What is symbolic in the setting in which Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hawthorne's use of symbols is noted as his most distinctive and significant contribution to American fiction. The chapters in which Hester and Pearl and Dimmesdale are in the forest are replete with symbols.  In Chapter XVII, truth exists in forest:Sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, alongside fallen leaves, Hester and Dimmesdale spend a gloomy hour, yet "it enclosed a charm," that of the laws of Nature in which the minister may be "true," rather than the laws of man, under which he must be false.  It is also in this "boundless forest" that Dimmesdale is free of the gaze of Chillingworth. Nature symbolically shows its approval of this truth in the couple's meeting by a sudden "flood of sunshine."  As Hester casts off her stigma, the color returns to her hair, the yellowed leaves turn to gold, the "repining brook" becomes "a mystery of joy."

The greatest symbol is Pearl herself, who represents the illicit union. Albeit in harmony with Nature, Pearl is the warfare of Hester's spirit.  She shrieks with passion and demands that her mother return the letter to her bosom, hide her hair, and again lose her freedom. Pearl is the scarlet letter, as Hawthorne writes, "in human form."As Hester's conscience,  Pearl is the agent of salvation who effects Hester's atonement through the acceptance of punishment. The "melancholy" brook mirrors Pearl's image in sympathy. 

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne published this novel in 1850. This was during the literary period in America known a romanticism. Writers of this period held a special regard for nature, believing that when one is in a natural setting, he or she is closer to God. In addition, nature offers freedom from the rules of civilization. When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest, they are meeting in a place free of the rules of the society that has forced Hester to wear the scarlet letter. Hester removes the scarlet letter and they plan a way to escape from society and Boston so they can be free of its constraints and also Chillingworth. It's also important to note that the forest is set apart from the town by a brook. During their meeting, Pearl stays on the side of the brook closest to the town. This symbolizes her attachment to the rules of society and especially to the idea that her mother must always wears the scarlet letter. So when her mother returns from the freedom of the forest, Pearl insists that Hester put back the scarlet letter. This foreshadows that idea that gaining their freedom may not be as easy as they think.

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The Scarlet Letter

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