At sunset in Salem, Massachusetts, recently married Goodman Brown steps from his house and kisses his wife, Faith, goodbye. Faith, wearing a cap adorned with pink ribbons, begs Goodman Brown not to leave her alone all night. She’s afraid of the bad dreams she’ll have if he makes her spend the night alone. Goodman Brown replies that his journey must happen that night, and Faith gives Goodman Brown her blessing as he heads out in the street.
As he departs, he looks back one last time and sees Faith watching him, and has the feeling as if, through some dream, she might have figured out his plans for the night. But he dismisses the thought, certain that Faith could never tolerate even thinking about such a thing. Goodman Brown also resolves, after this night, to stand by his saintly Faith and “follow her to heaven.”
Fear overwhelms him as he walks into the forest. He imagines “devilish” Indians or even the devil himself hiding behind every tree. Even so, he walks on until he encounters a mysterious man at a bend in the road. When the man asks why Goodman Brown arrived late, Goodman Brown replies, his voice trembling, that “Faith kept me back awhile.”
The man is ordinary and simply dressed, and might be mistaken for Goodman Brown’s father, though the man seems as if he could sit comfortably at the dinner table of a governor or in the court of a King. The man also carries a large snake-shaped staff, which in the shadows of the forest seems to be alive.
The man offers the staff to Goodman Brown, who refuses and begins to make his case for turning back toward home. Goodman Brown points out that nobody in his family had ever met with a mysterious man in the woods at night. But the man replies that he was good friends with Goodman Brown’s father, grandfather, and other Puritan leaders, and helped them all in acts of cruelty and sacrilege. When Goodman Brown argues that he wouldn’t be able to face his minister at church if he continues on, the man laughs aloud. Finally, Goodman Brown argues that he can’t go with the man because it would break Faith’s heart.
Someone appears on the path ahead: Goody Cloyse, a pious old woman who taught Goodman Brown his catechism. Goodman Brown is shocked to see her in the woods and hides in the woods to make sure she doesn’t see him. To Goodman Brown’s horror, Goody Cloyse greets the man as the devil and calls him “my worship.” The devil gives her his staff, and she disappears.
Goodman Brown and the devil walk on together, but soon Goodman Brown refuses to continue, saying that Goody Cloyse’s hypocritical example can’t make him abandon his Faith. Unworried, the devil continues on, leaving Goodman Brown behind. Just then, Goodman Brown hears horsemen approaching and once again hides. He recognizes the riders as the minister and Deacon Gookin. The two men discuss the night’s meeting, excitedly noting that there will be some Indians who know a lot about devilry and a young woman who will be inducted.
Goodman Brown lifts his hands to pray, but hears voices murmuring from above, including a voice he thinks is Faith’s. Goodman Brown calls out to Faith, but hears only laughter. Faith's pink ribbon drifts down from the sky and catches on a tree branch.
Losing all hope that there is good on earth, Goodman Brown exclaims, “My Faith is gone!” He calls for the devil and runs through the forest, laughing and swearing and shouting. Soon he finds himself near a clearing, with a rock for a pulpit. It is filled with a vast congregation of townspeople, criminals, and Indian priests. But he doesn’t see Faith and so feels hope.
A figure appears at the pulpit and a voice calls for the converts to come forward. Goodman Brown steps out of the forest and is led forward to the rock alongside a veiled woman. The figure promises to tell them all the dark secrets of their town, of seductions and murders, and describes the whole world as “one stain of guilt,” full of sinners. Goodman Brown looks at the woman and realizes that it is Faith. As the figure prepares to baptize them in a pool of something red in a hollow at the top of the stone, Goodman Brown cries out, warning Faith to resist.
Goodman Brown is suddenly alone in the forest, with no sign of the events of the night. He staggers into Salem that morning, but shies away from the minister’s blessing and snatches a child away from Goody Cloyse as she teaches the girl the catechism. Faith, wearing her pink ribbons, runs up to him joyfully and almost kisses him on the street, but he only stares at her sternly and walks past without saying anything.
The narrator wonders whether Goodman Brown’s night in the forest could have all been a dream, but relates that, regardless, Goodman Brown became distrustful of everyone around him. When he went to church he feared that the sinful minister and his listening parish would all be destroyed. He often woke in the night and shrank from Faith beside him in bed, and when his family prayed he scowled and muttered to himself. Though he lived a long life and died a grandfather, he died unhappy and desperate, with no inscription on his tombstone.