In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, life is centred around a rigid, Puritanistic-structured society in which one is unable to divulge his or her innermost thoughts and secrets. Every human being needs the opportunity to express how they truly feel, or the emotion is bottled up until it becomes volatile. Unfortunately, Puritan society did not permit this expression, so characters had to seek alternate means in order to relieve themselves. 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 shelter for members of society in need of refuge from daily life.
In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the crucial 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 can openly acknowledge Hester and his undying love for her. It is here that Hester can do the same for Dimmesdale. 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 free. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehaviour, so it is here where people do as they wish. To independent spirits like Hester Prynne’s, the wilderness beckons her “Throw off the shackles of law and religion.
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What good have they done to 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.” 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!”(p. 170) This statement shocks Dimmesdale, and he tells Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an environment where he can open up. The thought of Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate conversation in the confines of the society that they live is incomprehensible. Yet here, in the forest, they can throw away all reluctance, and finally be themselves, under the umbrella of security that 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 hold 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. 171) This is a cry for help from Dimmesdale, with him finally admitting he can’t go through this ordeal by himself. With this 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 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 society is so socially oriented. Hester, assuming a new power position, gave 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 bears a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale’s sermons. “Begin all anew! … Preach! Write! Act!”(p. 173) The questions she asks also are like the articulate questions that 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, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leave will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?”(p. 171-172) If we look 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 absurdity such as this occur, but in an accepting environment? What other platform is there for a man of the high regard in the community to pour his soul into 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 removes the scarlet letter, takes off her cap, and unlooses 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 who is 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 interference from people means no disturbance in the natural order, and therefore serves to bring its inhabitants away from their “red world”, and into a “green world.”
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