The Scarlet Letter – Puritan Society



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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.

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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. 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 him about subjects
which would never be mentioned in the town. “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. Had they been in the town and
overheard, the minister would be put to death. Realizing
that, in the open environment of the forest, he can express
his true emotions. Dimmesdale can say and do things he
otherwise might not be able to. 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

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