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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Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)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" (p. 82) Pennell explains how thematically Nature plays a complex role The Scarlet Letter; specifically, Pennell shows nature both as comfort to lonely Pearl and a reflection or mirror of Pearl's untamed, "heathen" spirit.
"In addition to developing themes that focus upon the nature of individuals and their experiences in the world, Hawthorne considers issues that reflect a wider scope, especially the tensions that exist between nature and culture. For Hawthorne, nature itself presents ambiguities. It can appear sympathetic to the human condition, such as the rose at the prison door, 'a token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind' (158). Nature brings solace to Pearl in her moments of loneliness, reflecting the romantic belief that nature offers a healing balm to the human spirit. But Hawthorne also describes 'that wild, heathen Nature, of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth' (293) Thus nature is never all positive or negative but manifests the very ambiguity that Hawthorne manipulates in his fiction.

The word subjugated reflects the attitude of Puritans (and the later American culture that endorsed westward expansion) toward nature. Nature must be brought under human control, ordered, cultivated, and tamed. The Puritans feared unregulated human nature; they held the same views toward physical nature. As long as that nature remains wilderness, it is a place of chaos and danger. Those who inhabit this wilderness are also in need of regulations and illumination, thus the missionary work of figures like Eliot. The tensions between a wild and a cultivated nature reflect the tensions between what Hawthorne sees as two sides of the self. One retains the impulses and instincts characteristic of natural beings; the other reflects the socializing power of culture and its institutions" (82).




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