The subjectthat I decided to approach is “the opposition between nature and civilizationin The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ever since its very first publication in 1850, Hawthorne’s novel, “TheScarlet 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 Americanliterature, and in the meantime, “Scarlet letter” is viewed as NathanielHawthorne’s most exquisite work. It is also one of the most suggestive novelswith respect to his work, the most powerful display of his topics. Hawthorne’s novel outlines the story of an adulterous woman, a novelwhose symbolism goes beyond the “tale of a human frailty and sorrow” and sinksinto the depth of the inhumanity, of the punishment and torment of the citizensfrom a puritan community. In this way, the novel’s settlement in New England exhibits the approachthrough which the puritan community convicts Hester Prynne’s decision ofadultery and contours in the same time her repression (she was compelled to wearthe letter “A” on her breast).
Thus, this reality contours two differentatmospheres that seem to create tension and which are distinguished amongothers in Hawthorne’s work, and these two features are nature and civilization. Therefore, the dichotomy between nature and civilization is visible fromthe very beginning of the story, and the presence of symbols such as “rosebush”has been interpreted throughout times as the element that “stands for thespontaneous and irrepressible life of nature and instinct, while the prisondoor stands for the harsh limitations that must be imposed on nature tomaintain 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, HesterPrynne’s doom. The prison andthe cemetery were the two first things that were built in town and thisascertainment reflects the attitude of the community and their way of living,their puritan austere justice (prison) in contrast to the freedom and the truthprovided by nature, and also the passion and desire that bush reflects. This conflictarises as the detention and imprisonment of the soul by the laws adopted inthat very society. All these features are presented throughout the novel’s plotas gloomy and dull spots and the darkish tones scattered among the plot outlinesthe 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 isthe one of the scaffold, the place where Arthur Dimmesdale died, a place thatrepresents puritan’s punishment (a bigger psychological retribution rather thanphysical), the public terror and offense, prejudice and humiliation. In this framework, altered by society’spunishment, the only place in which Hester and her daughter Pearl find reliefis in the middle of the forest.
In general, man’s relationshipwith the nature, which represents innocence, purity and freedom, is able toclear his soul from the alteration and subjugation of a cruel society. This is the main reason why, aware of her lack of approval and acceptancebecause of her sin, Hester finds her own meaning of security and independencein 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 genuineself and in the meantime becomes the spot in which the sinner is able to find truthand relief. Also, the forest symbolizes the frame in which Hester is able to remove thesign, in which she can purify her soul, away from people’s mischievous opinionagainst 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 thehuman kind cannot be constrained or beaten into submission, a place in whichboth 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 inrepresented as a place of surface, superficiality and appearances, a place inwhich Dimmesdale himself does not recognize his sin until the very end becauseof his fear of ending his career. In this sense, Arthur Dimmesdale embodied, inthe 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, abuseand insults by herself, without facing the truth, without defying the consequencesof their sin together, “a sin of passion, not of principle,nor even purpose”.
His judgement towards this entire situation is that hissalvation will come from the pain and suffering he felt during those years andas Nina Baym affirmed, -“his belief that he is beingpunished 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 obscureand austere climate, a place in which the world does not accept those who donot obey their strict rules and judgements, their habits or ethics. Another proof of the collision between nature and civilization is littlePearl, 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 insociety (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 mirrorshis disclosure on its surface. In thiscontext, little Pearl is resembled to the brook itself, and its “sadness” is dueto the puritan beliefs and the corruption of man.
Her direct connection to the nature is portrayedin the episode in which she lays on the other side of the brook, embracing inthis way the nature and its calling, and as Barbara Garlitz observed andaffirmed in her work: “this brook is theboundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thyPearl again. In addition, Hawthorne also uses Pearl’scharacter to empathize her childish attitude in front of a Puritan Communityfull of patterns and restrictions to follow”. What is noticeable is that Hawthorne, throughout the plot condemnsPuritans convictions because of their interference between the freedom and the reliefprovided by the genuineness of the wilderness and the mankind in general.
This patriarchaltype of governance and its repression towards mistakes makes us wonder whetherin those very times the necessity of a form of resistance in front of the errorsmade out of passion was really compulsory or not. In my opinion the narration’s aim is tooutline the actions (actions which were in fact natural for them) of a Puritan communityand their attitude towards the faults of the others in order to emphasize inthe most prolific manner the differences between one’s attitude inside thecommunity and outside of it. Thus, Hester Prynne is the only character that is able to managesuccessfully these two worlds. In this way, she achieves a certain level offreedom 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 toset her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread”. She reaches the point in whichconsiders that the “A” letter is part of her genuine self, that she can nolonger 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 prolificmanner the dichotomy between man and nature via the oppression of the puritancommunity and the quest of independence within its own ability, by one of themost controversial character of the American literature, Hester Prynne. Thus,the characters, actions and symbols of the book underline two worlds thatdiffer on so many levels but which co-exist and function through the power of awoman who, in her quest for liberty and retrieval, is able to transmit to thereaders multiple experiences, feelings that are capable to help in the process ofunderstanding her struggle, society’s sentences and discrimination and thepuritan attitude in general.