The Scarlet Letter is a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne that takes place in Puritan Boston in the 17th century. The story revolves around a woman who has committed adultery with a Reverend and is sentenced to carry a scarlet letter as punishment for her transgression. When Hester is released from prison with the child she received by adultery, her husband, Roger Chillingworth, seeks vengeance for Hester’s infidelity after returning from being kidnapped by Indians (Farley 471). Several times in the book, there is a connection or reference to nature. Nature is used creatively by the author in the plot to have an overarching theme, insight into characters, and remarkable imagery. Furthermore, nature is used in the novel as human nature itself and as natural forces. The role of nature in the Scarlet Letter has allowed the illustration of the dichotomies in the novel. Moreover, in the novel, descriptions and physiognomies descriptions of nature on characters corresponds to their human nature and its changes. Nature plays a pivotal role in the Scarlet Letter as it reflects the changes in the beliefs and behavior of characters, represents an important theme that indicates character, and it foreshadows actions.
In the book, two distinct meanings exist to the recurring theme of nature. The first meaning is that nature is used as natural forces affecting the characters. The second meaning nature is employed as the human nature itself that is typified in the Scarlet Letter through various descriptions. For instance, in the entire novel, the natural world has been contrasted greatly. This contrast varies from the ugly edifice with a grass plot over-grown with pigweed and unsightly vegetation of a civilized society to the deep heart of nature and the beautiful wild rose-bush (Hawthorne 45). The wild rose bush, as well as the deep heart of nature, represents the good, while the black flower and the ugly edifice are the accumulation of evil. Nature has depicted this dichotomy by imagery and symbols indicated in the Scarlet Letter. In the Scarlet Letter’s world, to be good means having compassion that is embodied by the rose-bush full of sweet blossom along the track (Hawthorne 46). On the other hand, the evil trait is illustrated by the ignorant, contemptuous Puritan society in the novel. In the Scarlet Letter dichotomies presented by nature is expressed in Hester’s story since it assists author’s plan to portray Hester as an angel in the novel. Other dichotomies in the book involve the good versus evil cliché portrayed by oppressed versus free chained-up dichotomy and physiognomies. Another dichotomy illustrated by nature is in the forest scene as the scene withdrew itself when Pearl and Hester came by. Here Pearl a child of nature represents honesty and pureness same as to that of human nature (Hawthorne 160). Hester tells Pearl that the sportive sunlight disappears and hides because it fears something on Pearl’s bosom. Pearl observed that the Scarlet Letter had plunged Hester into darkness, where guilt and sadness thrive. This encounter made Hester undo the clasp fastening the scarlet letter, threw it away and took off the cap that confined her hair. She did all these as with a smile from heaven (Hawthorne 176). All these bits of the story represents the dichotomy of the free versus the oppressed. Hester kept her symbol of shame which is the scarlet letter by walking in the forest full of conscience guilt of her adultery. Hester is full of sorrow and has resulted in the Puritan system by living in Boston. However, when she is joined by her lover, her grief is lifted. Hester then undergoes a metamorphosis from being restricted by the Puritan society to unrestrained and free Hester. This metamorphosis only happened because of the location Dimmesdale and Hester were in, which is the forest. Here, the forest represents human nature in itself. The forest, just like nature represents something innate, pure, and wild that has never been subjugated by the human law. Moreover, she takes residency out of the town, between the arbitrary Puritan government and the forest. The forest is where passion and emotion reign and the town is where religion and law rule. Forest, as human nature and a natural force, serve to provide an environment escape, intimacy, and of privacy from Puritan Boston. Thus, the forest is a conducive place for Dimmesdale and Hester to reunite, and they can assume their true identities. The wilderness that is not contaminated by human’s arrogance provides a haven for them. Nature is related directly to all the characters and influence them greatly (Thomas 181).
Nature has been used to show the human nature of protagonists by visible imagery and symbolize it to attract the audience towards the author’s viewpoint on all characters. In the entire book, nature relates the characters in the novel and the physical world. Therefore, anything beautiful can represent the purity of a character, while anything ugly found in nature relates to the ugliness of a character’s personality. For instance, Hester is described as a tall woman with a perfect figure full of elegance with a glossy hair that threw off the sunshine with a gleam (Hawthorne 50). On the other hand, women who witnessed Hester’s punishment that defamed her were portrayed as disgusting. They were illustrated as disgusting to mean their disgusting personalities since they did not have compassion in their hearts. The woman who mocked Hester was described as the most pitiless and the ugliest because she lacked compassion for Hester’s predicament. Conversely, Hester was a woman full of pride and dignity. In the novel, light epitomizes beauty in all the situations. As Pearl and Hester walk towards a mansion owned by Governor Bellingham, the details of the garden had symbols relating to his character. The illustration of the garden outside the governor’s house indicates some of the numerous flaws of the governor’s character in the context (Thomas 192).
Pearl viewed across the vista of a garden walk that was carpeted with shaven grass and was bordered with some immature and rude attempt at shrubbery relinquished as hopeless. A pumpkin vine was present, and cabbages grew in plain sight, and there was a few rose-bushes and some apple trees that were planted by Reverend Blackstone. When Pearl saw the rose-bushes, she started crying for a red rose (Hawthorne 94). This conveys the need for maintenance of Bellingham as it insinuates the ineptitude of the governor for cultivating things like the society he is required to govern.
The English ornamental gardening that has been tilled on that side of the Atlantic symbolize Bellingham who was implanted on the New England soil from England striving to maintain his classic ideals from England into the New World. However, it fails as portrayed by the hopeless attempt at shrubbery. The pumpkin vines, the hard soil cabbages, and the black flower of civilized society symbolize evil (Hawthorne 45). Here it is about Bellingham’s bad principles and traits like coldness and ignorance. Initially, there was a meeting where the nobles of Boston decided the fate of Hester. In the meeting, Bellingham employed preconceived notions and failed to consider circumstantial facts to judge Hester. This indicated his incompetence in governing since his actions did not protect the innocent and instead convicting the guilty, which is different from the United States’ judicial system.
The rose-bushes surrounding Bellingham’s house descended from the roses planted by Reverend Blackstone. Before the Puritans took over, Reverend Blackstone was the resident and proprietor of Boston. Reverend Blackstone was opposed to the Puritans doctrine, and this made him sell Boston to Puritans and absconded to a place without them. The fact that the descendants of what he cultivated long time ago are still growing as the most beautiful plants in Bellingham’s garden indicates that Puritan ideals will never flourish in nature a place of natural and pure emotions. Furthermore, the herbs and weeds plucked up by Chillingworth from the ground that was meant to cure Dimmesdale portrays the torture of the Reverend. Dimmesdale inquired where those weeds and herbs were plucked from thinking that it was from the grave-yard (Hawthorne 114). These ugly weeds symbolize the guilt that destroys Dimmesdale inside. This is why Chillingworth uses weeds and herbs and his medicine for the guilt inside Dimmesdale to disappear and make him clean.
In the period of lovers’ reunion, Hester and Dimmesdale numerous light and plan imagery were used to describe Peal’s and their feelings and thoughts. When Hester was in the forest, she was avoided by the sunlight because she was wearing the scarlet letter, which the forest considers impure even if everything under the letter was pure. Unlike Hester, the sunlight and the forest liked Pearl and was following her everywhere she went. This was an indication that Pearl was indeed pure and was deservedly called “the elf-child” (Hawthorne 96). Pearl was known as the child of natural born as a result of nature, of nature and the passionate love that Dimmesdale and Hester shared. In the forest encounter scene, the brook was a big symbol representing the boundary between two worlds. The two worlds referred by Dimmesdale represent one of transgression and remorse where nature hates, and sunlight avoids, and one of purity where nature loves and sunlight resides. This shows why Pearl lived on the other side of the brook with the finger pointing and extended evidently towards her mother’s breast. Whenever Hester took off the scarlet letter, Pearl was gloomy because she believed that something was wrong with the actions of Dimmesdale and Hester. Ideally, Pearl was located on the bright side of the brook because she was the product of nature. Nature has been used to describe the mood of various passages and the state of mind in which the characters are in the entire story.
Nature not only portray the moral values of a character, but it also indicates the fluctuations of principles and personalities. Light, leaves, and moss have symbolized changes in the lives of Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale in the novel. Initially, during the scaffold scene, Hester is beautiful, and she is referred to as a black shadow emanating in the sunshine (Hawthorne 50).
Initially, Dimmesdale was described as a person who looked haggard as if he saw no reason taking a step further but he was happy with anything including flinging himself down to the root of any tree. The soil could accumulate to form a hillock over his frame, and the leaves might bestrew him, no matter whether there was life in it or no (Hawthorne 164). This was an illustration of the detrimental condition he was facing as well as how his guilt is deteriorating his physical and mental state. However, he changed since love always creates sunshine. Due to this reason, there was brightness in the eyes of both Dimmesdale and Hester. The changed happened because of the transformation of principles since Dimmesdale was originally uncertain of confessing his guilt but then he who now was more than a shell decided to confess after they escaped on the next boat to Europe.
Conclusively, nature played its pivotal role in the book by describing and affecting all the characters in the Scarlet Letter. Nature helped the author in portraying the various state of minds the characters were facing and was applied effectively as a literary device. The Scarlet Letter could not have portrayed the story with much intensity without nature. Therefore, in the novel, nature has been wounded brilliantly into a story of passion and sin to execute a great story flawlessly.
Farley, Lara Geer. “The Adam Walsh Act: The scarlet letter of the twenty-first century.” Washburn LJ 47 (2007): 471.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Waiheke Island: Floating Press, 2008. Internet resource.
Thomas, Brook. “Citizen Hester: The Scarlet Letter as Civic Myth.” American Literary History 13.2 (2001): 181-211.