In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, life is centered
around a rigid Puritan society in which one is unable to divulge his
or her innermost thoughts and secrets. Every human being needs the
opportunity to express how he or she truly feels, otherwise the
emotions are bottled up until they become volatile. Unfortunately,
Puritan society did not permit this kind of expression, thus
characters had to seek alternate means to relieve their personal
anguishes and desires. Luckily, at least for the four main characters,
Hawthorne provides such a sanctuary in the form of the mysterious
forest. Hawthorne uses the forest to provide a kind of “shelter” for
members of society in need of a refuge from daily Puritan life.


In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the pivotal
characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. The forest track
leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs
of civilization vanish. This is precisely the escape route from strict
mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women,
can open up and be themselves. It is here that Dimmesdale openly
acknowledges Hester and his undying love for her. It is also here that
Hester can do the same for Dimmesdale. Finally, it is here that the
two of them can openly engage in conversation without being
preoccupied with the constraints that Puritan society places on them.
The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody
watches in the woods to report misbehavior, thus it is here that
people may do as they wish. To independent spirits such as Hester
Prynne’s, the wilderness beckons her: Throw off the shackles of law
and religion. What good have they done you anyway? Look at you, a
young and vibrant woman, grown old before your time. And no wonder,
hemmed in, as you are, on every side by prohibitions. Why, you can
hardly walk without tripping over one commandment or another. Come to
me, and be masterless. (p.186)
Truly, Hester takes advantage of this, when Arthur Dimmesdale
appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdale about subjects which would
never be mentioned in any place other than the forest. “What we
did…” she reminds him, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it
so! We said to each other!” This statement shocks Dimmesdale and he
tells Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an
environment where he can openly express his emotions. The thought of
Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate conversation in the confines
of the society in which they live is incomprehensible. Yet here, in
the forest, they can throw away all reluctance and finally be
themselves under the umbrella of security which exists.
In Puritan society, self reliance is stressed among many other
things. However, self reliance is more than stressed- it is assumed.

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It is assumed that you need only yourself, and therefore should have
no emotional necessity for a “shoulder to cry on”. Once again, for
people in the stations of life which Hester and Dimmesdale hold, it
would be unthinkable for them to comfort each other. Yet, in the
forest, these cares are tossed away. “Be thou strong for me,”
Dimmesdale pleads. “Advise me what to do.” (p. 187) This is a cry for
help from Dimmesdale, finally admitting he cannot go through this
ordeal by himself. With this plea comes an interesting sort of
role-reversal. When Dimmesdale asks for help, he is no longer
sustaining the belief that he is above Hester. He is finally admitting
that she is an equal, or even that she is above him. This is possibly
one of the reasons that Puritans won’t accept these emotional
displays- because the society is so socially oriented. Hester,
assuming a new position of power, gives a heartfelt, moving speech.
The eloquence of her words cannot be overemphasized, and a more
powerful statement had yet to be made in the book. Hester’s speech
turns out to bear a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale’s
sermons. “Begin all anew! … Preach! Write! Act!”(p. 188) The
questions she asks are also like the articulate questions which
Dimmesdale would pose during his sermons. The answer is obvious, yet
upon closer examination they seem to give unexpected results. “Whither
leads yonder forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest!
Yea; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper into the
wilderness… until, some few miles hence, the yellow leave will show
no vestige of the white man’s tread.” (p. 187) If one looks at the
title of this chapter, the meaning becomes much clearer. “The
Pastor and His Parishioner” reveals that the roles are now reversed.
Where else could an incongruity such as this occur, but in
an accepting environment? What other platform is there for a man of
high regard in the community to pour his soul to a woman who is
shunned by the public for a grave sin? Nowhere else but in the forest,
could such an event occur.


Finally, the forest brings out the natural appearance and
natural personality of the people who use it correctly. When Hester
takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, we see a new person. We see
the real Hester, who has been hidden this whole time under a shield of
shame. Her eyes grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek. We
recognize her as the Hester from Chapter 1. The beautiful, attractive
person who is not afraid to show her hair and not afraid to display
her beauty. The sunlight, which previously shunned Hester, now seeks
her out, and the forest seems to glow. Dimmesdale has also come back
to life, if only for a short time, and he is now hopeful and
energetic. We have not seen this from Dimmesdale for a long time, and
most likely will not see it ever again.
Puritan society can be harsh and crippling to one’s inner self.
Hawthorne created the forest to give the characters a place to
escape and express their true thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. It was
here that thoughts and ideas flowed as endlessly as the babbling
brook, and emotion was as wild as the forest itself. There are no
restraints in the natural world, because it is just that, natural. No
intrusion from people means no disturbance in the natural order, and
therefore serves to bring its inhabitants away from their world, and
into this older one. I believe Michel Eyquem de Montaigne stated it
most emphatically when he said “Let us permit nature to have her way:
she understands her business better than we do”.

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