Although "Young Goodman Brown" is usually discussed as an allegory in which a young man is initiated into the nature of evil, such an approach often slights two important problems. First, there is the problem of the relationship between realism and allegory in the story. On the one hand, it seems as though it is predestined that Goodman Brown enter the forest; on the other hand, he questions the journey and acts as if he could struggle against it. In the first instance, Goodman Brown is an allegorical character who has no free will to act in any way other than what the allegorical nature of the story determines for him.
In the second case, the story makes use of the realistic convention that the character is an as-if-real character with a mind of his own. Because there is no way to separate these two seemingly incompatible character qualities in the story, it may be that "Young Goodman Brown" marks a point in the history of the development of short fiction in which fabulistic conventions are beginning to be displaced by realistic ones.
The second problem the story raises has to do with the nature of evil, and the related concepts of guilt and sin, for the story never makes it quite what sin or evil is. We are certainly not expected to believe that all the people in the village are in league with the devil, that is, totally evil, as that metaphor implies. Instead, sin in this story must have a more basic, more generalized, meaning. The fact that Brown only has to make this journey once and that he has not made it before suggests that it is a ritualistic journey that all human beings have to make at a certain point in their lives.
If we are to take "Young Goodman Brown" as a story about the discovery of evil on its most basic level, then it might be well to compare it to that archetypal story of the discovery of evil in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Erich Fromm, in his study The Art of Loving, makes helpful suggestions about how to understand the Garden of Eden story. The first effect of Adam and Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit is that they look at each other and are ashamed. Fromm says we are not to understand this as the birth of sexual prudery, but rather that the shame has a deeper meaning. The eating of the apple marks the separation of one entity into two separate entities, who must henceforth be condemned to loneliness and isolation. This is the nature of sin that Goodman Brown must discover.
According to the Christian religion, of which Goodman Brown is a member, the only way to heal this separation is to follow the words of Jesus to love the neighbor as the self. However, as Fromm reminds us, this does not suggest a narrow egotism, but rather that we love the neighbor until we can make no distinction between the neighbor and the self.
Before his journey into the forest, Goodman Brown simply assumed the sense of union, as children do. However, the journey into the forest is a metaphor for his discovery that separation is the nature of humanity. Having made this discovery, human beings have only two choices: either they can accept the truth of separation and try to love the other as a means to heal it, or else they fall into complete despair and hopelessness. In "Young Goodman Brown," the wife Faith is able to make the leap of faith of the former; Goodman Brown, however, cannot; thus he goes to his grave an emblem of isolation and despair.
Tomorrow: Hawthorne's "Wakefield"