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The Scarlet Letter


By Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Town Vs. Nature
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's " The Scarlet Letter", life is
centered around a rigid Puritan society in which one is
unable to divulge his or her innermost thoughts and
secrets. Every human being needs the opportunity to express
how he or she truly feels, otherwise the emotions are
bottled up until they become volatile. Unfortunately,
Puritan society did not permit this kind of expression,
thus characters had to seek alternate means to relieve
their personal anguishes and desires. Luckily, at least for
the four main characters, Hawthorne provides such a
sanctuary in the form of the mysterious forest. Hawthorne
uses the forest to provide a kind of "shelter" for members
of society in need of a refuge from daily Puritan life.
In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the
pivotal characters bring forth hidden thoughts and
emotions. The forest track leads away from the settlement
out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization
vanish. This is precisely the escape route from strict
mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as
well as women, can open up and be themselves. It is here
that Dimmesdale openly acknowledges Hester and his undying
love for her. It is also here that Hester can do the same
for Dimmesdale. Finally, it is here that the two of them
can openly engage in conversation without being preoccupied
with the constraints that Puritan society places on them. 

The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody
watches in the woods to report misbehavior, thus it is here
that people may do as they wish. To independent spirits
such as Hester Prynne's, the wilderness beckons her: Throw
off the shackles of law and religion. What good have they
done you anyway? Look at you, a young and vibrant woman,
grown old before your time. And no wonder, hemmed in, as
you are, on every side by prohibitions. Why, you can hardly
walk without tripping over one commandment or another. Come
to me, and be masterless. (p.186) 

Truly, Hester takes advantage of this, when Arthur
Dimmesdale appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdale about
subjects which would never be mentioned in any place other
than the forest. "What we did..." she reminds him, "had a
consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said to each
other!" This statement shocks Dimmesdale and he tells
Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an
environment where he can openly express his emotions. The
thought of Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate
conversation in the confines of the society in which they
live is incomprehensible. Yet here, in the forest, they can
throw away all reluctance and finally be themselves under
the umbrella of security which exists. 

In Puritan society, self reliance is stressed among many
other things. However, self reliance is more than stressed-
it is assumed. It is assumed that you need only yourself,
and therefore should have no emotional necessity for a
"shoulder to cry on". Once again, for people in the
stations of life which Hester and Dimmesdale hold, it would
be unthinkable for them to comfort each other. Yet, in the
forest, these cares are tossed away. "Be thou strong for
me," Dimmesdale pleads. "Advise me what to do." (p. 187)
This is a cry for help from Dimmesdale, finally admitting
he cannot go through this ordeal by himself. With this plea
comes an interesting sort of role-reversal. When Dimmesdale
asks for help, he is no longer sustaining the belief that
he is above Hester. He is finally admitting that she is an
equal, or even that she is above him. This is possibly one
of the reasons that Puritans won't accept these emotional
displays- because the society is so socially oriented.
Hester, assuming a new position of power, gives a
heartfelt, moving speech. The eloquence of her words cannot
be overemphasized, and a more powerful statement had yet to
be made in the book. Hester's speech turns out to bear a
remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale's sermons.
"Begin all anew! ... Preach! Write! Act!"(p. 188) The
questions she asks are also like the articulate questions
which Dimmesdale would pose during his sermons. The answer
is obvious, yet upon closer examination they seem to give
unexpected results. "Whither leads yonder forest-track?
Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yea; but onward,
too! Deeper it goes, and deeper into the wilderness...
until, some few miles hence, the yellow leave will show no
vestige of the white man's tread." (p. 187) If one looks at
the title of this chapter, the meaning becomes much
clearer. "The Pastor and His Parishioner" reveals that the
roles are now reversed. Where else could an incongruity
such as this occur, but in an accepting environment? What
other platform is there for a man of high regard in the
community to pour his soul to a woman who is shunned by the
public for a grave sin? Nowhere else but in the forest,
could such an event occur.
Finally, the forest brings out the natural appearance and
natural personality of the people who use it correctly.
When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, we
see a new person. We see the real Hester, who has been
hidden this whole time under a shield of shame. Her eyes
grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek. We recognize
her as the Hester from Chapter 1. The beautiful, attractive
person who is not afraid to show her hair and not afraid to
display her beauty. The sunlight, which previously shunned
Hester, now seeks her out, and the forest seems to glow.
Dimmesdale has also come back to life, if only for a short
time, and he is now hopeful and energetic. We have not seen
this from Dimmesdale for a long time, and most likely will
not see it ever again. 

Puritan society can be harsh and crippling to one's inner
self. Hawthorne created the forest to give the characters a
place to escape and express their true thoughts, beliefs,
and emotions. It was here that thoughts and ideas flowed as
endlessly as the babbling brook, and emotion was as wild as
the forest itself. There are no restraints in the natural
world, because it is just that, natural. No intrusion from
people means no disturbance in the natural order, and
therefore serves to bring its inhabitants away from their
world, and into this older one. I believe Michel Eyquem de
Montaigne stated it most emphatically when he said "Let us
permit nature to have her way: she understands her business
better than we do".


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