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 eternal 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, but it is here that
people may do as they wish. To independent spirits such as Hester
Prynne\'s, the wilderness gesture 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´´. (SL p.186)
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 understandable. In
the forest, they can throw away all unwillingness and finally be
themselves under the umbrella of security which exists.
In Puritan society, self reliance is stressed among many other
things. It 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. In the forest, these cares are tossed away. "Be thou strong for me," Dimmesdale pleads. "Advise me what to do." (SL 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!"(SL p. 188) The
questions she asks are also like the articulate questions which
Dimmesdale would pose during his sermons. The answer is obvious, but
upon closer examination they seem to give