Who is the narrator of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown? What advantages does the point of view give the author?
The narrator of "Young Goodman Brown" is what is called a limited omniscient narrator, which means that the narrator stands outside the story and can see into the thoughts and feelings of only one or two characters in the story. In this case, the narrator can look into Young Goodman Brown and tell us what Brown is thinking and feeling at any given moment, but the narrator's omniscience--his power to observe the inner person--is limited. Further, Hawthorne's narrator is a limited, neutral omniscient narrator, meaning that the narrator reports Young Goodman Brown's inner thoughts and feelings but leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about those thoughts and feelings. In other words, the narrator does not judge the character in a moral sense.
When Brown leaves his wife, Faith, to begin his dark journey into the forest, the narrator observes his inner feelings of guilt:
'What a wretch am I to leave her on such an errand! . . . Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.'
Clearly, Hawthorne wants us to understand that Young Goodman Brown fully appreciates the danger this journey poses to his soul but, more important, the temptation to walk on the Puritan wild side is too great to be overcome.
The narrator's limited omniscience is obvious when Young Goodman Brown's traveling companion appears:
As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveler was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him.
The narrator, who can see into Goodman Brown's soul, is suddenly restricted to the point of view of an observer who can only describe what he sees--he becomes a third-person objective narrator. The use of "as nearly as could be discerned" and "apparently in the same rank of life" are meant to warn us that we--like the narrator--cannot see into the old man's soul or hear his thoughts. We only know this character by his words and his actions; his motivations, whether good or evil, are left to us to discern by his actions.
Hawthorne's use of the dual point-of-view allows him to leave the reader guessing about virtually everything that happens to Young Goodman Brown. Even though we may understand Young Goodman Brown's motivations (because we looked into his heart and mind), that understanding is not enough for us to understand exactly what happens to him during this journey (or dream vision) because our point of view is often restricted to that of an outside observer.