As one might imagine, it took a while for American literature to develop as an independent genre: the tasks of taking a continental wilderness and turning it into a habitable region, and then into an independent country, left scant leisure time for the generation of literature. However, as the young United States of American began to enter its fourth and fifth decades, some of its first major authors began to emerge. Two of these were Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and their writings began to define the American experience for the rest of the world, and show how the North American continent had shaped its colonists and citizens. "Rip Van Winkle" and "Young Goodman Brown" are two different takes on the changes that the American experience had on European sensibilities.
According to John Hardt, both "Rip Van Winkle" and "Young Goodman Brown" contain examples of "paradisal skepticism," or "a retreat from the paradisal ideal with a recognition of limits in human knowledge" (Hardt, p. 249). In other words, both works show an attempt by the protagonist to encounter some sort of paradise on Earth, and both see that such a paradise is not possible, because of the restrictions that human nature places on our possibilities. In "Young Goodman Brown," Hardt suggests that the woods that Brown enters were once the Garden of Eden. However, the serpent (here, represented by the old man) has taken over the wilderness. When Brown leaves his wife, Faith, he also leaves his religious faith behind. The ensuing journey is one of instability, one that examines his knowledge (Hardt, p. 255). Once Goodman Brown emerges from this experience, he realizes the limits of his knowledge, and lives the rest of his life in fear. If one relates this to the idea of the American Dream, one can see Young Goodman Brown as the symbolic pioneer, heading out into the unknown, trying to make his fortune in an untouched wilderness. While he may have bold aspirations, his inner fears weaken him and keep him from fulfilling that promise. One can interpret this as meaning that the context in which most Europeans lived before coming to colonize the New World ensured that they would encounter failure in at least some of their ideals. Indeed, the same petty beliefs that held sway in Europe followed their holders across the Atlantic Ocean, as one might guess.
Walter Shear has a somewhat different look at the significance of Young Goodman Brown's journey into the woods. He sees the separation of Young Goodman Brown from his wife as the creation of a psychological individual. Not only does he symbolically abandon faith, but he also leaves behind orthodox belief and worship practices (Shear, p. 545). He must fight with those that he encounters in the forest if he wants to retain his own morals and values. After this conflict, he returns to mainstream society, more conscious of himself and the way that he interacts with those around them. His transformation, according to Shear, is analogous to the transformation of Puritanism over time in North America, as the purity of its religious beliefs decreased over time, ending