How can the town square in The Scarlet Letter be contrasted to the forest beyond the town?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interestingly, Hester Prynne and Pearl reside in a cottage at the edge of the Puritan community and the forest of moral ambiguity.  There is a "footpath" that leads to this area of wilderness, a path that is easily accessible to Hester and her "elfish spirit" of a daughter.  Thus, while Hester is a peripheral member of the Puritan community, she is also on the edge of the dark forest.  That she exists in this state of moral confusion between a Puritanism in which she has been forcibly alienated and the seduction of the black mass in the forest is evinced in Hester's response to the invitation of Mistress Hibbins in Chapter VIII to join her in the forest at night,

“I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!”

The forest and the Puritan town, then, can represent the two opposing forces in Hawthorne's narrative of morally restrictive behavior and the potential for immorality.  However, as the primeval forest's symbolism is rather ambiguous, it also can suggest freedom as Hester can traverse the path away from the censure of the community, and Arthur Dimmesdale and she can meet and share love and speak of their secrets together. In this sense, perhaps, the forest is a natural setting away from the law of man, an Eden of a sorts in which man and woman act on their own, free of imposed rules of conduct.  But, because its visitors can exercise freedom of choice, the forest, like Eden, is a place where both good and evil exist.  In the town square, on the other hand, where sin is publicly exposed, Puritanical judgment is imposed upon those who are made to stand upon the scaffold, a judgment that haunts and stultifies the free will of those condemned. In Chapter XX as Dimmesdale makes his way back from his meeting with Hester in the forest, Hawthorne writes,

The minister's own will, and Hester's will, and the fate that grew between them, had wrought this transformation.  It was the same town as heretofore, but the same minister returned not from the forest.  he might have said to the friends who greeted him,--"I am not the man for whom you take me!  I left him yonder in the forest, withdrawn into a secret dell, by a mossy tree trunk, and near a melancholy brook!..."

So haunted by her sin of adultery by the public censure and ignominy that she has suffered for so many years is Hester that she returns to the Massachusetts colony and replaces the letter upon her bosom--she, too, is not the woman that she was. The town square, symbolic of the censurous, grey Puritan authority that restricts and stultifies, with its cemetery and prison nearby, stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding wilderness, primal and free with its "mirror of a brook" that merely reflects actions and moods as a place of free will where ambiguous morality can exist. 


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The Scarlet Letter

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