A Discussion of Paulits
“Ambivalence in ‘Young Goodman Brown'”
In “Ambivalence in ‘Young Goodman Brown'” Walter J. Paulits offers a “discussion of ambivalence and of its concomitants of temptation and deception.” His reason for doing this is to provide “the still-missing clue to the interpretation of the intent” of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (Paulits 577). Presumably Paulits believes that previous attempts to interpret Hawthorne’s story have been unsatisfactory and that his article will correct this deficiency.
Paulits begins his article by distinguishing between “ambiguity” and “ambivalence” presumably because he fears the reader might assume a similarity and misunderstand his article. “Ambiguity is concerned with intermingled meanings” while “Ambivalence is concerned with opposed feelings when confronted with a value or values” (Paulits 277). He argues that “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegorically presentation of ambivalence. Accordingly Paulits believes that Hawthorne has written this story with the intention of revealing something to the reader about human ambivalence toward good and evil per se.
As the story begins Young Goodman Brown feels ambivalent between meeting with the devil and leaving his wife Faith. Although Paulits does not mention this it is interesting to note the lack of an explanation of what has occasioned the need for Young Goodman Brown to meet with the devil at all, much less on this particular night. One wonders whether Hawthorne’s failure to include this explanation in his story if Hawthorne indicates a belief that all humans will be required to meet with the devil at sometime in his life so the specifics of what caused this confrontation are immaterial. Despite this ambivalence, Paulits continues, it is clear that Young Goodman Brown feels ambivalence, but chooses to meet with the devil for whatever reason. Paulits writes that the reason for the ambivalence is that Young Goodman Brown wants both Faith and wants to meet with the devil. He concludes that meeting with the devil is due to temptation. Young Goodman Brown “has scruples” about meeting with the devil buy unconsciously accompanies him into the forest (Paulits 578-9).
During the walk Brown sees or at least is deceived so that he thinks he sees many people who have played a role in his religious life: the woman who taught him catechism, the deacon, and the minister from the church in Salem. The devil reveals that he knows them all and similar people throughout New England; he also reveals that they know him. Paulits describes this as an example of the argument that everyone has done similar things. In this case this “everyone” includes his relatives and spiritual teachers but not yet his wife (Paulits 579).
As the story progress Young Goodman Brown performs specific acts that Paulits writes that these actions are parallels of the three temptations of Jesus in the desert (Paulits 579-80). First Young Goodman Brown stops and declares that he will go no further, “What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, . . . is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her” (Hawthorne)? At this point Young Goodman Brown hears and sees the minister and the deacon who show that it is not just one isolated old lately but many so-called righteous people who have chosen the devil when the deacon declares “I had rather miss an ordination dinner than tonight’s meeting” (Hawthorne). So his reason for not choosing the devil appears moot. Brown resolves “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil” (Hawthorne)! The devil hides the sky directly above Young Goodman Brown. In the cloud Brown hears the voice of his wife being urged by the towns people to accompany them to the meeting. Young Goodman Brown has lost the pillars of his second reason for remaining good. Brown next declares “My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given” (Hawthorne). It is difficult how this apparent denial of his faith is to be reconciled with the third temptation of Jesus who remained faithful. Paulits writes that “Brown should have imitated Christ” but this is a poor attempt at best. He suggests that the devil has not won because Young Goodman Brown is still ambivalent and “until he arrives [at the meeting] he is simply not an initiate” (Paulits 579-580). This is a poor and unconvincing attempt to preserve Paulits’ point of the parallelism between the Biblical story and Young Goodman Brown. It appears that Paulits was so enamored with the idea that Hawthorne had used a “major tripartite segment with affinities” to the temptations of Christ that he used it despite the weakness of the link between the third episodes (Paulits 579).
Paulits next suggests that Young Goodman Brown was being offered two promises. First the ability to know of the nature of sin, a knowledge that Paulits writes is not necessarily evil. The second promise is that Brown will “behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot” and that evil must be Brown’s only happiness (Hawthorne). This second promise will make Young Goodman Brown one of the devil’s own. Paulits claims that Brown has joined the promises together. Brown has failed to see through the ambiguity of the two promises. According to Paulits Young Goodman Brown could have received the baptism and obtained the knowledge of the first promise without accepting the values of the second. Brown refuses to be baptized to avoid the evil but also loses the value of the first. Consequently he resists temptation be turns into “as inhuman a state as his yielding would have done” (Paulits 582). This reads like a lawyer’s trick. He suggests that Brown will not have to accept the evil values, but he offers no evidence. It appears that many, perhaps even all of the New Englanders had accepted both promises. Even if what Paulits states is true, in either case Young Goodman Brown would have ended in an “as inhuman state,” one cannot help but wonder what difference it would have made if he had chose evil completely. Paulits claims that Young Goodman Brown has made the wrong choice by refusing the knowledge of evil. He wants both good and evil and vacillates between them (Paulits 583-84). Paulits concludes with his premise that “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegory about mankind and his tendency to feel ambivalent toward both good and evil.
Paulits hangs his case on the notion of ambivalence and by recognizing this notion the reader would obtain the “still-missing clue” to interpreting “Young Goodman Brown.” Frankly this does not appear particularly insightful. It is evident that Brown has mixed emotions. This is the nature of the word “temptation.” If there were not at least one reason to do something and another reason of similar importance to not perform the act it would might be motivation but would not be temptation to perform the act. Consequently, one wonders what the importance of Paulits’ paper. It does not really add much insight to the paper and certainly does not provide the “still-missing clue of interpretation.” A look in a dictionary at the entry defining “temptation” provides just as much insight and does not take several pages to do so.
Frankly it appears that Paulits has failed to establish the interpretation of the “intent” of “Young Goodman Brown.” Even if one grants everything Paulits writes it does not explain Hawthorne’s intent. It appears more likely that Hawthorne was decrying hypocrisy of New Englanders, both past and contemporary with his day, who publicly presented a puritanical public mask while privately failing to meet their own standards of moral behavior. He appears to be supporting the idea that absolute principles are likely to lead to moral failures.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” On-line Literature. 12 Apr 2007. <Www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/158/>.
Paulits, Walter J. “Ambivalence in Young Goodman Brown.” Book Title. City Publisher, year.