Many authors have used ambiguity in their writing in order to achieve the sort of story that forces the readers to formulate their own conclusions and bring about a meaning that may be different for each reader. This can lead to varying interpretations that allows a story to reach a diverse audience in new and intriguing ways. Stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown use the ambiguity in order to create an even more uncertain and dark atmosphere that keeps the reader wondering whether any of it was real, and how the tales should be looked at. It forces all to question what they are willing to believe.
Young Goodman Brown is often seen as an allegorical tale, where the main characters and even settings are representations of something greater. While Goodman Brown is the everyday man, his wife Faith can be seen as ones faith in religion or even just the representation of goodness in the world, and the old man he meets on the path tends to be seen as Satan or the evil in the world. While the woods are the dangerous wild things that we need to avoid by staying on the path of righteousness. Yet, even looking at the story from such a perspective one is a little unsure how to really take all that happens around Goodman Brown. After all, he never is quite sure of what he sees, for all the people that come to the woods as well just look like the shape of a certain person, or sound like a certain person, but he never clearly sees anything that is going on. As he was hiding in the woods it says, “neither the travellers nor their steeds were visible… It vexed him the more, because he could have sworn, were such a thing possible, that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin”(Hawthorne). “The mass of foliage that had overgrown the summit of the rock was all on fire, blazing high into the night and fitfully illuminating… [and] the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.”(Hawthorne). Even when he sees people it is either dark or the casting of the light makes it uncertain, and, furthermore, Satan is known for his tricks at deceiving, and so anything that is shown by his hand is automatically called into question.
By having this story appear first off as a representation of the choices between good and evil it is able to remain a tale that people of any time and place can relate too. It shows how in our life we all come to face choices that can lead us one way or another. However, after all that Goodman Brown witnesses, with the burning woods and the chanting people, he finds himself suddenly “amid calm night and solitude… and felt it chill and damp, while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew” (Hawthorne). This ending shows everything that he thought had transpired being completely erased, displaying no signs of the events having ever happened. Regardless of this, the memory of that night stays with him forever; altering his relationships with all the people of that town. This sort of ambiguity leaves the reader unsure if it was real, if it had all been just a dream, if the devil got rid of the evidence, and whether it matters if it was real or not. Because it’s very real to Goodman Brown who can no longer trust those around him, and is no longer the carefree man he was before he chose to enter the woods that night. The tale begs the question of where the real evil lies, and how truth is to be perceived.
Ligeia, on the other hand, has a much more obscure meaning. Poe creates a narrator that is unreliable to begin with. He talks at length of how beautiful every part of Ligeia was, and how much he loved her, but freely admits that he had “never known the paternal name of her” (Poe). Nonetheless, he seemed to remember every detail of her appearance, and comments on how intelligent and knowing she was, but goes on to repeatedly mention that there was something strange about her. Saying, “although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite’… there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it.” Though, he continues to mention this strangeness there is never a real explanation, and once more calls to question if the narrator’s memory is accurate or if in his grief he is just romanticizing the truth about her, as he points out his “memory is feeble through much suffering” (Poe)
The ending of Ligeia is what leads to much debate about not only the narrator’s reliability, but also the meaning behind the tale. After Ligeia’s death he remarries the Lady Rowena, but she too falls ill in the same way Ligeia did, but at a point when she appears to be recovering he states, “I saw, or may have dreamed that I saw, fall within the goblet, as if from some invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room, three or four large drops of a brilliant and ruby colored fluid. If this I saw –not so Rowena. She swallowed the wine unhesitatingly” (Poe). Seeing such things happen would normally cause someone at least a moments worry, but he seems to take it in stride and doesn’t even bother mentioning it to Rowena, who does not see any of the things he supposedly sees. The real questioning of the story as a whole begins after Rowena has died, but the narrator finds her coming back to life. However she does not appear as Rowena, who was small with fair hair and blue eyes, for he begins to question what it is he sees, “but had she then grown taller since her malady? What inexpressible madness seized me with that thought?… and there streamed forth, into the rushing atmosphere of the chamber, huge masses of long and dishevelled hair; it was blacker than the raven wings of the midnight! And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me… ‘can I never be mistaken –these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes –of my lost love –of the lady –of the lady Ligeia.” (Poe). This unexplainable ending that has the narrator questioning his own sanity leads to so many questions that it’s hard to give real credence to anything that is told. Has the narrator gone insane from losing two wives to the same illness? Was Ligeia someone magical, and was that the strangeness he saw in her? Did the power of his grief from losing his true love transform his new wife into Ligeia so he could be with her once more? The lack of explanation for anything that happens in this story gives it a dark and unnerving edge that creates a tale that the reader won’t soon forget.
Altogether, the ambiguity gives what could be a straight forward and simple piece of fiction a remarkable quality that keeps people delving into in the search for answers. The narrators aren’t ones anybody would simply trust and take at their word; instead the reader is left to search for clues and hidden meanings in the text. Poe and Hawthorne have managed to write stories that have withstood the test of time for a number of reasons, one of which is the haunting feeling that nothing is certain and the dark hides much that we may not wish to see. It is that dark aspect and the ambiguity that make these two stories so fascinating and eerily memorable.