In The Scarlet Letter, what does the footpath symbolize?Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Christian-based literature, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, there is a long tradition of the pathway as the transition of the soul through life, or as the metaphorical direction that the soul takes.  For the Puritans of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, a novel that opens with the first chapter entitled "The Prison Door" the footpath that leads to the forest primeval is a dangerous path away from the stringent course of Puritanism.  It is, in fact, a path to temptation as the dark forest at its end is where the black mass is performed and where such witches as Mistress Higgins congregate.

Ironically, in Chapter 16 it is Hester, the acknowledged sinner of the community, who guides both Pearl and the Reverend Dimmesdale along this path.  For, she recognizes the dangers of the path.  In this passage, for instance, there are many similarities to Hester's life that is fraught with difficulties in the "moral wilderness" in which she has wandered:

The trees impending over it had flung down great branches, from time to time, which choked up the current, and compelled it to form eddies and black depths at some points; while, in its swifter and livelier passages, there appeared a channel-way of pebbles, and brown, sparkling sand.

For the child Pearl and the Reverend Dimmesdale, the footpath also represents the moral wilderness.  While Pearl delights in the babbling brook, she is disconcerted by her mother's removal of the scarlet letter as she has not yet found her own identity and can only feel secure attached to the scarlet A. Similarly, Dimmesdale yet wanders in a wilderness as his secret sin haunts him and he must feign an identity to the community that is not truly his as even in "the intense seclusion" of the path of the forest he holds his hand over his heart.

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