For the narrator, on the other hand, symbols function to complicate reality rather than to confirm one’s perception of it. The governor’s garden, which Hester and Pearl see in Chapter 7, illustrates his tactic quite well. The narrator does not describe the garden in a way that reinforces the image of luxury and power that is present in his description of the rest of the governor’s house. Rather, he writes that the garden, which was originally planted to look like an ornamental garden in the English style, is now full of weeds, thorns, and vegetables. The garden seems to contradict much of what the reader has been told about the governor’s power and importance, and it suggests to us that the governor is an unfit caretaker, for people as well as for flowers. The absence of any flowers other than the thorny roses also hints that ideals are often accompanied by evil and pain. Confronted by the ambiguous symbol of the garden, we begin to look for other inconsistencies and for other examples of decay and disrepair in Puritan society.
Separate from his literary production, Hawthorne wrote expansively on literary theory and criticism. His theories exemplify the Romantic spirit in American letters at mid-century. He espoused the conviction that objects can hold significance deeper than their apparent meaning, and that the symbolic nature of reality was the most fertile ground for literature. In his short stories especially, Hawthorne explored the complex system of meanings and sensations that shift in and out of a person’s consciousness. Throughout his writings, one gets a sense of darkness, if not outright pessimism. There is the sense of not fully understanding the world, of not getting the entire picture no matter how hard one tries. In a story like “Young Goodman Brown,” neither the reader nor the protagonist can distinguish reality from fantasy with any sureness.