Nature In The Scarlet Letter

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Playing a critical role in The Scarlet Letter, Nature acts in contrast to Puritan society, creating symbols and imagery, demonstrating Pathetic Fallacy, while also reflecting changes in characters.

  • Contrast to Puritan Society

From the onset of the narrative about Hester Prynne, the contrast of the beauty of nature set against the harshness of Puritanical law is apparent with the juxtaposition of the weatherbeaten prison door with the rusted latch against the lovely wild rosebush that is held out as an invitation to "some sweet moral blossom" for the ensuing tale.

After Hester is made to wear the scarlet A upon her bosom, (Puritan law), her beauty seems to fade, and in Chapter 16 when Hester enters the forest with Pearl, the child remarks that the sunshine runs from her mother, who is in the darkness of her sin, while the innocent child "catches" a stream of light.

The great black forest--stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom--became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how.

  • Symbolism

--In Chapter 16, the forest's chilly gloom represents the mood of Hester's soul that has been in a "moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering." 

--The bubbling brook is representative of Pearl "inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom."

--Reunited after seven years, the minister and Hester recall their "consecrated love affair" in this forest.  Thus, the forest gives her renewed life, and as she casts off her bonnet, Hester's hair is revitalized and shines again with rich, dark color. She also throws her scarlet A into the brook. Further, the brook acts as a mirror, reflecting Pearl's pointing to Hester's letter, insisting that she return it to her bosom, again becoming a "melancholy brook."

--The apparent symbolism of the forest's acceptance of Pearl acts with its sunshine and reflective brook act as reminders that Pearl has been born of a natural union in contrast to a sanctioned Puritan union.

--The rosebush by the prison door represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.

  • Imagery

--In the first chapter, nature presents imagery connotative of the harshness of Puritan justice:

Before this ugly edifice [the prison],... was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation that had so early torne the black flower of civilized society, a prison.

Yet, there is also

--A wild rose-bush…covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner

--The black plants which Chillingworth gathers symbolize the darkness of his soul.

  • Pathetic Fallacy (The attribution of human qualities to nature)

In Chapter 18, Hawthorne writes of the

"...sympathy of Nature--that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, no illumined by higher truth--with the bliss of these two spirits!  Love,...must always create a sunshine,...Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester's eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale's!

  • Reflective of Change

By the prison, the grass is wretched, the herbs that Chillingworth pulls are black, suggesting the evil of retribution; however, the brook runs delightedly and the sun shines. In the forest Hester is more like herself before she has been scorned by the community, and the minister is able to be himself and relax. Nature floods the scene with sunshine, indicating its approval.

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