Johnson indicates how Hawthorne shows that the Puritans have persecuted
In "The Scarlet Letter and the Puritans" (43-44), Johnson indicates
how Hawthorne shows that the Puritans have persecuted and attacked witches and
Indians, trying to tame them. At the same time they attempt to falsely suppress
the wilderness in their nature, as exemplified by Dimmesdale, who briefly emerges
from his piousness to consider speaking cruelly to individuals from his congregation.
(courtesy of Greenwood Press).
[NOTE: Numbers in parentheses in Johnson's text refer to the Signet Classic edition
of The Scarlet Letter (1959) ]
"The Puritans Battle the Wilderness
The Puritan response to the wilderness is actually at the heart of the tragedy
of The Scarlet Letter. It is here that they have seen their future and
their past, their strengths and their overwhelming weaknesses. They have not
only carved a small civilized community out of the wilderness; they have been
compelled to combat or convert all the wilderness and all it represents to them-persecuting
those they see as witches, slaughtering the Indians or converting them, suppressing
natural joys and pleasures, negating all passion and mirth. The Puritans pretend
that their own civilization has not and should not have any of the elements
of the wilderness in it. They are, in fact, the enemies of nature and pretend
to embody everything that is the opposite of the wilderness and nature. To the
author of The Scarlet Letter, however, this is a mistake and a delusion.
A perfect example of this is Dimmesdale, a man who adopts the mantle of sainthood
instead of admitting that he is a human being with all the characteristics of
the wilderness as part of his human nature. The Puritans attempted to impose
their civilization on all of nature, and it was done with a certain amount of
violence. Instead of acknowledging the full range of their human nature, they
stressed society and civilization to an exaggerated degree. All that they embrace
is part of civilization: the church, religious education, intellect rather than
emotion, rigid forms and rules rather than freedom. Old age, associated with
civilization, rather than the youth of nature, rules in this Puritan society
in The Scarlet Letter. Note, for example, that they have already built
a prison, which the narrator labels 'the black flower of civilized society'
(57). All these characteristics of a civilization untaught by nature and supremely
rigid in construction can be summed up in the character of the Reverend Wilson:
'the eldest clergyman of Boston, a great scholar like most of his contemporaries
in the profession,' whose kind and genial spirit 'had been less carefully developed
than his intellectual gifts' (71). Of the Reverend Wilson the narrator writes:
'He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes
of sermons; and had no more right than one of those portraits would have, to
step forth, as he now did, and meddle with a question of human guilt, passion
and anguish' (71).
At the same time, however, despite their pretense that as a community and as individuals they have conquered and are free of the wildness of nature and all the unchained passion and mystery it represents, the wilderness lies there always, suppressed beneath the veneer of their civilization. The licentiousness-the unchained sexuality-and destructiveness beneath the surface of the pious-appearing Dimmesdale come once more to the surface after his walk in the forest. By this time the reader already knows that in the past Dimmesdale has committed adultery with Hester, a fact he has hidden while trying successfully to cultivate an image of himself as saintly. Here the natural impulses, associated with the wilderness, come to the surface of his 'civilized' character and become exaggerated, perhaps because they have for so long been suppressed: 'At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once in- voluntary and intentional' (205). He is tempted to say something blasphemous and terrifying to an old deacon and an old woman he meets on his way home from the forest. And when he encounters a young girl who adores him, he is tempted to make an indecent suggestion to her."