Young Goodman Brown

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wilderness

Quotes Wilderness
It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

Here, the narrator reveals that while Goodman Brown is walking in the woods expecting to meet the Devil, he begins to feel generally nervous about the wilderness, which he perceives as inherently dangerous and possibly wicked. European tradition has long considered the woods a place apart from civilization, meaning Christianity, and as such people believed evil lived in wild, untamed places. In the New World, those fears are supplemented with fears of the native residents, who have the skills to travel in the woods unseen. This quote foreshadows Brown’s later encounter with an actual unseen multitude: voices, some of which he recognizes, flying overhead on their way to the Devil’s assembly.

The hoofs clattered again; and the voices, talking so strangely in the empty air, passed on through the forest, where no church had ever been gathered or solitary Christian prayed. Whither, then, could these holy men be journeying so deep into the heathen wilderness?

Goodman Brown feels surprised to encounter his minister and a deacon in the woods. To him, their holiness stands in contrast to the heathen or unchristian nature of wilderness. Christianity represents civilization, especially in Puritan Massachusetts where any civilized community was, by definition, a Christian one. Anything else was either wilderness, where nature and other evil mysteries prevailed, or an Indian village, by definition heathen. Seeing the two supposed Christian men so deep in the woods forces Brown to realize that, in fact, they are not so Christian after all and that they must be traveling to meet with the Devil.

The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, and still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. 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 traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.

The narrator explains that as Goodman Brown seemingly accepts his evil fate and rushes toward the Devil’s assembly, conditions around him become wilder and scarier as nature and evil are conflated in his perception. At the time, wild beasts and Indians are naturally seen as being on the Devil’s side, since they are not Christian. In this scene, even the trees and the wind seem to be controlled by a supernatural power as they sound like many different things. But instead of fearing nature as he normally would, Brown in this moment accepts and becomes one with the wilderness.

[S]till the chorus of the desert swelled . . . and with the final peal of that dreadful anthem there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, and howling beasts, and every other voice of the unconverted wilderness were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man[.]

Here, the narrator explains how in the woods, as the human chorus of Devil worshippers sings a hymn with a familiar tune but sinful lyrics, the natural world seemingly joins in. In the mind of Goodman Brown and his fellow Puritans, the wilderness is “unconverted” in two senses at once: The wilderness has not been cleared and turned into a civilized community, and as such, the wilderness has not yet been converted to Christianity. To Brown and the others in Salem, civilization and Christianity are considered equivalent. And anything that is not Christian is by definition evil because only Christianity is good. Thus, the natural world is literally attuned to evil and actively participates in the Devil’s service.