Some Interpretive "Cruces" in "YGB"

    First read, if you haven't already, the definition of "crux" and the discussion of one found in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." Then compare the plots of "Young Goodman Brown" and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux."   Many similarities should occur to you: young man on a journey; mysterious series of meetings that test his interpretive ability; mystery increasing about his sense of purpose and the nature of the meeting he approaches; shocking reversal of expectations at the end, but perhaps not a "clean" resolution of all that mystery.  In each case, the plot of the young man's wandering is shadowed by a second plot going on, half-detected, in the community surrounding him, a plot which he is unable to discover with ease but which readers might have more ready access to than the protagonist.  However, the two stories differ a great deal in what the reader is allowed to know. 

        After reading "YGB," you should see that Hawthorne may have some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to constructing the reader's perception of the plot.  The mystery no longer rests in the identity of a single character (the "Major"), and the protagonist, himself, does not believe it does.  Instead, the entire population of a whole New England town has been given two possible identities, radically different from each other.  In fact, for each character, those identities appear to form binary oppositions (hmmm.....!).  Why?  Who constructs the information of the tale for us, and what does that do to our ability to interpret that information?  This should lead us to examine the role of the narrator who tells us what happens in the tale, especially when the narrator only tells us what the protagonist thinks is happening or might imagine is happening.  In some works of literature, "the narrator" can be considered a "character," too.  If you explain why we should consider the narrator a character, study the narrator's evasions, and explain what they do to readers, you should have a good paper.

        Be especially careful not to fall into "YGB"'s famous trap, which is contained in its concluding question and typically evasive answer.  Read that passage very carefully and think about the responsibility that it gives the reader.  Look at the verb phrases used earlier to describe Brown's perceptions, and the narrator's paraphrases of those perceptions.  The latter is an especially ingenious technique for planting in the reader's mind the image or idea of something.  One might even begin to suspect that Hawthorne is trying to destabilize the whole tradition of narrative fiction, wherein a narrator pretends to tell us that something happened and readers pretend to agree for the sake of various effects fiction has on our minds.  Some narratives simply assert they are telling us the truth.  Others say they lie.  In either case, our pretending to believe them is at least belief in a single state of reality.  This one does neither, exactly.  Why?

    The parallel construction of the plots, even as varied as Hawthorne has made this one, also relates to the stories' titles.  In medieval times, before printing, authors only rarely titled their works because books were scarce and readers were expected to know the titles of works they had paid to have copied.  After printing, however, titling because an additional strategy for influencing the readers' interpretation of the text.  In fact, the fanciful "preface" to "Rappaccini's Daughter" offers (in French) several alternate titles to that tale which are quite provocative as ways to interpret its meaning.  In "MK,MM" and "R'sD," the title contains the name of the character whose identity contains the solution to the mystery.  How about this one?  What do you think you'd find if you were to examine the title/plot relationships in many Hawthorne stories?  Discuss how the title predisposes readers to interpret the tale, possibly considering alternate titles that would fit other interpretations, and explain why Hawthorne chose this title, and you should have a good paper.

    Finally, like the other two tales, "YGB"'s conclusion contains a question.  However, it is not asked by a character in the tale and it is not asked of the protagonist.  Who asks who what, and what does that change in the structure suggest to you?  The "question at the end" formal device might be a way to revise or reflect back upon the readers' title-influenced reading of the tale (see above).  Explain how the question affects readers' understandings of their options, whether you consider the titles or not, and you should have a good paper.  In stories which contain important questions which are asked nearer their middles, but which continue to influence readings through the end, the scholar can pursue the same analytical strategy.

    Remember that interpretive cruces are generally supercharged with the potential to mean, and fully unpacking their meanings may involve admitting several kinds of answers.  However, reasonable literary analysts will negotiate with others of their kind to seek the most probable solution to these questions, one that acknowledges the most relevant evidence, rather than arguing for solutions which require us to violate basic linguistic rules, to ignore significant evidence to the contrary, to violate the rules of the genre in which the cruces occur, or to do anything else that results in an incoherent explanation.  The author may have been a complex thinker, but he would not be likely to wish us to bend the tale into a mere chaos of irreconcilable meanings.   Also remember that this site in the text is but one of many which may yield interpretive insights, some of which you may be the first to discover.  Read curiously.