Young Goodman Brown: mild-mannered Puritan by day, aspiring devil-worshipper by night. He's definitely not someone you want on your speed dial—or is he?
When we meet Brown, he's headed out on a mysterious and nefarious errand. He's a family man, and he's not shy about it. First, he sticks his head back in the door to plant a kiss on his cute little wife, and then he heads off muttering about how his dad would totally never have taken this kind of errand: "my father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him" (17).
So, we know that Brown thinks of himself in comparison to other people, specifically the ones he's related to—like, maybe he doesn't have a clear identity of his own.
In fact, you could say that young Goodman Brown starts off as a blank slate, a bit of an everyman. Until, that is, he meets the mysterious traveler and learns about his family's history of evil. Maybe his slate isn't as blank as it looks…
We spend much of "Young Goodman Brown" watching young Goodman Brown resist villainous temptations. And we're not convinced he's all that good at it. Rather than confronting the story's corrupt characters, Goodman Brown just watches from a distance and freaks out internally. He's constantly standing in the background. Or, in Hawthorne-speak, he "deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest" (41).
You get the point: he's not exactly a man of action.
There's a difference between standing in the background and actually taking a stand against evil. Young Goodman Brown's actions don't hurt many people directly, but they don't exactly leave him on the side of good. In one moment of frenzied despair, he gives himself over to "the instinct that guides mortal man to evil" (51), and starts running around like a maniac. When he finally does take a stand to "resist the Wicked One," it has a disturbing feeling of too little, too late (69). He's doomed himself to a lifetime of misery.
Sure, you could say that young Goodman Brown doesn't give in to the dark side of "wickedness." He simply gives in to a different one—the dark side of pessimism and misanthropy. He expects that, at any moment, the fury of the Heavens will destroy the evil town of Salem. Things that really set his dark side off: prayer, family, and "the sacred truths of our religion" (73).
And, sure, we'd agree that this is better than smearing newborn babies with fat, or whatever witches and wizards do in Hawthorne's bizzaro Salem. But isn't hating everyone because of some silly nightmare you had pretty bad? Isn't it super anti-social to be yelling at the kids to get off your lawn just because you think you might have seen your wife in the shadows during your own creepy visit to the forest?
For all we know, Brown could be sacrificing himself to nothing more than "a wild dream of a witch-meeting" (72). Is old Goodman Brown an unhappy hero, doomed to be the only righteous man in Salem? Or is he just some crazy old dude turning off the lights on Halloween so he doesn't have to give out candy? Hawthorne's narrator never gives a solid answer.