In The Scarlet Letter, civilization vs. wilderness is a motif, but what would be examples of that?

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lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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This motif creates an important parallel to the characters of the novel and to several of the overarching themes of the novel.  In order to find examples, you should be begin by reviewing the novel's key scenes, focusing on those that take place in the village square versus those that take place at Hester's cottage in the woods.  Make a list of observations about the way the townspeople behave -- especially in how they talk to and about Hester.  Take notes on how Dimmesdale behaves when he is in the public eye.  Pay attention to how Hester behaves when she is in town. Consider the fact that all of the symbols of "rules" and "morality" like the jail and the scaffold are in the town.

Then in contrast to the above, review the chapters that describe Hester's cottage and her time spent there and the woods that surround her home.  Look at how the she and Dimmesdale behave when they are OUT of the public eye.  How is Pearl described?  How does she behave here as opposed to in town?

Remember that Hawthorne is critiquing the attitudes and behavior the members of Puritan society, so while the town is "civilization" the attitudes of the people are rude and condemning.  Hester has to repress her true self for the sake of civilization.  She has to "play by their rules" in order to make her way in this society.  In the wilderness, she is more free.  She and Dimmesdale are playful; they can let down their guards with each other and be happy.  Hester takes off her scarlet A which suggests that she can be "free" of her sin in the wilderness.  The Puritans would have regarded the wilderness as a dangerous "moral wilderness" where sin and danger lurked at every turn, but Hawthorne refutes that by having the wilderness be a spiritual sanctuary for Hester.

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