Hawthorne uses the forest to represent the wild fearful world of nature, which contrasts starkly with the pious orderly town of Salem. The threshold Goodman Brown finds himself perched upon in the opening lines of the story is not just between himself and his wife, Faith, but between the safety of the town and the haunted realm of the forest into which he ventures. Home is a safe harbor of faith, but the forest represents the home of evil and the devil himself, a place where “no church had ever been gathered or solitary Christian prayed.”
When the devil tries to lure Goodman Brown deeper into the forest, Goodman Brown equates the forest with a break from his faithful legacy. Going into the woods means descending into the arms of the devil. He cries out “Too far! Too far!...My father never went into the woods on such an errand.” Trees are symbols of sin, hiding spots for the devil and Indian “savages”: “[t]here may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,” he worries aloud. The devil might leap out “from behind a tree” at any moment, he fears. When Goodman Brown meets the man, who we later learn is the devil, the devil himself is seated on an “old tree.”
Once he relents and journeys far in the “deep dusk” of the forest, Goodman Brown finds that nature and the supernatural begin to blend. The woods take on a life of their own: when he first sees the devil’s snake-shaped staff, it’s not just a piece of carved wood, but a terrifying serpent that “might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself.” A bit later, when the devil explodes in laughter mocking Goodman Brown, the “snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy.”
In the encounter with Goody Cloyse, a catechism teacher turned witch, Goodman Brown watches in horror as the devil throws her his serpent-shaped staff, causing it to “assume life” and vanish with her instantly into the darkness of the forest. When Goodman Brown cries out in desperation for Faith after hearing her voice in the witches’ congregation, her pink ribbon magically falls from the sky. At this point, the woods are no longer just a gathering of scary trees, but a haunted sanctuary of sin. When Goodman Brown sees his church leaders in the forest en route to the witches’ meeting, he asks in horror, “Whither, then, could these holy men be journeying so deep into the heathen wilderness?” Like the sinners within it, the wilderness itself has become a heathen.
After the witches’ ceremony, as Goodman Brown reels in terror at his loss of faith, the personification of the forest and nature deepens. Now entirety of nature mocks Goodman Brown: “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds--the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians...as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.” Natural phenomena also bookend the story: it starts with the sun setting, and ends with the sun rising. Goodman Brown’s experience is one of darkness literally--nearly the entire story takes place at night--and darkness figuratively, with Goodman Brown moving from the angelic light of his blissful newlywed life with Faith and her pink ribbons, to the dark hell of the forest and a rendezvous with the “prince of darkness” himself.
Nature and the Supernatural ThemeTracker
Nature and the Supernatural Quotes in Young Goodman Brown
"Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, no; 't would kill her to think it. Well, she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven."
It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller 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.
"You are late, Goodman Brown," said he. "The clock of the Old South was striking, as I came through Boston; and that is full fifteen minutes agone."
"Faith kept me back awhile," replied the young man, with a tremor in his voice, caused by the sudden appearance of his companion, though not wholly unexpected.
But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.
“I shall take a cut through the woods until we have left this Christian woman behind. Being a stranger to you, she might ask whom I was consorting with and whither I was going.”
Goodman Brown heard the tramp of horses along the road, and deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither, though now so happily turned from it.
The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil.
"Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you."
As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.
But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.
He could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?