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Nature in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Nature plays a crucial role in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, 'The Scarlet Letter'. As a leading figure in the American Romantic movement, Hawthorne explores the empowering, healing, and restorative forces of nature.

The Natural World in The Scarlet Letter

Nature plays a vital role in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. The novel is set in a 1640's Puritan community dedicated to the purification of society through strict application of the Christian Gospels. The novel tells the story of Hester Prynne and her affair with Rev. Dimmesdale. Hawthorne highlights the hypocrisies, judgment, and immorality of the public life, juxtaposing the errors of civilization with the liberating power of nature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne

Healing Nature vs. Corrupting Civilization

As a Romantic, Hawthorne was skeptical of the forces of civilization. He feared its unquestioning belief in progress and those social institutions meant to improve and order our lives. For the Romantics, schools, governments, hospitals, and even churches all too often stifle individuality. They require submission and conformity, often resorting to brutality to achieve these.

Nature, on the other hand, is the source of eternal strength and power. It provides comfort, life, and healing to humans. We come from nature, and it is to nature that our bodies will return. In the novel, Hester Prynne reconnects with the spirit of nature, enabling her to rekindle her relationship with Dimmesdale. It is this spirit of nature that is so powerfully embodied in Hester's daughter Pearl.

The Town's Prying Eyes

In the Puritan world, there is no such thing as a separation between church and state. The government is the church, and the church is the government. Church law is virtually the only law in Hester's community. Thus when Hester violates church law through her affair, she violates the laws of the government. She is condemned to wear the scarlet letter signifying her sin for the rest of her life. She is excommunicated from the church and barred from respectable society. She is mocked, ridiculed, and shunned wherever she goes.

In Hester's community, the private is always public. The sins of one person threaten to bring down God's wrath on all. This is why Hester's punishment is such a public affair. It falls to the entire community to keep its members in line, which leads to hypocrisy, as we are led to think, feel, and behave in ways that are unnatural to our truest selves.

Hester and Pearl on the scaffold
Hester Prynne

The Seclusions of Nature

For the Romantics, nature is the antidote to the pressures of civilization. In the peaceful solitude of nature, a person can hear the still, soft voice of the soul. There, she can turn inward to find her truest self. This is the authentic self the Romantics celebrate, one not battered into uniformity and compliance by civilization.

The natural world enables Hester and Dimmesdale to rediscover themselves and their love. When they meet in the forest seven years after their affair, it is as though the condemnation of the town and its laws never existed. The ancient woods infuse the couple with peace and strength. The unity they feel when they are together in the forest is what is natural. The separation and shame that the town imposes are unnatural.

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