The Role of Nature and Society in The Scarlet Letter
Whispers Hester, "Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!...We must not always talk in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest" (359). This conversation takes place a few days after Hester and Dimmesdale's tryst in the forest; indeed, whatever happens in the forest must remain hidden from the public. In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne expressly forms a strict distinction between nature and society, essentially glorifying nature and vilifying society. By doing so, Hawthorne argues that nature provides individuals a place to truly be at their best; society, on the other hand, corrupts the mind of the individuals by forcing conformity.
Throughout the course novel, Hawthorne continually depicts society as evil, ignorant, and corrupt. As a group of people await the arrival of Hester Prynne at the opening of the novel, Hawthorne begins to set the scene of the town. "A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes" (72). Here, Hawthorne's strong, negative use of diction conveys his pessimistic attitude towards society. By presenting the crowd as a "throng," Hawthorne provides the imagery of almost a mob-like group. The fact that even the non-clergy members of the church, as suggested by their "steeple-crowned" hats, indicate that they, too, have merged with the group. By attributing the group to only their clothing and headwear in addition to "intermix[ing]" the women with the men, Hawthorne has virtually deprived all of faces. Presenting the text in passive voice in "was assembled" further implies this lack of individuality. That Hawthorne attributes the group as lacking individuality does indeed contribute to a greater belief of his: that society itself lacks individuality-rather, suppresses individuality. Individuals try so much to conform to society and to match its ideals that they have consequently restricted themselves within bars. Rather than actively judge for themselves, the group passively move as a crowd. However, Hawthorne did not condemn society, namely the Puritan society, in its entirety. Although he does recurringly denounce the system, he can not repudiate the undeniable warmth and sympathy of the people. When Chillingworth, a professional doctor, decides to move in with Dimmesdale, the father of Hester's baby as well as a revered clergymen of the Puritan society, the Puritans are initially grateful. As time passes, however, people soon grew wary at which Hawthorne comments: "When...it forms its judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and warm heart, the conclusions thus attained are often so profound and so unerring as to possess the character of truth supernaturally revealed" (189-190). To describe the people as having "a great and warm heart," Hawthorne expresses his commitment to the collective heart of the people as a fundamental source of "truth" and wisdom. However, rather than using their heart to seek the truth, the people instead act on behalf of society's forced ideas and beliefs. Of course, not doing so would equate to virtual suicide in a Puritan community (as demonstrated in Hester's case), hence their fear.
Kindness, freedom, and secrecy-all of which Hawthorne continuously associate with nature throughout the course of the novel. For instance, recall the second quote above where Hawthorne virtually portrays the scenery as rather gloomy and drab, until he says, "...[A] wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him" (73). Here, Hawthorne ascribes the rose bush with much positive diction-"delicate," "fragrance," "fragile," and "beauty"-purposely creating a stark incongruity to the considerably uninviting scene he has previously depicted. In creating an incongruity, Hawthorn implies that the only charity the "condemned" can hope to receive would come from the rose bush, not the "throng" of men or the women "intermixed" with them and certainly not the "iron-spik[ed]" prison door. Only "Nature" can "offer" the individual with "pity" and "kind[ness]." Only nature can provide the individual with freedom of thought then, as it is utterly lawless and forgiving, certainly not society, as it imposes a lot of restrictions upon the individual and invariably denounces nonconformity. In another instance, after their romantic encounter at the forest, Dimmesdale appears to Hester a bit distant and remote. Dismayed, "[Hester] thought of the dim forest, with its little dell of solitude, and love, and anguish, and the mossy tree-trunk, where, sitting hand in hand, they had mingled their sad and passionate talk with the melancholy murmur of the brook. How deeply they had known each other then! And was this the man? She hardly knew him now" (358). To Hester they seemed so intimate and "[deep]" in the forest, but in town she and Dimmesdale seemed so distant that Hester feels like hardly even knows him at all. The text well emphasizes the significance of physical settings in the novel; only in the forest indeed are they able to truly be themselves because nature not only accepts individualism but also embraces it. Personifying the forest with "solitude," "love," and "anguish," Hawthorne also elicits much of a spiritual mood in the forest, further evoking the idea that nature embraces individualism.
Clearly, by constantly intruding the storyline with his commentary, Hawthorne fully expresses his disdain towards the Puritan society, a most intolerant society that ever existed. As Hawthorne has depicted in the Scarlet Letter, society-the Puritan society especially-interferes with the pure in the heart of the individual. Only nature provides a sanctuary for the individual and only there can individuals fully cultivate their minds.
(If possible, please recommend me better title too lol)