What is the importance of nature in The Scarlet Letter?
In this novel, Nature is juxtaposed with Puritan civilization in order to point out the terrible flaws in the latter. In the very first chapter, the narrator draws our attention to the "black flower of civilized society," a prison. Then also highlights the rose bush, covered in gorgeous flowers, that seems a sign to each prisoner as he enters the prison that "the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him." Unlike the "civilized" Puritans, Nature appears to offer a prisoner its sympathy, while the sympathy that such a prisoner would receive from her fellows is "Meagre, indeed, and cold [...]." The fact that a prison is chosen to represent Puritan civilization compared to the beautiful rose bush chosen to represent Nature also shows Hawthorne's judgment of this group of people.
Further, as if to symbolize the way in which Hester is somehow set apart from her Puritan peers, she lives in "comparative remoteness," in a cottage near the sea and the wooded hills. Rather than live in town, the place of rules and judgment, she lives in a more natural setting. Moreover, when she meets with Dimmesdale in the forest later in the novel, it must be in a natural setting because "both the minister and she would need the whole wide world to breathe in while they talked together [...]." There's a sense of being stifled, of being forced to be something they are not, when they are in town.
Hester's scarlet letter is a symbol of her society's laws and judgment, as well as a sign that Hester herself feels bound by them. Pearl, however, simply "cannot be made amenable to [such] rules." She is constantly compared to a bird or a flower, or a sprite -- natural creatures that aren't bound by the laws of civilization but by the laws of nature. Thus, when Pearl is very young, she throws flowers at her mother's scarlet "A" and dances wildly whenever she strikes it. When she ages, Pearl fashions her own green "A" on her breast, made of grass, as though to signify that she is bound to and by Nature alone. She points out that Nature does not seem to love her mother, as her mother is bound by Puritanical rules rather than natural ones. She holds herself to unnatural standards, and so the sun will not shine on her (until she removes the letter and cap in the forest with Dimmesdale).
These examples and many more help to show that the Puritans, their beliefs, their judgmental natures, and their way of life, are unnatural. They ask people to go against their own natures for the sake of fitting in, and they punish people incredibly harshly when they fail to fit. It is a strong indictment of the Puritan character.
There are several types of nature in The Scarlet Letter. There is the nature of lust that led to Hester and Dimmsdale's union and the birth of Pearl. There is nature meaning the woods and the mysteries of the forest. There is the nature of man to try and destroy someone like Hester whom they perceived as evil. There is the nature of guilt which is evidenced through Reverend Dimmsdale’s difficulty at living his life as a pastor.
Nature in relationship to Pearl represents both innocence and the devil's playground. Pearl was born because of her mother's sin of adultery. Because of her mother's act, she is shunned from playing with other children. Her playground becomes the woods. The woods, in the day of the Puritans, was considered to be a place of darkness and witchcraft. Pearl is nurtured in the woods and happiest there. However, if the townspeople began to relate her to the forest they would see her as evil. In truth, the forest is pure and clean of mankind's destructive ability, but because mankind does not know the forest as Pearl does it is something evil.