People have come a long way to turn our society purely reliant on technology. When the ideas of Romanticism spread across America in the 18th century, people began to reject industrial and technological progress, and instead praise nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a renown Romantic philosopher, heavily glorified nature in his works. He states, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!” (Emerson 5). Emerson criticizes people for taking the stars for granted. He mentions that people should appreciate the stars and nature as if they would only be able to see them as rarely as once in a thousand years, as he views nature as sublime. To further deepen Emerson’s critique of humanity, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, demonstrates that nature is utilized to criticize society—seen as unprincipled in Hawthorne’s eyes. Hawthorne utilizes the forest and the rosebush to suggest that nature serves as an area of peace, contrasting the strictness of a corrupt society.
The forest symbolizes refuge, and contrasts the strict restraints held by Puritan society. In order to speak with Dimmesdale, Hester ushers Pearl away, leaving the child by herself in the forest. The forest welcomes her with open arms: “The great black forest —stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom—became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how. Sombre as it was, it put on the kindest of its moods to welcome her” (Hawthorne 212). The forest openly welcomes Pearl, a child who is free from societal wrongdoing. The forest accepts the role as her playmate, and enables her to play freely within its bounds, away from the reality of harsh society. Furthermore, the forest glories Pearl; she is offered berries, and the animals are calm and greet her: “The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child” (Hawthorne 215). The forest is labeled as a “mother-forest,” portraying the forest as a maternal caregiver for both the inhabitants of the forest and Pearl. The forest serves as a sanctuary, supporting its plants and animals as an area where they can mature and live without feeling feeling the restricted laws of society. Additionally, the forest serves as a safe haven for those who have been affected by the unrelenting severity of society. After ushering Pearl away, Hester greets Dimmesdale in a deeper area of the forest, initiating a conversation concerning their future. Spontaneously, Hester suggests for them to escape Puritan Boston and return to England. Pleased by this idea, Dimmesdale feels free: “The decision once made, a glow of strange enjoyment threw its flickering brightness over the trouble of his breast. It was the exhilarating effect—upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart—of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region” (Hawthorne 209). The metaphor of the dungeon of the prisoner’s heart refers to the guilt felt within Dimmesdale for committing adultery. The forest, an “unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region” provides relief for his guilt, just as a prisoner who escaped the dungeon of his own heart would feel. Similarly, forest serves as a safe haven for Hester. After Dimmesdale cheerfully agrees with her plan of leaving Boston, Hester removes her scarlet letter of her chest: “The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom!” (210). With the removal of the scarlet letter, she undergoes relief and encounters freedom. The forest is the only area in which Hester could remove her burden of shame, serving as an area of refuge for Hester.
Additionally, the rosebush symbolizes peace for those who transgress harsh Puritan laws. The rosebush sits on the side of a prison, welcoming the prisoners of Puritan society: “But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a while rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token than the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him” (Hawthorne 50). The rose-bush is portrayed as a sign of pity to the prisoners who entered to prison. Nature treats the prisoners kindly, contrasting the Puritans’ attitudes, who view the prisoners as shameful offenders. The rose-bush provides relief to those who have been corrupted by harsh, Puritan laws, and therefore is shown as a sign of peace. Furthermore, the rose-bush instills morality into the prisoners of society. The rose-bush has been alive for a long duration: “This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history..It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne 10). Puritan society is criticized as “darkening” and is described as a “tale of human frailty and sorrow.” The rose-bush stands for a long time in history; a possible reason for this is its desire to provide morality to prisoners of society, as without it, violators of Puritan law would be deprived of hope.
Hawthorne suggests nature is a safe haven from an unprincipled society. By criticizing Puritan society, Hawthorne is able to deepen Emerson’s concept of nature as sublime, and society as corrupt. Emerson’s view on nature inspired many other Romantic philosophers, extending their beliefs on nature. However, in today’s world, people take nature for granted, hence global warming. People make significant industrial and technological progress, harming nature while doing so. Humankind has become more focused on societal needs for a corrupt society, rather than embracing nature and its glory.
- Atkinson, Brooks, editor. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Modern Library, 2000.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 1992.