Essay: Man vs. Nature in Four Nineteenth Century Novels

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[. . .] The reason it continued to play out was that in the wilderness there were beasts that could overcome civilization's attempts to tame them, and there were Indians (thought of as beasts) that could (and did) challenge civilization's moral and physical right to be there. In addition, the natural world has always had the upper hand when it comes to fire, terrible storms and floods, raging winds the flatten towns, bitter cold that causes frostbite and torrid heat that saps the strength of humans.

THREE: Over the fifty years these novels cover, has there been any evolution in attitudes about civilization and the wilderness?

There has not really been an "evolution" in attitudes when the binary is in use, but there has been an evolution in how the binary is positioned within the context of themes and characters over the years. It does seem that the wilderness in Edgar Huntly (1803) is darker, more mysterious, and more sinister than Hope Leslie, written 39 years later. Hope Leslie is a story that does present the binary being discussed in this paper in strong terms, but in Edgar Huntly there are twisted scenes and descriptive human actions that lead up to that binary that are more complicated. That said, the savage Indian raids in Hope Leslie are as bloodthirsty and hideously violent as the felonious spree that Huntly embarks on. The viciousness with which Huntly even opens the chest, is so jarring in its description it is almost as though Huntly has crushed a human chest.

Looking at it "with the utmost attention" Huntly seeks a "spring…which might forever elude the senses" (a mysterious element) (p. 117), and that night he again goes to the Elm tree and fetches the smaller box which -- while being "somewhat desperate" -- he decides to crush it "to pieces with my heel." Just the image of a man's foot coming down on a box hard enough to crush it is a scene of violence that isn't apparent in the other three stories written later in the 19th century.. Brown then creates a scene in which Huntly is reading Mrs. Lorimer's private papers "with unspeakable eagerness" (p. 121). "Unspeakable eagerness" paints a picture not found in the other three stories; exactly what does a person look like when he reads papers he has no right to read with "unspeakable eagerness"?

The point here is that he does things a human can do and nature is not really an element in his twisted crimes. But wait, Brown has teased the reader with these scenes leading up to the dangers he runs into as he speeds to Edny's place in the wilderness. He barely escapes his own demise when he confronts the ultimate dangers presented by the wilderness: the panther, the shaky bridge, the violent rain and windy conditions, all team up to bring him near to death. So, he kills and eats the panther, and with a "vengeful, unrelenting, and ferocious" approach, he then believes he has received a mortal wound but as the Indian rushes towards him, three steps away from him, "…my bullet in his breast" knocks the Indian down and out (p. 193). Civilization has conquered the wilderness once again, albeit quite differently than found in the other three novels.

Meanwhile, while there is very little sympathy in Brown's novel, there is a great deal of sympathy in Sedgwick's novel. And acts of compassion embrace the theory of "karma" because what goes around comes back around in Sedgwick's work. Acts of violence killed Roger Malvin 28 years after Brown's tale, but while the binary is the same in both stories -- and in Pioneers -- it is just the way in which authors present the binary that is vastly different. That's the answer to the third question: there has been an evolution in the presentation of the binary, but the binary, man vs. nature / civilization vs. wilderness, is pretty much unchanged because man doesn't control nature and though he battles to try and tame nature, he rarely wins.

Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a sleep-walker, Volume 3. London, UK;

Oxford University, 1803.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. Harvard University: G.P. Putnam, 1853.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Roger Malvin's Burial. Selected Stories. Ed. Brenda Wineapple.

Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 2011

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie: Or, Early Times in the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Man vs. Nature in Four Nineteenth Century Novels."  Essaytown.com.  May 4, 2014.  Accessed June 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/man-nature-four-nineteenth-century/4167415.