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Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:

Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)

In "The Scarlet Letter and the Puritans" (pp.39-40) Johnson describes how Hester and Pearl are always outside civilization on the edge of the wilderness and how this causes Pearl to be wild and "uncontrollable."

The Encircling Wilderness in The Scarlet Letter

"By the time Hester's story takes place, some fifteen to twenty years after the first settlers arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans have cleared the wilderness away to make several towns, among them Boston and Salem, the home of Hawthorne's ancestors. The setting may be the town, but the reader is always made aware of the encircling wilderness in many ways. From the first we see that Hester has the option of leaving the community and living with the Indians in the wilderness, where she will be out of reach of Puritan punishment and humiliation: 'having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her' (83). That she resists the temptation to flee into the heart of the wilderness seems indicative of her determination not to give in to the wildness within herself. So instead she and Pearl are banished from the heart of the small village to a hut on the edge of the wilderness to signify that Hester has broken a law of civilization and is constantly in danger of becoming wild and one with the wilderness.

Characters Who Belong to the Wilderness

Under these circumstances, Pearl, who 'could not be made amenable to rules' (93), thus grows up being more at home in the forest than in the town, where she and her mother are both considered to be freaks. Like the wilderness, she is uncontrollable" (39-40).

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