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Society’s Entrapment vs. Natural Escape

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a story of sin, guilt and salvation, centered in the purely Puritan community of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Within this community, we found all the central features of the town, the most symbolic of these is the scaffold; many souls are condemned upon it and are subjected to intense inquiry, where reality becomes a brutal punishment. In contrast to the scaffold is the forest beyond the town, here, there is no judgment and reality is relative to the individual.

Hawthorne creates this setting for the characters to escape from themselves and society without restraint or worry, the comparison is clear: the market place, especially the scaffold, represents the harsh reality of Puritan society and public judgment and the forest provides getaway and escape. The scaffold, just like the community itself, is a place where sinners are made to face the accusing public as the center of criticism and disgrace. Here, any ill-fated soul to climb the stairs is subject to the ruthless examination by the eyes of a society highly influenced and blinded by the Puritan religion.

Those below the scaffold see the truth of the character’s crime distorted by their own perspectives and suspicions, and clouded by gossip. Where the truth may be unacceptable to them, it is substituted by things religion and authorities persuade them to believe. The scaffold ultimately represented guilt and shame. In the market place emotions and true feelings are suppressed and overwhelmed by the importance of reverence to Puritanism. On the other hand, the forest is a location where the truth is not forbidden, but embraced.

After Hester’s judgment on the scaffold, she and her daughter Pearl find refuge there. Hester warns Pearl “We must not talk in the market place of what happens to us in the forest” The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom; nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior, so it is here that people may do as they wish. It is here that many of the essential characters bring public hidden thoughts and emotions. For example, the time that Dimmesdale openly acknowledges Hester and his undying guilt.

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 under the protection of nature which accepts them, sins and all. Finally, the forest brings out the natural appearance and natural personality of those within. When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, the reader is reintroduced to the light of Hester long forgotten; the real Hester, who has been hidden under a shield of shame, “Her eyes grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek”.

Dimmesdale has also come back to life, if only for a short time, and he is now hopeful and energetic. Puritan society, represented by the scaffold in the market place, destroys the soul of the characters and is judgmental and critical of people’s actions, on the other hand, the forest gives the characters a place to escape and express their true thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. There are no restraints in the natural world, because it is just that, natural, not imposed and brainwashed like Puritan society and belief.

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