Symbolism of the Forest in the Scarlet Letter
Symbolism of the Forest in The Scarlet Letter In The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “For what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self! ” Hawthorne asserts that every individual becomes a hostage of his or her own heart. This idea is displayed throughout The Scarlet Letter to portray how Puritans lived under the constant repression of the Puritan society. Puritan society lived by laws that allowed no means of freedom or happiness and kept their citizens under a strict moral law code.
The Puritan civilization imprisons members of society to the point where they are crying out for freedom. Therefore, hostages of his or her own heart embark on a journey to free themselves. This is displayed continuously in The Scarlet Letter through its use of the forest. In the novel the forest consists of multiple meanings. It serves as another world apart from the Puritan society, and it provides a haven in which people break free from the social order.
Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne presents the forest as a symbolic figure to exemplify free will, bring forth the natural personalities of the characters, and to represent a dark civilization within the Puritan society. First, the forest is a symbol to epitomize free will in The Scarlet Letter by presenting the forest as a safe haven with no rules or individuals who scrutinize every action being made. Thus, the townspeople approach the forest to reign free with their desires and longings.
For example, Hester longs to meet Dimmesdale and determines that the forest is the safest place as she is allowed to meet with him without the town knowing. As Hester and Dimmesdale greet each other, “…it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly…” (Hawthorne 198). For the first time in seven years they are able to meet with each other in private without needing to worry about being caught. Surrounded by the twilight in the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale slowly start to open up to each other.
They freely begin to talk about starting a new life with each other as a family, and Hester slowly starts to become blissful. Hawthorne’s purpose here is to display how the forest functions as a world of happiness and love, and so the forest’s role is to create a free world without any fear. The forest allows these two young lovers to freely reunite and be happy together. Where else, the rest of the novel surrounds itself in an aura of gloominess, this one scene in the novel permits Hester and Dimmesdale to be filled with love and joy.
Also, during her conversation with Dimmesdale, Hester impulsively takes off the “A” upon her chest. It is the first and only time in the novel where Hester allows herself the freedom to remove the badge of shame. She “…heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit, oh exquisite relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt freedom! ” (Hawthorne 211). The forest lets Hester choose whether she agrees with the Puritan society or if she is against it.
Her action of taking the “A” off represents her choice in breaking apart from the Puritan civilization. The Puritans view the “A” as a symbol that represents what they deem to be right, and when Hester takes it off her chest she is breaking free from what society thinks about her. Hester’s courage to meet with Dimmesdale and the removal of the “A” represents how the forest exemplifies free will. Secondly, the forest also manages to bring out the natural personalities of the characters.
One of the characters Hawthorne uses to demonstrate this is Pearl. To Pearl, the forest is her best friend, a place where she is truly accepted. Hawthorne states, “The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child” (Hawthorne 213). In the forest, Pearl can be as bright and joyful as she wishes because the forest acknowledges her for who she is- a moody, curious, care-free, innocent, and intuitive child who also happens to be a social outcast.
The forest also brings out her personality because of her connection with nature. Pearl is the romantic character in the novel due to her personality traits. She enjoys life and is constantly curious about the unexplainable, such as the identity of her father and the “A” on her mother’s chest. In the forest, she is accepted as a friend by all the animals, and the light constantly chases her wherever she goes. The light represents truth and purity. It constantly surrounds Pearl because she is an innocent and also a child who had no doing in the in her parents committed. A second character who brings forth their inner traits in the forest is Hester. Hawthorne uses the forest to give life to Hester and permits Hester to be herself again. She is first introduced as a beautiful, compassionate, and honest woman, but as the situation with the “A” becomes more grave Hester slowly starts to lose the characteristics she once possessed. After seven years of suffering humiliation and punishment, Hester covers her hair under a cap and her beauty and warmth are now hidden beneath the “A” on her chest.
However upon her secret rendezvous with the reverend, Hester takes off the cap on her head and all at once the air about her gradually starts to change. She becomes the person she once was, and her “… sex, her youth, her whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour” (Hawthorne 212). She regains her sexuality, and not only does she become the person she was seven years ago, but symbolically, she removes the strict moral code of the Puritan society.
Even though it is for a short period of time, the forest gives her the audacity to be herself again. The last character who brings forth their natural personality in the novel is Dimmesdale. He starts to regain himself in the forest upon his meeting with Hester, and for the first time in the novel, Dimmesdale is happy and optimistic. Just as Hester and Dimmesdale are conversing about their escape to restart their lives with Pearl, Dimmesdale begins to believe in happy endings and his concern for what society desires dissolves for a moment in the woods.
The forest, in the end, brings out the natural individuality of the characters of Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale. Finally, the forest serves as a symbol to represent a dark civilization on the outskirts of the Puritan society. Hawthorne does this by presenting the readers with the story of the Black Man in the forest. All throughout the novel, the Black Man of the forest is mentioned at various points. The story of the Black Man represents a sense of superstition and true temptation in the novel.
Pearl states that the Black Man is an interesting figure who “…haunts this forest, and carries a book with him- a big, heavy book, with iron claps; and how the ugly Black Man offers his book and an iron pen to everybody that meets him here among the trees…” (Hawthorne 193). Symbolically, the Black Man represents the devil and writing one’s name in his book indicates submission to the devil and succumbing to sin. Hawthorne uses this story to display a darker world in the Puritan society and how certain characters are playing the devil’s advocate.
It presents how another world filled with evil spirits and sin lies inside the Puritan society. Another example to signify the symbolism of the forest as a dark world inside the Puritan society is with the character of Mistress Hibbins. She is known as the sister of Governor Bellingham and as the town witch. After Hester’s meeting with the Governor, Mistress Hibbins approaches Hester and inquires if she would like to join her in the forest at night. She asks, “Wilt thou go with us tonight?
There will be a merry company in the forest; and I wellnigh promised the Black man that comely Hester Prynne should make come” (Hawthorne 12). This question illustrates the wickedness and secrecy of the forest. Mistress Hibbins clearly indicates the forest as the meeting place because there are no ears to listen to them chant their magic spells and nor are there eyes in the forest to scrutinize their actions. Hawthorne uses this scene to hint that there are supernatural qualities among individuals and the town.
The forest demonstrates how it symbolizes the darkness within the Puritan society by using the Black Man of the forest and Mistress Hibbins. In the end, the significance of the forest in The Scarlet Letter is immense. The forest represents freedom and darkness hidden inside the Puritan society. It also allows the characters to become themselves again. As Hawthorne said in The House of Seven Gables, humans are the prisoners of his or her own heart and they seek escape from it. In The Scarlet Letter, the forest was the one place where any individual was allowed the opportunity to escape.