In “Young Goodman Brown,” nature must be understood in two ways. There is the nature of place and there is human nature. Goodman Brown goes from the village into the forest, from civilization into the wild. And the forest is often described as dark and gloomy. The forest is where Brown meets the devil and sees, or has visions of, the Black Mass. Initially, the forest is the place where Brown confronts evil. The deeper he goes into the forest, the closer he comes to forming a covenant with the devil. By contrast, the village represents civilization and virtue. This contrast is reversed when it is revealed that the other characters (people from town) are attending the Black Mass. Then, Brown's perspective on evil shifts. At first, the idea is that evil is 'out there,' in nature or existing as some potential in the world. After seeing so many of his good neighbors engaging in rituals with the devil, he considers that evil is not 'out there' in nature but rather it is inside each person, a part of human nature.
This realization is reflected in this quote:
The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.
Here, the presence of evil is located within people. The forest is “peopled with frightful sounds.” It is no longer nature and the forest that manifest evil; Brown sees and hears things in nature and thinks that they represent the evil inherent in human nature. The pejorative depiction of Indians was characteristic of the early colonial days as they were associated with wildness and savagery. However, it is the people from the village who truly embody evil in this story.
Eco-criticism has become a broad term. Today, people often associate it with environmental criticism but it can more generally be about nature and the role of place in literature. In Romantic poetry and literature of the Transcendentalists, there is an intimate connection between a person and the natural world. And contemplation of that connection brings one closer to creativity, the imagination and intuition of philosophical truths. This idea, that one can go into nature and get more in touch with the self and concepts such as good and evil is characteristic of the Romantic poets and “Young Goodman Brown.” For the characters in this story, the village and the forest represent goodness and evil. But the adventure into the wilderness is where Brown learns that, while evil may manifest in the world or in nature, evil and goodness actually reside as potentials in human nature. Unfortunately for Brown, he only recognizes the evil in human nature, and this is why he comes to such a gloomy conclusion about humanity.
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