A Moral Wilderness: Setting in the Scarlet Letter

Topics: The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne Pages: 5 (1664 words) Published: October 16, 2012
Joyce Connolly
Ms. Fitzpatrick
The Scarlet Letter Paper
Block-Three American Literature
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
A Moral Wilderness
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne conveys a stark contrast between Puritan disciplinary institutions, such as the prison and scaffold, and the liberating quality of the wilderness. Through the looming prison-door, the scaffold’s merciless nature, and the forest’s unruly and mysterious spirit, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, recognizes that her New England roots suppress her identity while nature serves as a respite, providing forgiveness and acceptance that relieve Hester of her ignominy. Rather than escaping New England’s firm hand to seek a sake haven in the oasis of the wilderness, Hester realizes that the scarlet letter provides a harmonic relationship with nature, allowing her to create an internal gateway to freedom without having to depart from Boston.

The ironclad prison door, established by the colony’s founders, represents the strict militancy of Puritan ways. The story opens with a profound description of the bleak and despondent setting. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of a human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison” (45). Despite the desire to establish a colony anchored on righteousness and joy, the founders of this colony found it imperative to put a cemetery and prison in place. By creating these two very repressive and dismal institutions, the colony communicates a regimented outlook and despotic traits that highlight and punish human sinful tendencies. Indeed, the very construction of the prison and cemetery express the colony’s intolerance for any type of misbehavior.

By instituting the prison door, not only do the colonists convey their rigid attitude, but the “ugly edifice” (45) represses and strips hope from sinners like Hester. When Hester is being led back into the prison, Hawthorne writes, “The scarlet letter drew a lurid gleam along the passage-way of the interior” (64). In the preceding example, Hester’s essential essence is juxtaposed with the stark prison. These human-generated institutions seek to eradicate people’s individuality and try to administrate uniformity.

On the contrary, Hawthorne describes how vegetation and the rose bush planted near the prison offer sympathy and acceptance towards prisoners.
But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild-rose bush, covered, in this month of the June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. (46)

There is a dramatic distinction between the grim prison and the compassion and promise sprouting from nature. While the prison attempts to diminish Hester’s character, nature provides an emotional sanctuary of acceptance and freedom.

The scaffold, a platform in the center of town used for public execution of criminals, served as the ultimate form of humiliation and suppression. Its fundamental purpose is to punish sinners, or people who do not religiously adhere to what is narrowly considered to be right in the eyes of the Puritans. Consequently, by forcing sinners to stand before a crowd of spectators, Puritan customs are waged upon the wrongdoers. Puritans had an absolute ideology that did not tolerate any sort of delinquency. The scaffold is the ultimate representation of their militant ideals. “This scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine…but was held, in the old time to be as an effectual...
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