Why is the forest the chosen setting for Goodman Brown's journey?
The author Nathaniel Hawthorne probably chose the forest for its visual effect and its aura of as-yet untamed wildness. The forest is the opposite of civilization. It is very old and full of wild creatures, including, perhaps, wild Indians. It is a place where people would naturally go to become wild creatures themselves. It is a place where they can hide from their town neighbors and do anything they want. They can make as much noise as they want without being heard by anyone of importance.
Many contemporary people like to go to the national parks in order to get away from civilization for a while and live more primitive-type lives close to nature. There is something very exhilarating about being among the fragrant pine needles and tall trunks. We can all respond to Hawthorne's description of the mysterious forest, although we do not necessarily want to indulge in devil-worshiping orgies. Most of us would like to escape from civilization for a while and enjoy simpler lives.
We can understand why both Young Goodman Brown and his sweet little wife, whose name is Faith, might get tired of being so righteous and inhibited all the time and might feel an impulse to go a little bit wild on occasion. The same would be true of their neighbors, one of whom is named Goody Cloyse. They are all living under a spotlight, so to speak. They have to be prim and proper all the time. They all have their secrets, as is revealed in the ceremony in the forest.
This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant's funeral.
By digging "little graves in the garden," the speaker, who is presumably the devil himself, means that some unwed girls secretly gave birth to babies and killed them at birth and buried them in unmarked graves in their gardens.
Young Goodman Brown and his wife and all their neighbors live in a very small, constricted world. The forest is the only place where they can congregate for any sinful purposes. In Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, it is in the forest that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale has his secret meetings with Hester Prynne, the mother of his child. And no doubt it was in the forest where they conceived the little girl named Pearl. The early American settlers were surrounded by forests, and they may have felt the trees beckoning to them mysteriously.
Robert Frost speaks of the mysterious attraction of dark, whispering trees in his poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.