The Scarlet Letter: The Harsh Puritan Society

The Scarlet Letter: The Harsh Puritan Society
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, life is centered 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 a refuge from daily 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 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.

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Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior, 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. What good have they
done you anyway? Look at you, a young and vibrant woman, grown old before you
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. 186) 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 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 the 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. 187) 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 the society is so socially oriented. Hester, assuming a new power
position, give a heartfelt, moving speech. The eloquence of her words can not be
overemphasized, and a more powerful statement had yet to be made in the book.

Hester’s speech turns out bear a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale’s
sermons. “Begin all anew! Preach! Write! Act!”(p. 188) The questions she asks
also are 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 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 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 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 it
self. 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.