The Use of Symbolism and Imagery in Chapter XVI: A Forest Walk
In the pivotal “Chapter XVI: A Forest Walk” in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorn uses symbolism and imagery to convey deeper themes. He intentionally makes the gloomy forest the setting of the meeting between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. The “feebly sportive” (Hawthorne, 296) light that filters through the darkness of the forest illuminates Hester’s spiritual and emotional condition. A babbling stream winds through the forest, reflecting the lives and thoughts of the people. All of the vivid descriptions, meticulous details, and hidden meanings in “A Forest Walk” help evoke the mysterious, urgent tone of the chapter.
The forest symbolizes freedom and intimacy; it’s a place where people can be their natural selves. Hester desires to have her meeting with Arthur in the woods. She knows that the forest, like herself, doesn’t follow the decrees of the stringent Puritan town. She has broken a moral code when she chooses to follow the passion of her own heart and commits adultery with Arthur. Although she can’t find total freedom in the unsympathetic and strict community, Hester feels she has a chance to find liberty and renewal in the woods, where a person is not judged so harshly and can assume a new, true identity. Just as Hester and Arthur’s sin was committed in secret, the woodlands are private and intimate. There, they can have the privacy to meet and talk without being spied on or condemned.
Nevertheless, the forest is not just a harmless, free place. Evil and temptation also lurk among the trees. Mistress Hibbins and her fellow witches practice the dark arts and meet with the Devil in the woods. The Black Man (Satan) also roams in the forest and signs away souls in his book. In addition, the dark, wild, chilly, and mysterious forest reminds Hester of “the moral wilderness in which she [has] so long been wandering” (Hawthorne, 295), mirrors her dark state of mind, and foreshadows the events to come. The woods’ liberating effect can also cause people to easily yield to their sinful nature. After the meeting with Hester, Arthur leaves the forest and is tempted to poison the minds of everyone he meets on the way home. The forest can foster evil and later set it loose to wreak havoc on its victims.
Though the woods are dark and gloomy, a little sunlight filters through, spreading much needed light and truth. Hawthorne personifies the light, which seems to shine on Pearl wherever she is but avoids her mother Hester. The sunshine, like Pearl, is pure and honest. Hester, in contrast, is stained by sin and burdened by many secrets that should not have been kept. Hester has never told Arthur that the cruel, diabolical Roger Chillingworth is her husband. Therefore, the light disappears whenever she approaches until she finally tells Arthur the truth. Only then is she able to release her hair from its restrictive cap and remove the scarlet letter, the symbol of her adultery and her shame, from her dress. Suddenly, “forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest …Objects that had made a shadow hitherto [embody] the brightness now” (Hawthorne, 328). Now she can enjoy its warmth and radiance at last. The sunlight will not last, however, it disappears again by the end of the meeting, foreshadowing that a higher, complete truth has not yet been achieved. Trouble still looms.
The prattling brook in the wood is another symbol that Hawthorne uses in this chapter. It represents Pearl’s life. Like the streamlet, “the current of her life [gushes] from a wellspring as mysterious… and [has] flowed through scenes shadowed heavily with gloom” (Hawthorne, 301). Both Pearl and the brook have unknown and unhappy beginnings. They continue to go on, despite the sadness and darkness that often crosses their paths. Yet, unlike the brook, who is always lamenting about its many woes and sad secrets, Pearl still dances, prances, and laughs. The brook isn’t melancholy for no reason, though. It knows and remembers each person’s trials and sadness. Only those who have sorrow in their lives can understand its chatter. Consequently, Pearl, who doesn’t have a sorrow of her own, cannot understand the brook’s babble, while Hester, who, for the last seven years, has been leading a dreary and cheerless existence, comprehends the streamlet’s murmuring.
Furthermore, the brook in the woods also stands for a boundary line between the world of truth, peace, and freedom and the world of lies, sin, and guilt. While Hester and Arthur have their meeting on one side of the brook, Pearl is playing by herself at the other side. Hester and Arthur live in a world where they constantly strive to hide the truth and cover up their sin. Both live with guilt and in hypocrisy. People in the Puritan community think that Hester has become humble and meek, but in reality, she is still proud. Arthur’s congregation reveres him, thinking he’s holy and righteous. Pearl, on the other hand, is always honest, acting and saying exactly what’s on her mind.
In addition, the brook serves as a barrier between Hester and her child. When Hester calls Pearl to return from the other side of the creek, Pearl refuses to come. She feels estranged from her mother because Hester is not wearing her scarlet letter. To Pearl, it isn’t just a badge; it is part of her beloved mother. Until Hester refastens the crimson A to her dress, thereby returning to her old identity, Pearl cannot and will not cross over the brook to return to Hester’s side.
Hawthorne’s powerful use of imagery and symbolism in “A Forest Walk” (as well as throughout the entire book) helps convey a unique atmosphere for the momentous meeting of Hester and Arthur. By giving the reader the freedom and space to interpret the many symbols and layered meanings in the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne bequeaths his story with the depth and profoundness that sets his tale of passion, sin, hypocrisy, and shame above other contemporary romances, making it a timeless classic to be read and reread by many generations.
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