A Natural Mirror of Impurity

August 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

The entity of Nature acts as a double-edged sword in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In the novel, Nature shows its ability to both harm and heal through its effects on the characters. The novel highlights Nature’s complexity by showing that the Puritan idea of Nature as an entirely evil force is a naive misconception. The text reveals the beneficial attributes of Nature that the Puritans overlook or fear. Conversely, the text shows that aspects of Nature that help mankind also harm him. The duality and complexity of Nature mirrors the complex inner feelings and dual nature of the book’s characters. Nature represents the paradoxical juxtaposition of both good and evil in man, by showing both good and evil attributes in itself. Ultimately, Nature reveals man’s inherent inability to be pure.By presenting a number of aspects of Nature that are beneficial to man, the text manages to discount the one-sided Puritanical view of Nature as an utterly evil influence. Nature provides both Hestor and Dimmesdale with some feelings of restoration and relief by giving them a sense of freedom from society. When surrounded only by society and separated from Nature, Dimmesdale festers. He withdraws into his study or within himself, places where he can only breathe his “own polluted breath”(128). He longs to “at last draw free air”(128) and to live life without the burden of his guilt, the burden of his society. He first achieves this feeling of freedom during his “long walks on the seashore or in the forest”(119) with Chillingworth. Dimmesdale describes his relief and joy in conversing with another human outside the typical sphere of society as the feeling that “a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study where his life was wasting away”(120). Significantly, this sense of freedom occurs for Dimmesdale while he is out in Nature, away from the confines of society. The text metaphorically compares Dimmesdale’s sense of freedom to the relieving sensation of breathing fresh air. The idea of receiving fresh air alludes to the act of escaping confinement. It represents freedom from oppressive, dank, decaying ideas and institutions. By using metaphors that compare Nature to freedom Hawthorne highlights the positive side of Nature, and Hawthorne reveals Nature’s ability to provide relief and release.Significantly, Dimmesdale does not repeat the experience of release until he is in the forest again. The forest, as a representative of nature, lets Dimmesdale out of his self-imposed isolation, and the isolation of the Puritan community. While surrounded by Nature he experiences the “exhilarating effect” of “breathing [a] wild, free atmosphere”(198). The feeling affects him as though he were “a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart”(198). Nature provides him with relief and comfort from the oppressive Puritan society of Salem, as well as from the burden of his guilt. Since Nature is “an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region”(198), Dimmesdale can temporarily distance himself from his ties to society and the guilt those ties impose upon him. In this way, Nature acts as a place for Dimmesdale to air out his true self, to feel release, and to sense the presence of a world outside himself and outside of Salem.Nature similarly provides Hestor with a sense of freedom from the oppression of society. Being surrounded by the sea instead of by the town distances her from the oppressive societal influences of Salem. This distance allows her to gain insights that she could not have gained in the stifling air of the Puritan town. By living in a “lonesome cottage” near “the sea shore”(161), a place representative of Nature, she is able to conjure thoughts “such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England”(161). She manages to view the world in terms the Puritans do not understand. Her separation from Puritan society allows her to comprehend the important and inherent contradictions and duality within herself and others. She glimpses these contradictions during her brief interactions with the town when she senses the secret guilt other seemingly righteous people carry in their hearts. Her separation from her society allows her the perspective that is necessary to sense the duality in others. Her isolation from society amidst the freeing influence of Nature releases her from the restrictions that determine what is acceptable to believe, allowing her mind to roam “as freely as the wild Indian in his woods”(196). Her “estranged point of view,” her “fate and fortunes”, as well as her isolation by the seashore “set her free”(196) and give her insight. This freedom shows Nature’s ability to bestow beneficial influences on mankind, dispelling the idea that Nature can only be a force of evil.However, the novel forces the reader to recognize Nature’s negative aspects as well as its positive ones. Just as isolation leads Hestor to recognize complexities and contradictions in herself and others, so the novel leads the reader to recognize complexities in all things, including Nature. The text shows that although Nature possesses positive attributes, its detrimental aspects check and taint its otherwise beneficial ones. Dimmesdale does indeed enjoy the benefits of drawing “free air”(128) while surrounded by Nature, but the text insists that the air is “too fresh and chill to be long breathed with comfort”(120). The fact that the fresh air at first heals Dimmesdale but then harms him after an extended period of exposure to it, shows the duality of Nature. Likewise, Nature reveals its complexity through the “plants with healing balm in them”(119) that it produces. Chillingworth collects these plants on his walks with Dimmesdale. Significantly, they are beneficial to the body only in the correct dosage. When administered incorrectly they can be poisonous. Additionally, the plants that Nature produces do prolong Dimmesdale’s life, but to Dimmesdale this is cruelty. Therefore, Nature manages to harm Dimmesdale despite the healing relief it also gave him.Similarly to the way that Dimmesdale’s soul finds relief in Nature, Hestor’s “intellect and heart” find respite in “desert places”(196), or natural places. Hawthorne’s use of the term “desert” signifies that Hestor finds her respite in a place where she can be free of men, laws, and oppression. By using the word “desert,” he highlights the way Hestor’s situation both isolates her and brings her close to Nature. This isolation and proximity to Nature gives her freedom, creative inspiration, and release. However, as the word “desert” suggests, she also suffers from her isolation. Despite the overwhelming freedom a desert offers, it is ultimately too isolated, too harsh and too dry to be completely beneficial to a human soul. As the desert metaphor suggests, an excess of exposure to the freedom of Nature inevitably leads Hestor “amiss”(196). The text emphasizes with this metaphor, as well as with the fact that fresh air is too chill to be breathed for long, and that healing plants can be poisons, that too much of a curative substance can be harmful. As a force, Nature provides freedom and release, especially for Hestor and Dimmesdale. However, when experienced in excess, or when not diluted by the forces of society, it is not an entirely positive or harmless influence.The main danger of Nature for Hestor and Dimmesdale is its isolating influence on them. Being alone in the forest separates them from the civilizing and moralizing influences of society. The “intense seclusion of the forest”(184) leads both Hestor and Dimmesdale to disregard the morals of society, and tempts them to sin anew. The effects of this isolation and demoralization surface while they are in the forest. Hestor throws her scarlet letter “among the withered leaves”(198). She abandons all the mores and principles of her society with this gesture, because in this section the scarlet letter symbolizes society’s influence on her. Similarly, Dimmesdale metaphorically flings his “sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened “(198) self “down upon these forest leaves”(198) and rises “up all made anew”(198). However, the birth of this new self only occurs through the abandonment of his former societal self. The isolation and wildness of Nature causes Hestor and Dimmesdale to believe they can leave their societal duties and selves behind without consequence, and happily renew their sinful relationship. Hestor never realizes the error of their decision because she has been “for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed from society”(195) and entangled in the “moral wilderness”(196) of Nature. Due to her “long seclusion from society”(156) she has been unable “to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself”(156). Therefore, she no longer grasps the concepts of socially accepted morality. Dimmesdale also seems to abandon his societal self in favor of a more lawless one. He feels that “another man has returned out of the forest”(219), and he now “stand[s] apart” from his “former self”(219). He believes he grasps a “knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former [self] could never have reached”(219). However, once he re-enters the physical “limits of what [his] church define[s] as orthodox”(120), the physical borders of the town itself, he seems to begin to re-enter into the spiritual and emotional agreements he had with civilized society. The freeing, demoralizing spell of Nature and isolation appears to eventually dissipate because he realizes that he cannot flee his societal obligations, and finally faces the truth of them instead.The borders that Dimmesdale physically and spiritually seems to cross between Nature and society are extremely significant to the townspeople of Salem. The town tries desperately to create strict limits around itself in order to keep the evil of Nature out. In actuality, Salem may be keeping evil within its borders by isolating itself in the same way Dimmesdale isolates himself within his study and within his mind. Like Dimmesdale, the town has been “stifling with [its] own polluted breath”(128). The town has little contact with other communities or any other “kind[s] of intellect than those with which [they] habitually held converse”(120). This isolation breeds religious fervor, fear of the devil in the surrounding forest, and strict intolerance of sin in the Puritan town because it does not allow for an outside influence to check the proliferation of these fears and beliefs. Just as the forest isolates Dimmesdale and Hestor from Salem it isolates Salem from the rest of the world. In Hestor’s and Dimmesdale’s cases, the isolation tempts them to abandon society in favor of human weakness. Conversely, Salem’s isolation leads it to abandon the freedom of human nature in favor of the strict mores of society and religion.This isolation, and the way it causes the Salem townspeople to see things in absolute, black-and-white terms, is the true “Black Man” lurking in the novel. The townspeople of the text believe that the “Black Man haunts the forest”(74) around them. The novel, however, does not give any evidence suggesting the actual presence of the “Black Man” in the forest, but it does suggest that the town’s belief in the devil’s possession of Nature is a danger. Their belief in the devil of the woods causes the Puritans to blindly associate all of Nature with sin, danger, and temptation. Their assumption of evil leaves no room for the possibility of any positive influences to come from the forest. The townspeople, therefore, possess too narrow, and too one-sided a view of Nature. The novel shows that Salem’s society’s tendency to view thing in terms of absolutes extends far beyond their view of Nature. Their willingness to view Nature in terms of absolute evil mirrors their willingness to brand a woman with a scarlet letter and objectify her as the human embodiment of sin. The text itself presents a dual-sided image of Nature that refutes the citizens’ one-sided perception and suggests that the reader adopt the same awareness of duality and complexity in all things.In the novel, Nature acts not only as a mirror to society’s behaviors but also as a mirror to the characters’ emotions. Nature reveals the characters’ innermost feelings to the reader by reflecting them in its own outer aspect. Hestor’s melancholy spirits during her walk through the woods to meet Dimmesdale are reflected in the “chill and sombre”(179) weather. The sunlight eludes Hestor in the forest just as happiness eludes her in her life. The text even describes the long sought rays as “flitting cheerfulness”(179), directly addressing the parallel between the outer world of nature and the inner world of the characters’ feelings. The subsequent sudden “burst of sunshine”(199) that “pour[s] a very flood”(199) of light into the forest when Hestor and Dimmesdale declare their love for one another mirrors the characters’ joy at escaping from society’s laws and giving in to their true desires. This sunlight is like “a sudden smile of heaven”(199) that matches the smiles of Hestor and Dimmesdale.Readers may interpret this mirroring as the intense effects of isolation upon Hestor and Dimmesdale. This interpretation implies that the characters narcissistically interpret everything they see, including Nature, in terms relating to themselves1. In many respects the text supports this interpretation. The forest would probably have “been bright in Hestor’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s”(200) because of their happiness even if it had “kept its gloom”(200). However, the text seems to attempt to lead readers toward recognizing the complexities in all things. Therefore, readers may also interpret the reflections Nature seems to make of Hestor’s feelings and Dimmesdale’s feelings as more than just meaningless mirror images of the characters’ facial expressions. The reflections convey the very essences of the truth of the characters’ feelings and situations.Throughout the novel, Nature seems to extract truth from characters and events. The text presents Nature as a force that attempts to expose the secret truth of many situations. Nature especially attempts to reveal the truth about Dimmesdale’s and Chillingworth’s dark inner souls. Dimmesdale carries a “manifestation in [his] bodily frame”(133) of his spiritual sickness. This outer illness is Nature’s attempt to reveal the guilty truth within Dimmesdale. Likewise, Chillingworth also bears the marks of Nature’s efforts to reveal his sin in his physical appearance. He has a “low, dark and misshapen figure”(133) whose “ugly and evil”(124) facial expressions grow “more obvious to sight”(124) every day. This outer branding serves as Nature’s attempt to expose Chillingworth’s inner demons. Triumphantly, Nature reveals Chillingworth’s wickedness to Hestor and Dimmesdale during the night of the great meteor. “The meteoric light impart[s] a new expression”(152) of understanding to Dimmesdale. He sees the “malevolence with which”(152) Chillingworth stares at him, and he develops an intense “horror of the man”(153) who is his physician.Nature’s efforts to reveal truth do not only focus on Chillingworth’s or Dimmesdale’s sins. The text suggests that Nature also attempts to expose the inner guilt of Hestor as completely as it exposes Chillingworth’s or Dimmesdale’s sins. On the day of Hestor’s release from prison, Nature seems to pour sunlight upon Hestor “to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast”(75). Although this incident may only have been the perverse trick of Hestor’s “sick and morbid heart”(75), it also seems that Nature is highlighting the scarlet letter to signify that the focus of this situation is the letter and not Hestor. Nature’s role in the scene seems to be to show that Hestor’s life from this moment forward will revolve around the “A” on her breast. For most of the town, she exists only as the bearer of the symbol, the embodiment of shame, and not as a whole and complex person.Also seemingly in pursuit of revealing truth, Nature gives Hestor a child, Pearl, who is like a scarlet blossom that reveals the truth of her mother’s infidelity to the world. Pearl herself suggests that she “had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door”(108). The text reinforces the idea that Pearl is like “a lovely and immortal flower”(85) that blossoms out of the “rank luxuriance” of her mother’s “guilty passion”(85). Pearl then remains as a gift and a curse from Nature to forever remind Hestor and the citizens of Salem of the truth of her sin. True to the metaphor of the wild rose, Pearl appears to be a daughter of Nature. She embodies the “wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law”(199). She is “as wild as the sea breeze”(174) and is “gifted with a soul of the sea-fire”(240). Her kinship with Nature manifests itself not only in metaphors describing her wild personality, but also in her desire for and uncanny sense of the truth. Nature and Pearl together prevent Hestor from removing the scarlet symbol of truth from her chest. Pearl seems to know that Hestor cannot abandon entirely the society and the morals that the scarlet letter represents. She points “towards her mother’s breast”(205) while “assuming a singular air of authority”(205), insisting that her mother return the letter to its rightful place. Nature reflects Pearl’s angry “frown”(205), her “pointed finger, and imperious gesture”(205) in a little brook, “giving emphasis”(205) to Pearl’s demand. When Pearl’s distress escalates into “piercing shrieks”(206), the woods echo her cries. Because the forest reverberates Pearl’s screams, it seems “as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and encouragement”(206). The cooperation between Pearl and Nature causes Hestor to re-fasten the letter to her chest, symbolically continuing to declare the truth of her sin to the world.In fact, Pearl always seems to sense the truth of a situation, or to aid in exposing the truth. She constantly pesters Hestor about the meaning of the scarlet letter. As a young child she gathers “handfuls of wild-flowers and fling[s] them, one by one, at her mother’s bosom”(94), celebrating whenever she hits the scarlet letter. She seems to know that the scarlet letter, and consequently truth, are the keys to everything. Eventually, she comprehends that the letter denotes something sinful, something relating to the “Black Man”. She mentions Dimmesdale’s “hand over his heart”(184) when she sees him in the forest with her mother and wants to know why he does “not wear it outside his bosom”(184) as Hestor does. Perhaps through her kinship to Nature, she uncannily understands that Dimmesdale’s infirmity is due to his sinful spirit. She also quickly grasps that Dimmesdale’s sin somehow ties to her mother’s sin, and that declaring a sin in the way her mother does is best. Also in her pursuit of truth, she fervently desires Dimmesdale to stand with her and Hestor in the sunlight, unknowingly requesting that her father reveal the truth about the bond between them all.Her quest for truth eventually leads her to “pledge that she [will] grow up amid human joy and sorrow”(251), ceasing to “forever do battle with the world”(251), and instead “be a woman in it”(251). The novel culminates its message of duality by showing the lawless child of nature embrace, in part, the morality of society. In order to live truth, Pearl must hold on to her wild roots, while accepting a civilized future. She must free herself from the isolation of New England, but not give herself over to the complete lawlessness of the forest. She seems on the verge of living the message of the novel by accepting the duality of her nature.

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