How are the town and the forest important to the setting in the The Scarlet Letter?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of The Scarlet Letter is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in Boston. The year is 1642, and the plot develops in a puritanical society.

In the novel, the settings of the town and the forest work as opposites of one another. The town, which is open, ample and busy, represents the light; the daytime. The forest, dark and mysterious, is the refuge of the lonely who, like Hester and Dimmesdale, go there to hide from the prying eyes of society. It represents the darkness.

In town, the villagers conduct the dynamics of their daily lives with close watch being kept over what they can and cannot do. We know that, in this particular theocentric and patriarchal society, the rules and regulations governing each individual are monitored by the aldermen and the magistrates who base the community's social parameters on their Puritan faith.

Therefore, in town (the village), everything, everyone's behavior, is seen, heard, known, and told about. Everyone must, therefore, follow the accepted rules of decorum and good behavior that are expected of God-fearing people. If they do not, the consequences will be not just harsh but also humiliating.

The forest is the "hiding place" where anything is possible. Its dense vegetation and its capacity for harboring all sorts of living creatures encompass thousands of possible things that could arise, and many other possible things that could occur. In The Scarlet Letter the forest is the playground of Mistress Hibbins, who admits without shame that she frequents the place to conjure spirits. The forest is also where Dimmesdale walks alone in perennial guilt, and also the place where he and Hester meet in secret.

All this said, the town and the forest both have a strong role within the setting. They both host the villagers in good and bad times. They are places of contrasts: safety, ignominy, and everyday life. Also, they are both equally necessary to the villagers and to the plot that unfolds.

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The Scarlet Letter

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