile to attempt to answer the question, especially since the author himself has intentionally avoided it. Yet most commentators have chosen between the two alternatives that Hawthorne has offered, and their choice determines the meaning they give to the short story: those who think that Goodman Brown's experience in the forest is not a dream say that he is the victim of an evil world in which he finds himself (such an interpretation makes Hawthorne more pessimistic than he is usually thought to be); those who think that Brown's experience is a dream put the responsibility for his despair, not on the world, but on him.
It is the purpose of this paper, which is more in agreement with the conclusions of the latter group, to show that Hawthorne's method in Young Goodman Brown is such that the tale's full meaning cannot be determined by the narrative itself, which would involve attempting to answer the author's question about Brown's experience in the forest. Rather, the reader must be conscious of a threefold symbolic pattern which objectifies Brown's subjective experience, thereby showing that it is he rather than the world who is responsible for his despair. The reader can never be certain about what actually happened in the forest; he can, however, be certain, not only of the nature and stages of Goodman Brown's despair, but also of its probable cause. And all this can be worked out from the symbolic pattern.
For an understanding of what happens to Goodman Brown the reader should be conscious of three sets of symbols: first, Faith, Brown's wife, represents religious faith and faith in mankind; second, Brown's journey into the forest represents an inward journey into the black, despairing depths of his soul; third, the devil represents Brown's darker, doubting side, which eventually believes that evil is the nature of mankind. The symbolic movement of the forest scenes is from the bosom of Faith to the loss of faith, which involves despair, from the village of belief to the depths of the forest of despair, and from a doubting balance of Brown's personality to the complete submergence of the brighter side into the darker side, which objectifies despair. The three sets of symbols tell the story of a man, young and naïve in the ways of the world, who, finding that men are not all good, became so convinced they are all bad that he could not remove the doubt of universal evil from his mind.
It is difficult to treat each set of symbols separately, so interlaced with each other are they, but first let us consider Faith, who, Hawthorne tells us, is aptly named. Faith is symbolic of Brown's faith, which he gradually loses as he doubts more and more the existence of any goodness in man. The physical movement away from Faith, marking his own loss of faith, can be traced through the forest scene to the climax at the witches' gathering. Brown's feelings of guilt about his movement away from his wife help to underscore the psychological turmoil involved in the process. He is conscious of the dangers of the mission but is impelled onward by the thoughts of evil which hold him fascinated until it is too late to turn back to his wife and so to faith.
Tracing this symbol through, we note that as Goodman Brown enters the forest, he salves his guilty conscience with the excellent resolve that he will cling to Faith's skirts forever after this night. When he meets the devil, he tells him that 'Faith kept me back awhile'. As he proceeds deeper into the forest, his conscience continues to disturb him: at one point he bemoans the fact that his action will break Faith's heart, while at another point he asks himself why he should quit his Faith. But nevertheless he moves on, going deeper and deeper until his very senses play tricks on him. He tries to reassure himself against overwhelming doubts by looking to the sky; he beguiles himself that he is safe as long as he has the blue heavens and Faith.
But one cannot contemplate such thoughts about evil, which by their very nature undermine all belief, and at the same time keep one's faith. Goodman Brown tries and becomes a man who leans too far over the edge of a pit. Thus the heavens darken and the symbolic pink ribbon makes him cry out in realization, 'My Faith is gone!', as truly it is, and he wildly laughs in his despair. The storm in his soul and in the forest rises, and he stumbles into the heart of the forest depths where there is symbolically represented the complete perversion of all that he once held dear. As Richard Harter Fogle points out, all the external manifestations of his faith are turned upside down: The Communion of Sin is, in fact, the faithful counterpart of a grave and pious ceremony at a Puritan meeting house.... Satan resembles some grave divine, and the initiation into sin takes the form of baptism [Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952]. And as the external evidences of his religion are perverted, so, climactically, is his very faith, which is symbolized by his discovering his wife in the unholy communion. He has despaired, believing all men are depraved and religion a sham.
Second, there is the journey into the black depths of Young Goodman Brown's soul, paralleled by his journey into the dark undergrowth of the forest. When he enters the forest, we are told, 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. It was all as lonely as could be.... This act is symbolic of what he is doing: he is plunging into the road leading to despair, and the immediate closing of the trees symbolizes the shutting off of his escape. He is alone, cut off from humanity with but one companion, the devil, his own evil genius. The farther he goes, the more hopeless his plight becomes; even Brown realizes it:
Friend, said the other, exchanging his slow pace for a full stop, having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples touching the matter thou wot'st of.
Sayest thou so? replied he of the serpent, smiling apart. Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go; and if I convince thee not thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest yet.
Too far! too far! exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk.
The italics are mine and indicate how the physical journey into the forest is related to the devil's growing power over Goodman Brown's soul and to Brown's realization of what he is doing. He knows he has gone too far, but he does not turn back. In the established pattern, he walks on, and the devil talks persuasively: They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path....
It is not long until the forest is darkened by the black cloud with its attendant voices, symbolizing Brown's doubt-tortured soul as he cries in despair: 'Faith!' shouted Goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him, crying, 'Faith! Faith!' as if bewildered wretches were seeking her all through the wilderness. Then we are told, The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil.
This scene is Hawthorne's finest bit of writing in the story, making the following scene in the heart of the forest almost anticlimactic. The point of view throughout is consistent and clear. It is Brown who sees and doubts and hears and thinks he hears. We, the readers, see both him and the innermost depths of his soul.
Third, Young Goodman Brown moves from a state of belief, in which the good and naïve side of his nature predominates, to a state of despair, in which the good side becomes submerged in the dark side, symbolized by the devil. The black man Brown meets in the forest is the dark side of his own nature objectified. What this man suggests and reveals to him are his own thoughts, which gradually possess him completely.
We are told not only that Goodman Brown looks like the devil, but that so too do his father and his grandfather. This family identification with the devil, together with the stages by which Goodman Brown comes to believe that his fellow men are evil, becomes most important to an understanding of the beginnings of the dark thoughts which eventually overpower him. The first people who are mentioned with reference to sin are his father and grandfather. Early in his journey Brown protests,
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 shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path and kept
There Brown echoes the good report he might have heard from anyone in the village; but the devil, representing the evil doubts in his mind, rejoins with,
I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war.
The facts concerning the persecution of the Quakers and the Indians Goodman Brown must certainly have known before, although in the past he might never have allowed himself to think of them in relation to sin. But what is most interesting, of all those who are mentioned and revealed by the devil, his father and grandfather have in their history that which would make one suspect that they were of the devil's party. Thus, Goodman Brown, having sinned himself or at least realizing his own potentiality for sin, makes the mistake of identifying himself, as the resemblance of three generations of Browns to the devil shows, with his ancestors in a sort of heredity of sin. Behind it all we can see the author brooding over his own ancestors, for, like Goodman Brown's father and grandfather, William Hathorne persecuted both Indians and Quakers, leading two hundred of the former into slavery after killing another eight and ordering Anne Coleman and four of her Quaker friends whipped through Salem, Boston, and Dedham.
From doubts, then, about himself and his ancestors, who show evidences of being evil, Goodman Brown moves to those whose lives are, on the surface of things, uncorrupt. But in his naïveté he begins to suspect that all men are intrinsically evil, even if they are respected members of the community, as were his father and grandfather. Doubts about his ancestors spread, until Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, the parson, and finally Faith herself fall victims to his diseased mind.
The symbolic representation of such increasing doubts is given in the sequence with the devil. The devil is Brown, father, grandfather, all rolled into one, the exact counterpart of Faith, Brown's heavenly side. He is Brown's darker side, which believes that evil is the nature of man. In the forest the dark side of Brown's nature overcomes the good side. We notice that when Brown conjectures about the proximity of the devil, he appears as if he sprang from Brown's very being:
and he glanced fearfully behind him as he added, What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!
His head being turned back, he passed a crook of the road, and, looking forward again, beheld the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire, seated at the foot of an old tree.
The devil not only looks like the Browns, but he is distinguished by a diabolic laughter and a staff. We are told that the devil discoursed so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself. Brown continues on until the ribbon scene. Then the cry of despairbut note its form: And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run.
The submergence is now complete. Brown's dark nature has wholly enveloped his good. He is a devil with a devil's laughter and a devil's staff. If this were not enough, Hawthorne, describing Brown in the forest, tells us, But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, which stresses the inward symbolic significance of Brown's experience, thereby emphasizing the fact that the cause of Brown's despair is from within, not from without. Such an interpretation is firmly clinched by the following: The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course.... And finally, we are not surprised to hear the devil say, 'Evil is the nature of mankind', which is nothing more than an echo, in a forest of echoes, of the demon-like Brown's, 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given'.
What actually happened in the forest must remain, as Hawthorne chose to put it, a question. What happens once Goodman Brown emerges from the forest is clear enough: Goodman Brown lived and died an unhappy, despairing man. These clear facts imply that Brown did enter the forest. The reader, following the narrative line of the story, then asks what happened in the forest. But Hawthorne asks the same question himself, which suggests that it is futile to examine the facts of the narrative to determine the meaning of the story.
The only solution to the problem lies in the tale's complex symbolic pattern. We are sure that on the physical level Goodman Brown emerged from the dark wilderness to live the rest of his dismal life in his community. We are also sure from the threefold symbolic pattern that Brown never emerged from the forest depths of despair. And from the identification of the Brown family with the devil we can reach to the origins of that despair: we see a man who began to doubt, with some reason, the goodness of his own family, which led him to doubt the goodness of all men, until he concluded that, Evil is the nature of mankind, words uttered by the devil, who represents the dark side of Brown's nature. Hawthorne has shown symbolically not only what happened to a man's soul, but why it happened. His handling of his symbols is expert, subtle, and brilliant enough to dispose the reader to overlook whatever narrative deficiencies there may be.
Source: Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown, in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1958, pp. 331-36. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 29.
Antinomianism in Young Goodman Brown
Critic: James W. Mathews
Source:Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-5. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 29
Criticism about: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
[In the essay below, Mathews notes that Goodman Brown's fall into sin is the result of theological error.]
Almost everyone commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown has noted that its general theme is the loss of personal faith. On the specific application of certain symbols, however, there has been a good deal of disagreement. Some time ago [in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism, American Literature XXVIII, November 1956] Thomas E. Connolly re-asserted the paramount allegorical significance of the character Faith and justifiably concluded that this story is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism, though he limited the object of Hawthorne's criticism to predestination. Giving further scrutiny to Faith can establish a more specific probability of meaning, which converts to theological terms Hawthorne's ubiquitous thesis that the most serious personal evil is retreat from reality and responsibility.
A doctrine of one group of Calvinists during the time depicted in the story was Antinomianism, which insisted that salvation was of faith, not of works. If good works existed, they came only as a secondary by-product of the mysterious divine grace; personal volition was de-emphasized, if not completely eliminated. Grace itself was contingent on the degree of the individual's faith; and a strong faith, which usually resulted in an emotional experience, was evidence enough of one's predestined salvation. According to Perry Miller [in The New England Hind: The Seventeeth Century, 1954], one question inherent in Antinomianism was since the recipient of grace is assured of salvation without ever doing anything to deserve it, should he not surrender to the intoxication of certainty and give no further thought to his behavior? Extreme Antinomians among the High Calvinists believed that if a man was elected and predestined to salvation, no power in heaven or on earth could prevent it; and hence, no matter what the moral conduct of a man might be, his salvation was sure if he was one of the elect; the wicked actions of such a man were not sinful, and he had no occasion to confess his sins or break them off by repentance [J. Macbride Sterret in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed., James Hastings, 1928].
Young Goodman Brown depicts a man who is so confident in his recent union with faith that he walks superciliously into the devil's own revival without any fear whatsoever. Hawthorne tells us nothing of Goodman Brown's earlier life and acts. Though Brown seems to enjoy a good reputation, there is no reference to his good works. Unlike Everyman, he does not produce them as a last-minute testimony to his worthiness. Only his faith exists, deluding him into passivity. Faith's admonition to put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed tonight suggests that the influence of Faith over Brown is essentially negative. The insubstantiality of Brown's religious faith manifests itself in the pink ribbons of his wife's cap; their texture is aery and their color the pastel of infancy.
Brown is aware that his secret nocturnal journey is for an evil purpose. He does not enter the forest ignorantly or under duress. He is prepared to witness evil and perhaps partake. But as an Antinomian, he would believe that no evil is charged against those with faith: I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven, he cries. He is quick to exonerate himself and brand the others faithless despite his own deliberate act of keeping the evil rendezvous. He has his Faith, and the devil leads him into false confidence early when he says: I would not for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us that Faith should come to any harm Faith is secure at home and is Brown's supposed mystical shield against whatever may menace him. In explaining to the devil why he is late, he says that Faith kept me back a while. Faith, thus, is temporary protection, functioning only in isolation. Her own apprehension over Brown's leaving points to her lack of remote spiritual control over her husband.
Since Brown is confident that the faith of his ancestors has protected them from the devil, he feels that he too will turn back in time or at least avoid permanent harm. As evidence of the righteousness of his people and of his righteousness, he stresses the theoretical side of religion with the practical as secondary: We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness. Then amid suggestions that his own ancestors have been prone to evil notwithstanding their faith, Brown indignantly asks whether such is any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and join their company. Further, he asserts, with heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil. The poignant irony in Brown's show of certainty is that he lost the protection of Faith the very moment he left the confines of their cottage. Soon he hears the voice of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain; and all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward. Faith is now not only a symbol of Brown's tottering assurance; she also reflects the lost hope of all who have suffered the Antinomian delusion of the abstract.
When Brown identifies this voice as that of his wife, he declares that Faith is gone and he becomes maddened with despair. Now, he thinks, there is no good on earth; and in the sudden divestment of his old theology, his negative conclusion is understandable. Faith, who has appeared invulnerable at home removed from any encounter with sin, has become one of the devil's disciples. And as Faith is, Brown is. They stand together: ... the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar. Brown concurs with the devil's declaration that evil is the nature of mankind. To a relativist and not a dogmatist, this recognition would be taken in stride. But the inverted Brown retreats. With one final, desperate attempt to preserve his heretofore comfortable doctrine of assurance, he urges Faith to look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one. Here he voices the passive Antinomian means of salvation: the union of faith below and grace from above.
Though he does not see whether Faith follows his advice or not, Brown has evidence enough that passive faith is ineffectual. Hence his silent disdain of his pious forebears and contemporaries; in his condemnation of them he circumstantially accuses himself. He thereafter becomes a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, and he dies in gloom. After his experience he becomes as passively cynical as he has been passively trusting. He knows that Faith has been false; but what he never fathoms is that her weakness (and the repulsive grossness of all mankind) is the result of his own theological error and is exaggerated by his continuous passivity.
Source: James W. Mathews, Antinomianism in 'Young Goodman Brown', in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-5. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 29.
Ambivalence in Young Goodman Brown
Critic: Walter J. Paulits
Source:American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 577-84. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 29
Criticism about: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
[In the following essay, Paulits characterizes Hawthorne's tale as one in which the dominant theme is the ambivalence of the human heart when presented with a choice between good and evil.]
My hope in this article is that a discussion of ambivalence and of its concomitants of temptation and deception may provide the still-missing clue to the interpretation of the intent of Young Goodman Brown. I am distinguishing sharply between ambiguity and ambivalence. Ambiguity is concerned with intermingled meaningsthe double meanings in the witches' prophecies to Macbeth or Fedallah's to Ahab, or the amphibologies in Quince's Prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe in Midsummer Night's Dream or its antecedent in Ralph Roister Doister. Ambivalence is concerned with opposed feelings within the same person when confronted with a value or values. Young Goodman Brown does employ ambiguity but, I think, in the service of a more pervasive theme of ambivalence.
In his fine book, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, Angus Fletcher writes: Allegorical literature always displays toward its polar antagonisms a certain ambivalence. This much-used term does not mean `mixed feelings,' unless we are willing to amend the phrase to a `mixture of diametrically opposed feelings'. The generic names in Hawthorne's tale and the biblically allusive nature of the temptations Goodman is subjected to seem sufficient proof of Hawthorne's allegorical intent, and Hawthorne's awareness of radical ambivalence seems evident from sentences in Rappaccini's Daughter: It was not love ... nor horror ... but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it, and burned like one and shivered like the other; and Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions. I believe that Young Goodman Brown is an allegorical presentation of ambivalence.
The precise ambivalence in Brown at the beginning of the tale is an attraction for the Devil conjoined with a regret at leaving Faith. Neither has Brown given himself to the Devil nor is he leaving Faith definitively: Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven. Whether this dalliance with evil makes sense theologically or socially or not seems to me to be peripheral; what is important is that Brown deserts Faith and goes into the forest to meet the Devil in a highly tentative venture. He has not firmly decided. This tentativeness is important because it springs from his emotive ambivalencehe wants two things strongly enough to be unwilling to give up either. The Devil's role is to lead him to complete evil by temptation and fall. The tale becomes in great part, thus, a record of the temptation. As Fletcher says: The heart of moralizing actions becomes temptation, which asserts the desirability of evil.
Once in the forest and after having met the Devil, Brown almost immediately questions the emotive attraction that has drawn him there: I have scruples touching the matter thou wot'st of. That he then unconsciously resumes his walk evidences the presence of the two feelings battling within him. From the time Brown shows hesitation Hawthorne casts the story into the framework of a temptation leading toward decision. The Devil's easy assumption of his role as tempter is consonant with his knowledge that the pact is not yet complete. He knows he must convince Brown of the goodness of the decision to be made. When Brown is convinced, the conflicting feelings will presumably cease, and he will become the dedicated votary a witch or warlock traditionally is.
Hawthorne, after detailing an unavailing conversation in which the Devil uses an everybody-has-done-it argument, constructs a major tripartite segment which has affinities with the biblical account of the triple temptation of Christ in the desert. Hawthorne's allusive use of the biblical scene is consistent with the theme of ambivalence he is working out. That Christ underwent everything that man suffered, sin excluded, is a biblical truism that Brown should have been aware of. And perhaps he is presumed to have been, because his reactions are remarkably like Christ'sup to a point. Brown is almost as stubborn as Christ. After Goody Cloyse's apparition, he says: my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. After he hears the Minister's and the Deacon's voices he cries: With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil. But after Faith's seeming defection he appears to yield. The yielding should be understood in its relationship to Christ's third reaction. Christ committed himself to the service of his Father: It is the Lord your God whom you will adore (Matt. 4:10). His decision was firm, and any feelings he might have had to the opposite of the service of the Lord (which, in terms of the biblical story, could only have been service of the Devil) dissipate, and he is at oneness with himself, and his peace is symbolized by the angels who come to minister to him. Brown should have imitated Christ. But he is deceived by the spectral evidence of the ribbon, just as he had been by the earlier apparitions, and so for a while Brown does not follow the biblical pattern. But at the initiation scene Hawthorne reverts to this important Christ-temptation scheme, and Brown will ultimately imitate Christ. Much, though, will have happened by then.
Brown's yielding should also be understood in its relationship to the ambivalence he suffers when he enters the forest. The Devil has not succeeded in fixing the vacillating Brown with any of the previous temptations, and until he does succeed, Brown's ambivalence will continue. It would be a mistake to read Brown's mad flight through the forest, however, as a definitive success for the Devil. After all, Brown is hurrying toward the Witches' Meeting where the initiation can actually occur, and until he arrives he is simply not an initiate. What impels him is more frenzy than rational, unimpassioned choice, and it is a standard moral dictum that passion alleviates the gravity of moral fault. Brown is maddened with despair, he is still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal men to evil, he is the demoniac. Significantly, after Brown arrives and examines the assembly, his latent revulsion against the initiation stirs again when he does not see Faith: `But where is Faith?' thought Goodman Brown; and, as hope came into his heart, he trembled. It seems to me that all Hawthorne can legitimately be made to say between the ribbon and the new hope is that Faith seems to have defected; but that Brown sees now the goodness of the Devil's proposal is far from evident. Thus, the great purpose of the Witches' Sabbath will be precisely to show the desirability of rationally accepting the initiation.
Therefore, Brown's state at the time of the calling-forth of the candidates is not radically different from his state when he first entered the forest: he is torn between conflicting desires. Nevertheless the flight has apparently shown him something of himself. He now knows how related he is to the entire grim group, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He knows the instinct within him that can drive him toward evil, and he senses this same instinct in others. But the important qualification to be made here is that the brotherhood he has with the others is experienced as loathful. The feeling is one of revulsion, and yet he does step forward for full initiation, the consequence of which will presumably be that he will become a full member of the coven. But the sense of loathing is significant, because its presence indicates that Satan's work is still unfinished. All the speeches Satan speaks prior to the aborted baptism will be directed toward one of two purposes: either Brown's final self-convincing or Brown's self-delusion. In either case the Devil's purpose will have been gained.
Hawthorne's presentation of Satan's final argument is delicate. Satan tempts the couple (really, Brown; Faith is not important in herself in the intent of the tale) with two promises, not one. The first is: Welcome ... to the communion of your race; By all the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin. This is an invitation to knowledge, to recognition of sin, first in oneself and then in others. I would suggest that, in itself, nothing is wrong with possessing this knowledge; for example, Minister Hooper's awareness of sin, while it does isolate him, paradoxically also brings him closer to his parishioners in their most critical hours, especially death. The second invitation is very different: ye ... shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot; Evil must be your only happiness. These invitations are not directed only toward knowledge; rather they refer to values pursued and attained and to the joy one experiences in their possession. For Brown to accede to the first invitation would have been no victory for Satan. But if Brown makes evil his only good, all other goods cease to have value for him, and his ambivalence is replaced by univalence. He will be the Devil's and a fully participating member of the coven. But the Devil's clever intermingling of the two invitations also leaves open the possibility that an uninformed no could still be yes to issues unsuspected by the simple Goodman.
Hawthorne does not allow Brown to opt for or against initiation on the terms of the second invitation. At the exactly climactic point in the tale, Brown suffuses elements of the first invitation with elements of the second. The climax does not come in terms of value and happiness but in terms of knowledge: Herein did the shape of evil dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. The entire significance of the baptism for Brown will be, then, that the two will know the sins of each other: The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other. On these terms Brown refuses the baptism violently.
The refusal is tremendously significant. In his not listening carefully to the Devil's words Brown has conflated the two promises into one meaning and has allowed the horror of the second to flow over onto the first. Value suffuses meaning in the one place in the tale where it is most necessary for Brown to recognize ambiguity, an ambiguity he more than the Devil has created because he has taken two frankly presented meanings as one and filled it with one of the feelings contending within him. Ambivalence has led Brown to the point where ambiguity can confuse him. In a revulsion against the evil, he refuses the baptism. But by this time the evil is not only evil; it is also a goodknowledge. So that when Brown rebels he rebels against knowledge of sin and does so with all the violence of his revulsion against evil. The paradox results that an act of virtue repelling temptationthrows him into as inhuman a state as his yielding would have done.
The definition of Brown's final state in Salem Village seems to be of critical importance for a valid reading of the tale. I cannot believe he has become Badman Brown on his return. After all, he has done an act of virtue, even though he does not recognize the error he had allowed to enter and never will. His stance becomes, therefore, that of the man who opts for the wrong by seeing the wrong as right. And the decision does not remove ambivalence, because all the rest of his life is spent in pursuing the knowledge he has denied himself. He habitually ascribes to others what he suspects they are guilty of (here is his evil: he does not forgive nor sympathize, but then how could he?he is not sure). His state becomes one of doubt, a concomitant of ambivalence.
But the elements of the ambivalence have changed. In the beginning Brown was torn between Faith and the Devil. Now the ambivalence is rarefied and psychologized. Its object is Faith and all the other human beings in the village. He can never know their evil, and yet he is drawn toward them; he judges, but always on doubt. Fletcher describes the state:
This chronic coexistence of love and hatred, both directed towards the same person, becomes something more subtle when it is transferred to the sphere of doubt and certainty. Along with the emotions that are ambivalent, when this coexistence is in full force, there are likely to be intellectual equivalents in the form of extreme doubt as to the good and/or evil of the loved object.
The terrible thing about Brown is that his customary spirit is that of the hanging-judge, but never with assurance; he vacillates and in his vacillation suffers. Drawn toward wife and fellowmen, he can be only a begetter of children rather than real husband and father, and he is never a companionable fellow among fellows. He is always searching, scrutinizing, judging, condemning. The loathful brotherhood can never become a loving brotherhood, either in evil or in charity, because his suspicion isolates him. He had refused knowledge of sin because he had thought its possession was evil, and his lifelong imperception then casts him into a second ambivalence more harrowing than the first, because he lives in it in a state of righteousness concerning himself and of condemnation of othersbut always agonizing because never complete.
Hawthorne's allegory presents a common human situation which occurs when a man is in possession of only partial knowledge and is torn between opposing goods and feelings. He canand in Young Goodman Brown doeschoose wrongly, either knowingly or not. In either case he must pay the price. If the choice was a mistake, the price can cause the spectator to complain: But it really wasn't his fault! He was trying to do right. No matter. The intolerance of the whole rests on the shoulders of each. That is why I do not read Hawthorne as completely condemning Brown or completely approving him. Brown is Everyman on his uncertain pilgrimage, wanting both good and evil at the same time and not being alert enough to keep them from getting confused. He pays the price in his own unhappy life. In other words, Young Goodman Brown is an artistic presentation of an ambivalence all human hearts and heads may be subject to and that some, probably many, fall prey to.
Source: Walter J. Paulits, Ambivalence in `Young Goodman Brown', in American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 577-84. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 29.