The Scarlet Letter - Puritan Society


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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