The story begins at dusk in Salem Village, Massachusetts as young Goodman Brown leaves Faith, his wife of three months, for some unknown errand in the forest. Faith pleads with her husband to stay with her, but he insists that the journey must be completed that night. In the forest he meets an older man, dressed in a similar manner and bearing a physical resemblance to himself. The man carries a black serpent-shaped staff. The two encounter Goody Cloyse, an older woman, whom Young Goodman had known as a boy and who had taught him catechism, in the woods. She complains about the need to walk and, evidently friendly with the stranger, accepts his snake staff and flies away to her destination.
Other townspeople inhabit the woods that night, traveling in the same direction as Goodman Brown. When he hears his wife's voice in the trees, he calls out but is not answered. He then seems to fly through the forest, using a maple staff the stranger fashioned for him, arriving at a clearing at midnight to find all the townspeople assembled. At the ceremony (which may be a witches' sabbath) carried out at a flame-lit rocky altar, the newest acolytes are brought forth — Goodman Brown and Faith. They are the only two of the townspeople not yet initiated. Goodman Brown calls to heaven to resist and instantly the scene vanishes. Arriving back at his home in Salem the next morning, Goodman Brown is uncertain whether the previous night's events were real or a dream, but he is deeply shaken, and his belief he lives in a Christian community is distorted. He loses his faith in his wife, along with all of humanity. He lives his life an embittered and suspicious cynic, wary of everyone around him. The story concludes: "And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave... they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."