How does Hawthorne use the scaffold, the forest, weeds, and poisonous plants as symbols in  The Scarlet Letter ?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The scaffold, which had undergone a series of changes since it was first implemented by the earlier settlers of Boston, very well represents the way in which, even though the villagers have long changed compared to their ancestors, certain elements continue to elicit the past. The scaffold still remains there as a punishment meant to take away the dignity of that who is submitted to it.

There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.

Notice how this symbol of guilt is secretly visited by Dimmesdale; there, he also tries to take part of the same that he allowed Hester to suffer alone. The punishment that this contraption intends to give is the precise punishment that Dimmesdale wants to get himself.

The poisoned weeds and the roots that spruce out of the tombstones and which grow in the forest are also symbols of evil and malice. Notice how it is Chillingworth, of all people, who happens to be the expert at recognizing good herbs from bad herbs; he ultimately holds the life of Dimmesdale, as he has the knowledge of how to use the herbs to hurt him. However, Chillingworth prefers a psychological battle instead.

The forest, which is universally used in all literature as a device that instills uncertainty, is the dark place that nobody ventures to enter. It is a place that gives stories an essence of mystery, magic, and superstition.  Ironically, this dark and uncertain place is the only place where Hester and Dimmesdale can meet and plan their escape from the village. Notice, however, that their plans, their relationship, even the reason behind their "sin" is as uncertain as the forest itself. The connection of Hester and Dimmesdale is never explained in nature except by divining that Hester's personality and loneliness made her go to Dimmesdale. But, what about him? Do we know exactly what was Dimmesdale's state of mind when he bedded Hester? Hawthorne never explains. It is not even clear whether Dimmesdale actually loves Hester! Therefore, we can safely conclude that, among many other things, the forest also represents the darkness and uncertainty of Hester and Dimmesdale's love.

Moreover, the forest also serves as the witness of truth; it is the only place where Dimmesdale expressed his true remorse, and the

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The Scarlet Letter

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