Young Goodman Brown Setting
The two distinct settings are Salem and the woods. What are the differences between these settings?
What significance does each setting have in the story?
Nathaniel Hawthorne came by his knowledge of the attitudes and beliefs of the Puritans naturally; he was a descendant of John Hawthorne, a magistrate during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Puritans tended to believe that the woods should be avoided for both practical and spiritual reasons. Practically speaking, the woods were a place that concealed the Native Americans who compromised the Puritans' safety. Puritans had little understanding of the indigenous people's spiritual beliefs and, thus, dismissed them as devil worshipers; as a result, the woods were a place where a Puritan should not stray. To enter the woods was a symbolic act of exploring life outside the orthodoxy of Puritan belief, making it the perfect setting for Young Goodman Brown to put his faith to the test.
Salem was a colony set up as a religious utopia for the Puritans. Like its predecessor, Plymouth, Puritans believed that they had built a model "city on a hill," a new Zion that offered a model for other Christians, especially the ones they considered tainted, namely, the Quakers, Anabaptists, Anglicans, and Catholics. In "Young Goodman Brown," Salem represents a stronghold of faith. The fact that the titular character elects to step outside it—and suffers terribly as a result—suggests the intolerance, rigidity, and ultimately unrealistic nature of a religion that demands perfect conduct from its practitioners.
I would also add that the woods are uncertain, secluded, secretive, and full of different types of things that lead to many possible things occuring there. Hence, his journey into "the woods" also represents a journey into the forces of evil which can be easily described as the woods themselves.
The fact that the story begins and ends in Salem is a symbol of the starting point, and then the endpoint of his life after his "visit" to the woods. Salen is hence the safe haven (which we know its sarcastically put in the story), and the woods are the plunge into sin.
Salem is the seemingly ideal Puritan community in which Young Goodman Brown lives. Salem is populated with such characters as "the good old minister," "Old Deacon Goodkin," "Goody Cloyse, that excellent old Christian," Goodman Brown himself, and Faith, Goodman Brown's pure and pretty wife.
As their names imply, the inhabitants of Salem are "Good" - they are upright Christians and morally spotless. Their seemingly pure natures, however, bely their true devilry. When Goodman Brown investigates the woods near Salem, he discovers that the seemingly Good people of Salem are not as Christian as they appear. In the woods, all those Good men and Good women engage in frenzied Devil worshipping and dastardly acts that embrace evil and forsake God himself.
The two settings contrast each other directly. Salem represents the outer appearance, what may seem pure and Christian but really isn't. The woods represents people's true natures, the Devils inside of them.