Johnson focuses on the wilderness as the domain of the Black man
In "The Scarlet Letter and the Puritans" (42), Johnson focuses on
the wilderness as the domain of the Black man or devil. Symbolically, "it is
a place of loneliness, terror, the unknown, rebellion, palpable evil, mystery,
lawlessness, unbridled joy, pleasure, emotion, and sexuality." Johnson explains
how Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl's behaviors and personalities
are symbolically reinforced by their sojourns in the wilderness and their departures
from the wilderness.(courtesy of Greenwood Press).
[NOTE: Numbers in parentheses in Johnson's text refer to the Signet Classic edition
of The Scarlet Letter (1959) ]
The Wilderness as the Devil's Domain
"The wilderness, however, is not just a secret meeting place for lovers, where they can dream of freedom from bondage; it is seen by the Puritans as the home of Satan and the meeting place of his disciples, the witches. When old Mistress Hibbins talks of the forest, it becomes synonymous with witches and Satan, who is called the Black Man. When she invites Hester to join with the witches, she makes this identification in saying, 'There will be a merry company in the forest; and I well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one' (116). She makes the same connection in telling Dimmesdale when he returns from meeting Hester: "So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the forest, ' the place where, she assumes, he will eventually receive "a fair reception from yonder potentate,' meaning the devil (208). And Pearl repeats the folk wisdom that connects the devil with the wilderness when she talks to her mother, who is waiting for Dimmesdale to appear on the path: she asks Hester to tell her a story of the Black Man- 'how he haunts this forest' (177). Pearl also tells her mother that she heard an old woman of the town say that Hester meets the Black Man 'here in the dark wood' (177).
The Wilderness as Symbolic
Obviously, the wilderness is more than an actual place; the narrator clearly invites
the reader to view it as symbolic and pervasive. Even as Hester waits for Dimmesdale
before the forest scene, the narrator says that the black and dense forest 'imaged
not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering' (175).
Throughout The Scarlet Letter, the various references to the wilderness
imbue it with distinct and consistent characteristics. It is a place of loneliness,
terror, the unknown, rebellion, palpable evil, mystery, lawlessness, unbridled
joy, pleasure, emotion, and sexuality. Here people like Dimmesdate and Hester
can give way at least momentarily to the wilderness within themselves. Given
these characteristics, it is appropriate that the evil man, Chillingworth, should
emerge from the forest; that Hester, who has broken a divine law, should live
on the edge of the wilderness; and that her child, who seems to know no bounds
and is a child of nature, should feel so at home there."