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The Role Of Nature In The Scarlet Letter English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3563 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, takes place during the 17th century in Puritan Boston, where a woman, Hester Prynne, has committed adultery with the Reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale; she is then forced to eternally wear a scarlet letter on her bosom as punishment for that sin. While coming out of prison with the child that resulted from her infidelity, Pearl, Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, has come back from being captured by the Indians and seeks revenge on the man Hester had an affair with. In its entirety, the novel has tied with and referenced to nature numerous times. Hawthorne strategically employs nature in his novel for remarkable imagery, insight into characters, and an underlying theme within the book. In this novel, nature is used with both of its definitions, the natural forces and human nature itself. The theme of nature has allowed The Scarlet Letter to illustrate the dichotomies within the book. Also, in The Scarlet Letter, physiognomies and descriptions of nature around characters correspond with their own human nature and how it changes. Conclusively, nature plays a crucial role in The Scarlet Letter; it foreshadows action, recurs as an important theme that also indicates character, and reflects the changes in the characters’ behavior and beliefs.

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A wild rose-bush…covered, in this month of 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 [or she] came forth to his [or her] doom… [The rose-bush] symbolize[s] some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow. (pp. 45-46)

This foreshadows the compassion shown to Hester through a change of opinion from Adulterer to Able as the rose-bushes’ “fragrance and fragile beauty” and “sweet moral blossom.” This “tale of human frailty and sorrow” refers to the entire Scarlet Letter, all the way up to the unfortunate ending of the story. Particularly about the inopportune situation of Hester with the Scarlet Letter, the aforementioned quotation describes her circumstances with the undeserving ignominy she faces from the rest of the Puritan Society. The passage’s foreshadowing also concerns Hester’s passionate relationship with Dimmesdale, one that was completely natural, where a slow protracted decline occurs throughout the novel from the agonizing torture given by Chillingworth while he was alive up until his death. Additionally, there was one presage which stated that “over her grave, the infamy that she may carry thither would be her only monument.” (p. 72) This foreshadows the end, where on her grave the letter A is all that is written on her tombstone to tell about her relations in life. Foreshadowing is just one of the many functions of nature in the novel to help convey the legend of The Scarlet Letter.

In The Scarlet Letter, there are two different meanings to the recurring theme of nature. First, it is used as the natural forces impacting the characters, and second, it is used as human nature that is typified in the book through descriptions. For example, in the beginning of the novel and like the rest of it, the referrals to the natural world contrast greatly. The contrast ranges from the beautiful, “wild rose-bush” and “the deep heart of Nature” to the “ugly edifice [a prison]”, where there “was was a grass plot, much over-grown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation… had so early borne the black flower of civilized society.” (p. 45-46) The “deep heart of Nature” and the “wild rose-bush” represent all of what is considered good while the “ugly edifice” and the “black flower of civilized society” are the accumulation of evil. Nature depicts this dichotomy through symbols and imagery shown in the abovementioned passage. To be good in the world of The Scarlet Letter means to have compassion, which is embodied by the rose-bush that has the “sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track.” (p. 46) The trait of evil is exemplified by the contemptuous, ignorant Puritan Society in the sum of The Scarlet Letter. Dichotomies, expressed by nature, runs the presentation of Hester’s story in The Scarlet Letter because it assists Hawthorne’s plan to portray Hester as an angel through this book. Some of the dichotomies that this book consists of are the good vs. evil cliché that is portrayed by physiognomies and the dichotomy of the chained-up, oppressed vs. the free. Another example of a dichotomy that is shown by nature is in the forest scene during Chapters 16-18, where “the sportive sunlight – feebly sportive, at best in the predominant pensiveness of the day and scene -withdrew itself as they [Hester and Pearl] came nigh ….” (p. 160) Pearl, who is a child of nature that represents the pureness and honesty similar to that of human nature, observes this scene and says, “Mother… the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.” (p. 160) This extract from Chapter 16 was before the colloquy between Dimmesdale and Hester, when the revelation of Hester’s plan, to leave with Dimmesdale to Europe, transpires. Pearl’s observation is a confirmation that the scarlet letter has brought Hester into darkness, where sorrow and guilt thrive. After the encounter, Hester “undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter… threw it in to the distance… [and] took off the formal cap that confined her hair…. [A]ll at once, as with a smile from heaven, forth burst the sunshine.” (pp. 176-177) These bits of text exhibit the dichotomy of the oppressed vs. the free. Hester has kept her symbol of shame, the scarlet letter, walking into the forest with the guilty conscience of her adultery. She is filled with sorrow and has yielded to the Puritan system by staying in Boston. But when joined together with her lover of true passion (with “the stigma gone” sharing her joy with him), her grief is lifted. (p. 176) Then she undergoes a metamorphosis from a restricted by Puritan Society Hester to a free unrestrained Hester. The metamorphosis could only happen because of the location Hester and Dimmesdale were in, the forest. The forest represents human nature in itself. It is said, “[T]hat wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth-with the bliss of these two spirits!” (p. 177) The forest, like nature, represents something wild, pure, and innate that is “never subjugated by human law.” Furthermore, Hester takes residency in the outskirts of the town, between the forest and the arbitrary Puritan government. The town is where law and religion rule all whereas the forest is where emotion and passion reign. It, as a natural force and human nature, serves to provide an environment of privacy, intimacy, and escape from the distinct Puritan Boston, where judging scornful stares are plentiful. Therefore, the forest is the optimal place for Hester to reunite with Dimmesdale, and there they can assume their true identities unbound by society’s rules. The wilderness provides a safe haven for them, uncontaminated by man’s arrogance. As the definition natural forces, nature is directly related with all the characters and affects them greatly.

Nature is used to indicate the human nature of the protagonists through physical imagery and symbolize it to sway the readers towards the author’s viewpoint on each of the characters. Consistent with the rest of the book, the theme of nature has a correspondence between the descriptions of the physical world and the characters in the novel. Thus, something beautiful in nature could represent the purity in a character, or something ugly found in nature correlates to the ugliness of someone’s personality. Primarily, in Chapter 2, during Hester’s contumely, Hester is described with the following quotation:

In a moment… she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed… The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam. (p. 50)

Simultaneously, the women, who were spectators of Hester’s punishment that defamed her, were illustrated as disgusting. They were depicted as disgusting to represent their disgusting personalities because they have no compassion in their hearts.

“What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of the gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.” (p. 49)

This craven woman was described as “the ugliest” and the most “pitiless” of them all because she has no compassion for Hester’s predicament. Contrary to them, Hester is beautiful and has hair “so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam”; moreover, she is a woman full of dignity and pride. Light, in the situations throughout the novel, epitomizes beauty. Secondly, as Hester and Pearl walk towards Governor Bellingham’s mansion, the text details the garden with symbols relating to his character. The depiction of the garden outside Bellingham’s house suggests some of the many flaws of the governor’s character through context.

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Pearl… looked across the vista of a garden walk, carpeted with closely shaven grass, and bordered with some rude and immature attempt at shrubbery … to have relinquished, as hopeless, the effort to perpetuate on this side of the Atlantic, in a hard soil and amid the close struggle for subsistence, the native English taste for ornamental gardening. Cabbages grew in plain sight; and a pumpkin vine, rooted at the same distance… there was a few rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple trees, probably the descendants of those planted by the Reverend Blackstone… Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and would not be pacified. (pp. 94-95)

The aforesaid quotation conveys the necessity of maintenance for Bellingham. This insinuates the governor’s ineptitude for cultivating things such as the society he is supposed to govern. The “English… ornamental gardening” that has been tried to cultivated on “this side of the Atlantic” represents Bellingham, who has been implanted onto New England soil from England, trying to sustain his old ideals from England in the New World; however, this fails miserably as displayed by the hopeless “attempt at shrubbery.” Akin to “the black flower of civilized society” (p. 45), the “hard soil … cabbages and pumpkin vines” symbolize evil; in this case it’s Bellingham’s bad traits and principles such as ignorance and coldness. Earlier in the novel, there was a meeting where the nobles of Boston where they have to decide on the impeding fate of Hester. During that meeting, Bellingham used preconceived notions instead of considering circumstantial facts to judge Hester’s fate. This shows his incompetence for actual governing because his actions do not protect the innocence instead of convicting the guilty, unlike how the United States’ judicial system does. The “few rose-bushes” that were around Bellingham’s house were “the descendants of those planted by Reverend Blackstone.” Reverend Blackstone was the proprietor and resident of Boston before the Puritans took over, and he was opposed to the Puritan doctrine. So much so that he sold Boston to them and absconded to a place without Puritans. The fact that the remnants of what he cultivated long ago are still growing and that it’s the only beautiful plants in Bellingham’s garden is evidence that Puritan ideals cannot flourish in nature, which is a place of pure, natural emotions. Unless it grows as “the black flower of society.” Third, the weeds and herbs that Chillingworth plucked up from the ground that is made to cure Dimmesdale represents the torture of the Reverend. Dimmesdale asked Chillingworth during the scene where they overlook the grave-yard, “[Where] did you gather those herbs with such a dark, flabby leaf?” (p. 114) Chillingworth replies, “Even in the grave-yard…I found them growing on a grave, which bore no tombstone, nor other memorial of a dead man, save these ugly weeds …” (p. 114) These “ugly weeds” here symbolize the guilt that resides within that destroys Dimmesdale inside. That is why Chillingworth uses herbs and weeds in his medicine, so that Dimmesdale’s guilt can break him and make him come clean. Even Dimmesdale “questions with himself whether grass would ever grow [on his grave.]” (p. 125) Exemplified by this passage, grass not growing represents impurity. Last but not least, in the duration of the lovers’ reunion, Dimmesdale and Hester, a lot of plant and light imagery was used to describe their and Pearl’s thoughts and feelings. When Hester entered the forest, the sunlight avoided Hester because she wore the scarlet letter, something the forest considers impure even though everything beneath the letter is pure. However, Dimmesdale notes, “Yonder she [Pearl] is, standing in a streak of sunshine.”(pp. 177-178) The narrator described the spectacle as “[t]he [sun] ray[s] quivered to and fro [;]… the black forest…became the playmate of the lonely infant …” (p. 178) The forest and the sunlight, unlike Hester, liked Pearl and followed her everywhere she went. This showed that Pearl is indeed pure and is deservedly called “the elf-child.” (p. 96) It is confirmed once again when the narrator says, “the mother-forest, and the wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wilderness of the human child.” (p. 178) She is otherwise known as the child of nature, born in nature and a result of nature, the passionate love that Hester and Dimmesdale share. The brook has also been a big symbol in the forest encounter scene. Dimmesdale remarks, “[t]his brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again.” (p. 182) The “two worlds” discerned by Dimmesdale represent one of purity, where sunlight resides and nature loves, and one of remorse and transgression, where sunlight avoids and nature hates. This reaffirms the reason why Pearl stayed on the other side of the brook with “small forefinger extended, and pointing evidently towards her mother’s breast. And beneath, in the mirror of the brook, there was the flower-girdled and sunny image of little Pearl, point her small forefinger too.” (p. 182) Pearl was gloomy about Hester taking the scarlet letter off because, for some reason, she believed there was something wrong with the actions of Hester and Dimmesdale. Readers, thus far, have been accustomed to believe that Pearl has an uncanny insight about generic things. Clearly, Pearl stood on the pure side of the brook because Pearl is the product of nature. She “resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom.” (p. 163) Nature has described the mood of different passages and the state of mind the characters are in throughout the story.

Not only does nature indicate the moral quality of a character, it also shows the fluctuations of personalities and principles. Moss, leaves, and light have symbolized a change in Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl in the novel. Initially, Hester, during the scaffold scene, is beautiful when she is described as a “black shadow emerging into the sunshine… [and those who knew her] had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled to perceive how her beauty shone out …” (pp. 49-50) At that time, Hester was herself in the purest form. Somewhere in the time jump in the book after her unexpected meeting in jail with Chillingworth, Hester adorns grey drab clothing and a cap, dull colors that contrasts greatly with the stunning scarlet letter to fit the Puritan precepts. By then she slowly starts to lose her individuality, beliefs that conflicted with Puritan doctrine, and passion. In the Chapter 16: A Forest Walk, Hester and Pearl “[sit] on a luxuriant heap of moss.” (p. 162) The moss provided comfort for the adversities that Hester had gone through. Then Dimmesdale enters the forest and they begin to converse. “‘Thou shalt forgive me!’ cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him.” (p. 169) Hester “flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him” characterizes her plea for forgiveness from nature. But then afterwards, because of the newfound joy, Hester “undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and… threw it to a distance among the withered leaves… [and] forth burst sunshine [on her.]” (pp. 176-177) Hester’s scarlet letter, which symbolizes her remorse, falls and dies with the “withered leaves.” Secondly, earlier Dimmesdale was described as follows:

[He] looked haggard and feeble… as if he saw no reason for taking one step farther… but would have been glad, could he be glad of anything, to fling himself down at the root of the nearest tree. The leaves might bestrew him, and soil gradually accumulate and form a little hillock over his frame, no matter whether there were life in it or no. (p. 164)

Illustrating the detrimental condition he was in, this quotation also talks about how his guilt is deteriorating his mental and physical state. However, Dimmesdale changed since “[l]ove… must always create a sunshine.” (p. 177) Because of that, it was “bright in Hester’s eyes and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (p. 177) The transformation occurred because of a change of principles; originally, Dimmesdale was uncertain about confessing his guilt and only a shell of a man, but then Dimmesdale, who now was more than just a shell, was set on confessing after the couple decided to escape on the next boat to Europe. Not only was his personality changed, but when he came out of the forest, his principles differed significantly. Like the title of the chapter, Dimmesdale demonstrated throughout Chapter 20: The Minister in the Maze that he is in the maze of his capricious identity and beliefs. One account told that he was tempted to tell a recent female convert to his church of his newfound insight that he gained from his trip to the forest, but decides not to because he indolently believes the church can still bring salvation. Another account said that he was teaching children profanity as an answer to the harsh reality. These accounts show his former principles have came into question after his forest excursion. Finally, in regards to Pearl, she is the most intimately related to nature of all the protagonists. From being described by her mother as an “elf-child” to a wild child of nature because “the child could not be made amenable to rules” and in her “there was a certain trait of passion.” (p. 83) Pearl is usually described with nature in most instances like when Hester sees her in the forest and says “she has made the simple flowers adorn her” (p. 181) and “the beauty that became every day more brilliant, and the intelligence that threw its quivering sunshine over the tiny features of this child.” (p. 81-82) These portrayals are considered auspicious in nature’s viewpoint. But by the end of the novel, she barely relates with nature at all and is rather favorable in society’s perspective because of “becoming the rich heiress of her day, in the New World… [and was] at a marriageable period of life.” (p. 255) Having a cornucopia of material wealth, along with a husband, Pearl has been completely disconnects from nature. Changes in the characters’ behavior and beliefs are portrayed by nature throughout The Scarlet Letter.

In conclusion, nature has played its very vital role in the story by affecting and describing every one of the characters in The Scarlet Letter. Nature had assisted the narrator in portraying the different state of minds the characters were in, and was effectively used as a literary device. Without nature, The Scarlet Letter could not portray the story as much intensity or fervency as it could with nature. Nature has been brilliantly wounded into a story of sin and passion to flawlessly execute a great tale.


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