Books Culture

A Paradise and a Wasteland: the contradictory depictions of nature in literature

For those of us who are vulnerable or working at home, the great outdoors can be a welcome relief; a literal breath of fresh air after the long days stuck inside. In literature, nature similarly represents an escape from the chaotic world. 

Perhaps the most famous garden in literature, and in the world in general, is the garden of Eden. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eden is the paradise that humanity loses when they fall in disgrace. It is a natural haven full of bountiful trees with the ‘fairest fruit’ and blossoms of a ‘golden hue’. In Milton’s account, Eden is a completely pure, natural landscape without pollution. In it, mankind lives in harmony with the world as they become one with the ecosystem. Although the same cannot be said in modern times, the fact that paradise is represented by a garden rather than a metaphysical celestial realm reveals something about humanities relationship with nature; it is our origin and our haven. 

Similarly, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s tale The Secret Garden, nature is a form of escape for a young girl named Mary. Orphaned, she is sent to her eccentric uncle’s dilapidated house in Yorkshire. The man himself is miserable with grief and Mary cannot escape him or his sorrow in the shut-up building.  

When rumours of a secret garden reach her, it provides a spark of hope. Her curious search for the garden radically improves her health and temper. But it is not until she finds the secret garden that truly miraculous things happen. 

“Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people” in The Secret Garden. The magic of nature is literally life-giving, however, as it is in the garden that Colin, a young boy who has never walked before, stands up for the first time in his life. It is a place without limitations which allows children and adults alike to escape the real world. Just like in Paradise Lost, the garden is a place without pain and suffering. 

So, this idea of nature as an escapist haven is a recurrent image in literature. But what is it about nature that inspires this response? 

One of the appealing elements of nature is its serenity in comparison with the busy modern world. Whilst human civilisations tend to be chaotic and complicated, nature appears to be simple. Everything in the ecosystem fulfils its purpose and unites together to create a kind of balance which ensures peacefulness. Whether it is the bees pollinating flowers or insects creating compost, there is a clear circle of life- just think about the Lion King. 

However, in these idyllic literary accounts the focus is also on natural landscapes which have not been polluted by mankind. The garden of Eden predated human sin and was destroyed once Adam and Eve ate the apple. Similarly, the secret garden was only pure and magical because it had been hidden from the prying eyes for a decade. These places thrive in the absence of humanity. 

A grittier and darker side to nature also exists. It is through the sub-genre of eco-dystopia that we are shown the corrupting impact of humanity. Cormac McCarthy present us with a decayed earth in his novel The Road.  After a natural disaster caused by mankind, people are forced to regress to a base, animalistic state in a world filled with ‘dark grey colours everywhere and lack of life’. Even the two main characters are robbed of their humanity by the author who takes away their names; they are merely called The Man and The Boy. 

This harsh landscape forces people to hunt each other in a savage battle for survival. Nature is no longer a paradise but the cause of suffering. In this grey world there is nothing but the ‘crushing black vacuum of the universe’ looming over characters as they vainly struggle to keep going. This bleak dystopia serves as a warning to the reader about the abuse of nature. Rather than a static sanctuary, it requires upkeep and care much like a garden. Humanity can choose to appreciate it or lose it forever. 

Nature is then extremely powerful as an image of both peace and brutality in literature as well as a life-giving force in reality. We have to care for it whilst we still can. 

Emily Broughton

Emily Broughton (she/her) is a Blueprint Editor for the Culture section. She is in her second year at Oxford and studies English Literature and Language at Mansfield College. In her spare time, she writes short stories only to force her friends and family to read them. She also loves horses, travel and talking about horses and travel.