Johnson explores how "nature and the wilderness,..., became the transplanted Puritans enemy."
In "The Scarlet Letter and the Puritans" (38-41), Johnson explores
how "nature and the wilderness, which represented the dark evil in human life,
became the transplanted Puritans enemy." She alludes to Hawthorne's description
of the enduring qualities of the wilderness in "Main Street." Johnson discusses
Hester's option to banish herself into the safe haven of the Indian community,
Pearl's "uncontrollable" wildness, Chillingworth's reliance on "noxious weeds
to make medicines the way the Indians have taught him to," and Hester's suggestion
to Dimmesdale that they "escape into the wilderness" to be free of the judgment
and oppression of the Puritans. (courtesy of Greenwood
[NOTE: Numbers in parentheses in Johnson's text refer to the Signet Classic edition
of The Scarlet Letter (1959) ]
"In their defiance of the authority of the state-supported church in England, Puritans suffered imprisonment and even death, like many other rebels throughout the ages. Like many others, too, they became what they had once condemned.
OLD WORLD CIVILIZATION AND NEW WORLD WILDERNESS IN THE SCARLET LETTER
Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall pitch my tent.
The Scarlet Letter, 80
Ironically, these Puritans, who were rebels in the old civilization, attempted
to enforce that same civilization on the pristine new world to which they
fled. Nature and the wilderness, which represented the dark evil in human
life, became the transplanted Puritan's enemy, and The Scarlet Letter
is in large measure the story of the Puritans' tragic struggle against nature.
In a real sense, the novel's wilderness setting makes it one of our early
'westerns.' Outlaws (the pirates, for example) frequent the town. Indians
live all around the town. And there is the ever-present dark forest out of
which the Puritans have carved something like a frontier town. It is a place
where Chillingworth and others, like the characters who fled to the American
West, could possibly lose their old identities and take up new ones. So Chillingworth
leaves behind his old identity as Mr. Prynne, Hester's husband and a prominent
European scholar, and becomes Roger Chillingworth, who just appears in town
from out of nowhere without a past.
The wilderness in the New World is synonymous with nature in the extreme, untouched by civilizing forms and institutions such as established churches and governments, creeds and laws, as Europe knew them. The wilderness of the New World has both literal and symbolic meaning critical to an understanding of the novel. Wild, untamed nature surrounds and permeates the little settlement of Boston in which Hester and Dimmesdale live, and untamed nature as a symbol of a side of human character that the Puritans fear and reject resides within.
The Physical Reality of the American Wilderness
Consider first the physical reality of the wilderness as Hawthorne portrayed it
in The Scarlet Letter. Only a few years before the action of the novel
the Boston community had been carved from total wilderness, as Hawthorne describes
it in 'Main Street.' Hawthorne speculates in his short story that a Puritan
arriving in Massachusetts for the first time would find it hard to believe that
a town could ever grow from this wilderness:
Can it be that the thronged street of a city will ever pass into this twilight solitude, -over those soft heaps of the decaying tree-trunks,-and through the swampy places, green with water-moss,-and penetrate that hopeless entanglement of great trees, which have been uprooted and tossed together by a whirlwind! It has been a wilderness from the creation. Must it not be a wilderness forever?
In The Scarlet Letter he writes of the New World as a 'forestland, still
so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and wanderer' (84). The harshness of the
surrounding area outside the town itself meant that the punishment of banishment
was often a death sentence--survival was psychologically and physically impossible.
The Puritans that Edward Johnson and William Bradford write about left an old
and well-established civilization behind them when they set foot in Massachusetts.
Hester feels this loss of a civilized home as well: 'the village of rural England,
where happy infancy and stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother's
keeping' (84). When the Puritans first arrived, they had almost none of the
material comforts of civilization: most had no shelters at all, no furniture,
no church buildings, no roads or paths, no domestic animals, no familiar vegetation
in this place largely untouched by European society. As historian and early
settler Johnson describes it, they had to struggle with a state of nature so
wild that they had difficulty even walking through the terrain. At times, Bradford
re- ports, it appeared that the wilderness would swallow them up. Even at the
time of the story, probably between 1640 and 1645, emigrants from England feel,
as Chillingworth does, that the New World settlement is a 'wild outskirt of
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.
The reader is reminded of the threatening presence of the frontier when occasionally Indians, those inhabitants of the wilderness, visit the town, as they do on the day Hester is made to stand on the scaffold. On this same day, Chillingworth emerges on the scene from the wilderness where he has lived with Indians. In the words of a townsman who speaks to Chillingworth on this occasion, we see a contrast between what was regarded as the lawless nature of the wilderness and the harsh and oppressive rules of civilization. The man assumes that Chillingworth, having been so long in the forest, will be reassured to know that in this civilized community harsh punishments are meted out for breaking the law:
'Truly, friend; and methinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness,' said the townsman, 'to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people; as here in our godly New England.'
Chillingworth, the old alchemist, brings some of that wilderness with him into town, as he gathers noxious weeds to make medicines the way the Indians have taught him to. We see too that while the Indians in the frontier surrounding the town teach something of their wild culture to Chillingworth, another Puritan, the Reverend John Eliot, attempts to subdue their wildness by teaching them about the Christian religion.
Nature and Lawlessness
In addition to its existence as a physical and spiritual symbol, the wilderness assumes importance in the novel as the setting for Hester's private confrontation with Dimmesdale, who meets her on the way back from his visit with the missionary to the Indians, the Reverend Eliot. Before the meeting, Hester and Pearl follow a path that leads them out of Boston into deep wilderness: the path 'straggled onward into the mystery of the primeval forest ... black and dense on either side,' so dense in fact that they can scarcely see the sky (175). When Dimmesdale appears, the three of them leave the path and glide 'back into the shadow of the woods' (181). The implications of their meeting in the wilderness are numerous, but the chief one is perhaps the most obvious: that here they will be hidden and can say and do things that the Puritans would call lawless.
Hester's first suggestion to Dimmesdale at this meeting is that the three of them escape into the wilderness:
Does the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backwards to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step! until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man's tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?
The forest inspires her to think that they can be free of both the Puritans and their moral code. She is suggesting the unthinkable: that they live together outside the bonds of matrimony."