One of the first questions that students ask when they read Young Goodman Brown is why he feels compelled to make the journey. Hawthorne never provides us with a concrete answer. It is this lack of answer, this ambiguity, that might lead us to think of the journey as allegorical, that is, standing for some abstract idea or concept. Here's what we do know:
We have a young man, newly married to a loving wife, who leaves at sunset on some mysterious journey, despite her pleading that he not go. He doesn't seem unhappy or terribly troubled as he starts out. He gives his wife a "parting kiss" and heads out.
A mere twelve hours later, he returns to his village a changed manwho shrinks "from the bosom" of the woman he earlier called his "sweet, pretty wife" ( Hawthorne 27). Brown now lives out the rest of his long life a gloomy man, described by the narrator a "stern," distrustful," and "desperate," alienating himself from family and friends.
What happened on this journey to effect such a transformation? What is the meaning of this journey to Young Goodman Brown and to us, Hawthorne's audience, who embark on own journeys?
First, we might think of the journey into the forest as symbolizing the journey from adolescence into adulthood. This journey must be taken if we are to grow up. It's the journey of life, fraught with challenges, knowledge, and awakenings. The forest is a fitting metaphor for life's unkknowns for it is dark, dense, and unknown. A journey into it forces us to question our early assumptions about our world. Young Goodman Brown's world view reflects his innocence and youth with regard to good and evil. The good people are churchgoers, family members, and, of course, his wife Faith. The bad people hang out in taverns, hail from Providence, and belong to tribes of savages. It is these assumptions that are first challenged by the Fellow traveler.
This companion, who resembles an older version of Brown himself, first tells him of the evildoings of his ancestors. He informs him that his grandfather "lashed a Quaker woman" and that his father " set fire to an Indian village " (28). This is the first of Brown's beliefs that is shattered along this life journey. Next, Brown sees the Reverend, the Deacon,and Goody Cloyse, his catechism teacher, all who appear to be headed on this same evil journey. Once again, a piece of his world is rocked by these sightings.
Ultimately, the journey brings him to a meeting in the darkest, densest part of the forest. At this meeting, now led by the fellow traveler, Brown recognized not only those whom he judged as evil, but those people closest to him, including his lovely Faith. It is at that moment that the journey proves to much for Brown. He runs from the scene, deeply troubled and despairing. The next morning he returns to the village, a much transformed man.
This journey into the darker side of life is the growing up journey. It has shown Brown of man's imperfections. It frightens him for, if he were to reconcile with the evil he sees in others, he would have to accept it in himself. He can't do this, and so, he cuts the life journey short. He does not beyond the first step of enlightenment into understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. He has ventured forth, only to return home too soon.