that I decided to approach is “the opposition between nature and civilization
in The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Ever since its very first publication in 1850, Hawthorne’s novel, “The
Scarlet Letter” has never been no longer in production, nor out of critical support.
It is absolutely one into of the most significant books as regards American
literature, and in the meantime, “Scarlet letter” is viewed as Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s most exquisite work. It is also one of the most suggestive novels
with respect to his work, the most powerful display of his topics.
Hawthorne’s novel outlines the story of an adulterous woman, a novel
whose symbolism goes beyond the “tale of a human frailty and sorrow” and sinks
into the depth of the inhumanity, of the punishment and torment of the citizens
from a puritan community.
In this way, the novel’s settlement in New
England exhibit the manner through which the puritan community condemns Hester
Prynne’s act of adultery and outlines in the same time her punishment (she was
forced to wear the letter “A” on her bosom ). Thus, this reality contours
two different atmospheres that seem to create tension and which are
distinguished among others in Hawthorne’s work, and these two features are nature
Therefore, the dichotomy between nature and civilization is visible from
the very beginning of the story, and the presence of symbols such as “rosebush”
has been interpreted throughout times as the element that “stands for the
spontaneous and irrepressible life of nature and instinct, while the prison
door stands for the harsh limitations that must be imposed on nature to
maintain order in human society”. Thus, we can stipulate from the fact that the
“rosebush” is located that close to the prison and also co-exists with it, Hester
The prison and the cemetery were the two
first things that were built in town and this ascertainment reflects the
attitude of the community and their way of living, their puritan austere
justice (prison) in contrast to the freedom and the truth provided by nature, and
also the passion and desire that bush reflects. This contraposition presents
the imprisonment of the soul by the society’s laws. All these features are
presented throughout the novel’s plot as gloomy and dull spots and the darkish tones
scattered among the plot outlines the sober atmosphere of the puritan
community: “-A throng of bearded men, in sad coloured
garments and grey steeple-crowned hats (…) was assembled in front of a wooden edifice,
the door of which was heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes”.
Another suggestive symbol is
the one of the scaffold, the place where Arthur Dimmesdale died, a place that
represents puritan’s punishment (a bigger psychological retribution rather than
physical), the public terror and offense, prejudice and humiliation. In this framework, altered by society’s
punishment, the only place in which Hester and her daughter Pearl find relief
is in the middle of the forest.
In general, man’s relationship with the
nature, which represents innocence, purity and freedom, is able to clear his
soul from the alteration and subjugation of a cruel society.
This is the main reason why, aware of her lack of approval and acceptance
because of her sin, Hester finds her own meaning of security and independence
in the middle of nature, of the solitude.
Therefore, the symbol of the forest becomes her own freedom from the “A”
sign that the community punished her with, a place where she can be her genuine
self and in the meantime becomes the spot in which the sinner is able to find truth
Also, the forest represents the frame in
which Hester is able to remove the sign, in which she can purify her soul, away
from people’s mischievous opinion against her. “She had not known the weight
until she felt the freedom”.
In the same time, the forest signifies the
place where that part of the human kind cannot be constrained or beaten into
submission, a place in which both Hester and Arthur can meet and in “solitude
and law and anguish”.
In contrast to this frame of depth and emotions, the image of the town in
represented as a place of surface, superficiality and appearances, a place in
which Dimmesdale himself does not recognize his sin until the very end because
of his fear of ending his career. In this sense, Arthur Dimmesdale embodied, in
the opinion of the critics, “the reflection of the hypocrisy of the entire community”
because of his cowardice, because he left Hester to bear society’s shame, abuse
and insults by herself, without facing the truth, without defying the consequences
of their sin together, “a sin of passion, not of principle,
nor even purpose”. His judgement towards this entire situation is that his
salvation will come from the pain and suffering he felt during those years and
as Nina Baym affirmed, -“his belief that he is being
punished enables him to keep his guilt secret by pacifying his sense of justice”.
Therefore, prison is seen as the severe justice of the puritans, as an obscure
and austere climate, a place in which the world does not accept those who do
not obey their strict rules and judgements, their habits or ethics.
Another proof of the collision between nature and civilization is little
Pearl, whose natural habitat is the forest, who represents neither the good,
nor the devil, who embodies the child of sin that is not allowed to remain in
society (exponent of the order), that belongs in the wilderness of the forest.
Therefore, the natural element presented in the
novel, the brook, represents the physical boundary between the condemned and
the innocent. The brook is the one that
knows the truth, the one that murmurs stories from the depth of the forest’s
heart and mirrors his disclosure on its surface.
In this context, little Pearl is resembled to
the brook itself, and its “sadness” is due to the puritan beliefs and the
corruption of man. Her direct connection
to the nature is portrayed in the episode in which she lays on the other side
of the brook, embracing in this way the nature and its calling, and as Barbara
Garlitz observed and affirmed in her work: “this brook is the boundary between
two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again. In addition,
Hawthorne also uses Pearl’s character to empathize her childish attitude
in front of a Puritan Community full of patterns and restrictions to
What is noticeable is that Hawthorne, throughout the plot condemns
Puritans convictions because of their interference between the freedom and the relief
provided by the genuineness of the wilderness and the mankind in general. This patriarchal
type of governance and its repression towards mistakes makes us wonder whether
in those very times the necessity of a form of resistance in front of the errors
made out of passion was really compulsory or not. In my opinion the narration’s aim is to
outline the actions (actions which were in fact natural for them) of a Puritan community
and their attitude towards the faults of the others in order to emphasize in
the most prolific manner the differences between one’s attitude inside the
community and outside of it.
Thus, Hester Prynne is the only character that
is able to manage successfully these two worlds. In this way, she achieves a
certain level of freedom by wearing the symbol of her fate in a proud way. As Laura Doyle emphasized in her work, “the tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to
set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread”. She reaches the point in which
considers that the “A” letter is part of her genuine self, that she can no
longer exist without it, and it is not a symbol of penalty anymore, but her awareness,
her life, that life that she cannot abandon or change.
In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne emphasizes in the most prolific
manner the dichotomy between man and nature via the oppression of the puritan
community and the quest of independence within its own ability, by one of the
most controversial character of the American literature, Hester Prynne. Thus,
the characters, actions and symbols of the book underline two worlds that
differ on so many levels but which co-exist and function through the power of a
woman who, in her quest for liberty and retrieval, is able to transmit to the
readers multiple experiences, feelings that are capable to help in the process of
understanding her struggle, society’s sentences and discrimination and the
puritan attitude in general.