October 3, 2014
The Wild Forest: Suppression of Human Nature in The Scarlet Letter In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, he uses the setting of the wild forest and how different characters—the townspeople, Pearl, and Dimmesdale—view and interact with it to critique how the rigid structure of Puritan society suppresses human nature, creating a clash with the wildness of nature. In the beginning of the novel, Hester Prynne is condemned to wear an “A” on her chest for her life as punishment for her adultery. She refuses to reveal that Dimmesdale, a reverend in the town, had been her fellow adulterer and the father of her baby Pearl. She suffers under shame of wearing the scarlet letter for seven years, while Dimmesdale suffers silently from his inner guilt, though he is not ostracized by the townspeople like Hester is.
The townspeople are afraid of the forest because societal rules do not apply there, and it thus seems unfamiliar and unknown to them. When Hawthorne describes the Puritan settlement, he writes, “It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant Indian… was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest” (37). The forest is the only place where everyone can be safe from the Puritans’ violence and their religious persecution. In the shadow of the forest, one’s identity cannot be seen, suggesting that regardless of what people have done, they should be allowed shelter and forgiveness. This image also could show that the lines of morality are not easy to see. While the authorities are unsuccessfully attempting to convince Hester to reveal the name of her fellow adulterer, they turn to “Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest land” (48). Dimmesdale is a very hypocritical character, as he hides his sins while projecting the appearance of a moral pastor. The area is initially described as a “wild forest land,” where nature would be able to flourish and human nature would not be constrained. Although the entrance of Dimmesdale seems to be portrayed as a positive event, it represents the establishment of Puritan society; similar to Dimmesdale, Puritan society contains a great deal of hypocrisy stemming from the value placed on appearing perfect, which is at odds to human nature. It has stifled human nature and forced members of the society to be hypocritical by hiding their mistakes.
Pearl is not influenced or bound by the rules of society, allowing her nature to be free, and is therefore welcomed by the forest. As Pearl looks at her parents while in the forest, Hawthorne describes her, saying, “It was strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them through the dim medium of the forest gloom, herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain sympathy” (133). The contrast between the “dim medium of the forest gloom” and the “ray of sunshine” highlights the many facets of nature, as they are both parts of nature. In addition, it demonstrates Pearl’s differences from others in a positive light in contrast to how her eccentricities are viewed as negative by Puritan society. This image also could suggest that Pearl herself sheds light on situations and that she often sees the truth where others cannot. Hester describes Pearl after she has put flowers in her hair: “And see with what natural skill she has made those simple flowers adorn her! Had she gathered pearls, and diamonds, and rubies in the wood, they could not have become her better!” (132). Pearls, diamonds, and rubies occur naturally, similar to flowers, but society places much more value upon the gems than flowers. The gems would not be able to make Pearl seem as beautiful as she does with flowers, suggesting that society’s values and beliefs do not