Young Goodman Brown, a young and innocent man, bids farewell to his young wife, Faith. Faith asks him to stay, but Goodman Brown says he must leave, just for the evening. He ventures into the gloomy forest of Salem, and is soon approached by a man of about fifty, to whom he bears a strange resemblance. His companion wore simple clothing, but carried a staff that resembled a great black snake and seemed to move like a living serpent. Time and again, Goodman Brown protests the trip, insisting that he must turn around. But, his companion tells him that his father and grandfather had walked along the same path, as well as other important townspeople, such as the governor. Goodman Brown continues to follow. Along the path, they see a woman, Goody Cloyse, who taught Goodman Brown his catechism. His companion begins to resemble the devil, while the woman, a witch. The staff, too, seems to take life.
After a while, Goodman Brown sits down, determined to not go any father. His companions go ahead without him. As he sits, Goodman Brown thinks he hears the minister and Deacon Gookin on horseback discussing the night’s meeting and a young woman who would be taken into communion that night. Goodman Brown begins to hear voices, and among them, the lamentations of Faith. He shouts her name, but hears only a echoes, and then silence. A pink ribbon – Faith’s ribbon – flutters down form above. “Maddened with despair”, Goodman Brown rushes forth into the forest, laughing louder and louder, until he reaches the gathering. There, he sees an altar, surrounded by four blazing trees. Many of the town’s most honorable members were present, as were some of the least welcomed – the sinners and criminals. Goodman Brown is led to the altar, where a cloaked female figure is also led. A dark figure prepares to welcome them into the fold, pointing to the crowd behind them - the crowd Young Goodman Brown had reverenced from youth. The figure revealed them all as sinners, noting that “evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness”. The cloaked woman is revealed to be Faith. Before the figure could lay the mark of baptism on Goodman Brown, he called to Faith to “look up to Heaven, and resist the wicked one.” Immediately, he finds himself alone in the forest.
The next morning, Goodman Brown arrives back in town, bewildered about the events from the previous night. He runs into many people he saw in the forest – the Deacon, Goody Cloyse - all acting as if nothing had happened. He sees Faith, but passes without acknowledging her. Since the “night of that fearful dream” Goodman Brown became a dark and gloomy man, who saw nothing but blasphemy all around him.
Commonly understood themes in Young Goodman Brown have included the pervasiveness and secrecy of sin and evil alive within all people, and the hypocrisy of Puritanism. The most obvious reading is that Brown, an innocent and naive fellow, is ruined after finding hypocrisy in his religious faith (embodied in his wife, Faith). His wife, as was often the case in Puritan New England, was seen as a representation of the domestic sphere and a pure being untainted by the evils of the world, so pure that she might even save her husband. Goodman Brown puts her on a pedestal, as he does his religion, but her appearance in the forest leaves him without hope for redemption and his eventual estrangement from her signals his true estrangement from God.
A similar reading of the story revolves around the similarities between the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the fall of Brown and Faith. The devil bears a staff with a serpent on it, reminiscent of the serpent that told Adam and Eve to taste the fruit from the forbidden tree. Led to sin through curiosity, Adam and Eve lose their innocence after following the devil. Likewise, Goodman Brown watches the devil, along with other notable members of the community, heading toward the gathering. He ventures into the forest despite Faith’s warning, driven by curiosity and the devil’s appeals, just as Eve ignored God’s command to avoid the forbidden fruit. Brown's knowledge that "Evil is the nature of mankind" taints his relationships with his faith and everyone in town.
Another reading is that Brown’s experience is derived from an internalized sin. His journey into the forest was, in itself, a sinful act. He well understood that his mission was evil, and his acts impure, yet was surprised to find others whom he reverenced following the same path. In the end, he breaks from the group, attempting to relieve himself of sin. But, the effects of sin remain, forever after tainting his opinion of good and evil. As one author writes, “This is not a story of the disillusionment that comes to a person when he discovers that many supposedly religious and virtuous people are really sinful: it is, rather, a story of a man whose sin led him to consider all other people sinful. Brown came eventually to judge others by himself: he thought them sinful and hypocritical because he was sinful and hypocritical himself.” (McKeithan, 96) The idea of sin in every person, including Goodman Brown, is supported by the chameleon-like character of the Devil. By taking the shape of Brown's father, the devil demonstrates that evil can live within any person, even Young Goodman Brown himself.
Still others examine the possibility that Brown’s experience was merely a dream, and that all men fear that all men are, at the most basic level, evil. The story may be purposefully ambiguous, balanced perfectly between the good and the evil, as the story’s beginning an end are in direct opposition. (Fogle) Finally, the story has also been considered an examination of nineteenth-century gender roles and the concern that wives would encroach on their husband’s presence in the public sphere. Violation of this separation is present in the story, as Faith leaves her husband with a kiss on the doorstep, but then reemerges at the gathering. (Keil)