I agree that there are plenty of things to examine in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." For me, tragic loss of faith and exposure of hypocrisy are the two primary revelations in this story. The young husband is ruined for life in one night, either in a dream or in reality, as he chooses to believe all he sees and experiences.
"Young Goodman Brown" is yet another narrative by Nathaniel Hawthorne that is written with his signature ambiguity:
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the orest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
Be it so if you will; but alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a deperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.
This Hawthorean ambiguity raises the question of what truth is. Does it not lie within the person, rather than in exterior elements? And is it not, as Robert Browning writes, "that perfect, clear perception" that few attain? Certainly, the sanctimonious Puritans, whose minds were clouded by their stringent ideology, were not in possession of it.
Perhaps, then, Hawthorne's purpose is to arouse in the reader the question of how dogmatic anyone should really be when spiritual matters are concerned.
I think this story is about the way that if you scratch hard enough, underneath the exterior of us all there are depths of evil and wrongdong. This seems to be a massive theme in the majority of Hawthorne's work - the hypocrisy of Puritan society and how there is a dark side to all of us, no matter how devout or seemingly holy. It is this central truth that Goodman Brown experiences and changes his life forever.
Here's the passage from the story that I had in mind when I wrote my first post:
But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.
The narrator relates the reaction of Young Goodman Brown, who finds the mixing of the so-called "good" people with the so-called "wicked" people to be "irreverently consorting" in the clearing in the forest. The verb "consort" is loaded with meaning; it is often used in judgments about someone's illicit sexual behaviors or even their alleged relations with the devil. In this scene, Young Goodman Brown sees himself as above everyone else; he believes that he is the only one remaining true to the community's beliefs and thus is the only one with the right to judge everyone else.
Hawthorne's short story, much like his novel A Scarlet Letter, seems to me much more a critique than an affirmation of the Puritan worldview. The main character is being tested, in a sense, but the test consists of him being forced to reconcile a rigid belief system with the complexities of the real world (in which everyone is mix of the sinner and the saint, not simply one extreme or the other). That's the test that the main character fails, in my view.
To me, the story is about trust. Young Goodman Brown is being tested to see if he trusts the other people in his community (particularly his wife).
Young Goodman Brown is shown this vision, and he can choose whether or not to really believe in it. He chooses to believe it rather than trusting Faith and the others. That ruins his life, basically.
So I see it as a story about him being tempted to lose faith in other people. He fails the test.
The purpose of the story is probably wide open to interpretaton. I can imagine that everyone will have something different to say.
For me, Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" seems to be a meditation on the whole notion of "piety." The title character seems to respect most those people in his life whom he sees as the most pious, and his noctural journey into the woods reveals that everyone he knows or respects is deeply flawed after all -- his father and grandfather, the woman who taught him his catechism and the men who govern the town, even his lovely wife. One of the scenes that leaps to my mind as an illustration of this revelation is Young Goodman Brown's reaction when he sees the people he respects consorting with the people he does not respect.
The allegorical meanings of the story might be a little more consistent from reader to reader. The dark woods and the clearing in the forest seem, again to me, to indicate the repressed side of our nature or the unpleasant truths about the world. Young Goodman Brown's literal journal through the woods, then, is an allegorical journey of growth, awareness, and education (or disillusion).