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Essay/Term paper: Scarlet letter

Essay, term paper, research paper:  The Scarlet Letter

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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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