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The Aspects Of Wilderness In The Narratives The Scarlet Letter And Ethan Frome

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Within the American novella, authors such as Hawthorne and Wharton value the presence of the wilderness in their respective narratives, but to differing levels. The representation of wilderness within the authors’ narratives is used to express the inner most feelings of their characters, whilst being simultaneously presented as a physical threat that shapes the lives of others. Wilderness poses as something to be feared and is characterised in a hostile way, emphasising how some characters are in fact inextricable from the ‘wild’ that surrounds them. The concept of wilderness is ambiguous in itself: it is not an entirely natural concept but more of a human social construction. Its meaning is confused to a point where there is no definitive description, yet when applied to certain aspects within The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, a whole range of interpretations are evoked. The wilderness, in some respects, can be seen as something to be preserved and treasured, whilst also being this obstacle that influences the individual to make bad choices, challenging the society that they find themselves in. We find that the wilderness is, by extension, a part of nature and the natural world, however, this essay will offer a close analysis of both narratives and the kind of wilderness that is present within. We find in Wharton’s narrative that, whilst there are many descriptions that convey the significance of nature and the landscape to the lives and feelings of the characters, Wharton’s gothic writing style illuminates how the wilderness is interpreted as a fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar; enforced through Frome’s incapacity to adjust his life for the better.

Upon reading the opening of The Scarlet Letter we are introduced to the setting of the narrative within Boston, set in the New World. The chapter opens in a mysterious manner which primarily describes the significance of a prison cell surrounded by the natural environment. The foliage around the prison cell acts with agency, growing and spreading over the cell, almost as if it is trying to consume the cell itself and make it part of the natural world. This suggests how nature is acting as a kind of liberating force against the errors of society within the landscape. The prison is even described as this: “black flower of civilised society” [37] connoting a kind of hostility towards what the Old World offers to the new landscape: material comforts, law and order, justice. We find that the wilderness that exists around Boston is almost trying to fight back against this and preserve uncorrupted ideals in the New World. The shrubbery and overgrowth on the prison cell even has: “a wild-rose bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems […] offer[ing] their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner” [37] demonstrating how nature can offer a sense of comfort whilst simultaneously acting in implied “pity” for Hester; this “condemned criminal”. As a whole, the “black flower” and “rose bush” contrasts Puritanism’s judgement with the forgiving aspect of the wilderness. That being said, the wilderness seems to act in compassion towards Hester, as if trying to break her bonds to a society she wishes to be freed from. This reflects not only her difference towards the other Puritans but the fact that she is one that “roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods” [150]. This demonstrates how her appreciation of nature is alike to “the wild Indian” indicating how this comparison proposes that Hester has the same conceptualisation of the landscape. The Puritans’ idea of the wild is something that does not contain the same ideals and values as their own, yet the argument can be made that what they deem is ‘civilised’ is interpreted by the Indians to be entirely unnatural and ‘wild’ all the same. This links back to this social convention of what the wilderness is seemingly defined as, given that it is much more feasible to see that it is the thought of the unknown that is truly mystifying and dangerous. Only through the wilderness is Hester’s mind unshackled; she no longer conforms to the laws of her town. As a result we see that she has changed later on in the narrative, revealed when she is interpreted as a woman now “foreign to the clergymen” [149]. This is expressed further through Hester’s need to escape the pressures of the civilisation she is under, as the woods enables freethinking and freedom, which she would not find under the watchful and intrusive eyes of the town. The wilderness acts as this safeguard to Hester and Dimmesdale, their idyllic homeland to which they can be hidden from Puritan law. It is also the place that they are able to rekindle their love for one another, as here they find the strength and unity they seek. The wilderness eliminates the existence of their lawful world, naturally bringing them together where the town seeks to separate and divide, which is wholly unnatural. When both Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest, the text offers this as the pivotal moment in which the rebellious lovers finally agree to flee from their Puritan world. However, this romanticisation within the wild could just be a fulfilment of Puritan belief of the perils that lay in wait in the forest. This is expressed when Pearl refers to “the Black Man […] he [who] haunts the forest” [138-139]. Though we are not given an exact description, Pearl indicates that it is the forest that the Devil owns, and that they are entering a territory that has entirely been drenched in Puritan imagination as a landscape that can corrupt the individual. In this sense then, both Hester and Dimmesdale are buying into the Puritan belief even though they believe they are escaping it. When they flee “the gloom of the earth and the sky [that] had been the effluence of these two mortal hearts, […] vanished with their sorrow” [152] indicates hopeful imagery of their divergence from the Old World into a more prosperous one. Though Hawthorne interweaves the romantic in this, there is the suggestion that Hester and Dimmesdale are abiding to the laws of the wilderness. They believe their escape will bring them solace, but this alludes to the overarching idea of man not being able to form a mutual relationship with both nature and the society they belong to. The essential point within Hawthorne’s narrative is this requirement of finding a balance between society and nature, so that the individual can benefit and progress forward. For characters like Hester and Dimmesdale, this is unachievable due to their isolation. We even see the impacts this has on people like Dimmesdale who becomes “a man sore sick” through the eyes of the physician [102]. He is even described to be “pale”, which suggests Dimmesdale’s refusal to accept his natural affinities, resulting in physical ailments that he develops as the narrative pushes on.

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After meeting with Hester, Dimmesdale cannot help but feel that: “The pathway among the woods seemed wilder, more uncouth with its rude natural obstacles, and less trodden by the foot of man” [161-162]. We see a strange change in attitude to Dimmesdale’s perspective of the forest as he now seems to envisage it in a hostile way. His attitude sinks back into the Puritan mind-set of viewing the wilderness as the proposed idea of what it was believed to illustrate. It is through his leaving of Hester and Pearl in the forest that this sense of isolation from society sinks in further, as he even indicates that he is in a state, both physically and mentally, where he cannot separate himself from the civilised world. The narrator draws attention to “the clergyman’s health, so inadequate to sustain the hardships of forest life” that his very being would only “secure him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement; the higher the state, the more delicately adapted to it the man” [161]. Dimmesdale insinuates the impracticality of living in the confines of the Indian wilderness in New England. Their want to escape the laws of their society are largely instigated by their sinful actions, yet where the forest is deemed as a safe haven to their crimes, they accept that the modern world is far more “eligible”. Such a meeting could not have taken place within their society as they would have been caught and punished, making the forest the perfect area to discuss their plans. However, this links to this detrimental effect of prioritising either nature or society over the other. They cannot live in the wilderness as they fear they will struggle to survive and be found, yet it is the only place they are able to meet in secret. They cannot bring themselves to give over entirely to nature as they find that they can live out their lives within Bristol. This confirms how there is no exclusive want for one or the other, nature or society, and Hester and Dimmesdale are the prime communicators in that giving in to one or the other would inevitably harm them. A dependency on both is what is needed to reach some kind of equilibrium, but this is a balance people like Hester are incapable of finding, leading to her eventual isolation. The same can be said for Rodger Chillingworth, a physician whose intellectual ability in medicine is informed by Indian remedies used in the wild. His isolation comes from an inability to empathise with the other characters, which reveals him as a man dictated by his own intelligence, resulting in his disregard for the feelings of others. In this regard, Chillingworth becomes out of touch with his own humanity and so is unable to strike an emotional connection with the natural world that surrounds him. His own needs are prioritised and so he uses the medicinal power of the herbs provided by the wild to elicit in his patients a sense of trust: “He was known to be a man of skill; […] gather[ing] herbs and the blossoms of wild-flowers […] like one acquainted with hidden virtues in what was valueless to common eyes” [90-91]. Chillingworth is placed in a position of power, mostly because of his “skill” that has been tailored in recognising the flora of the New World, which people are unfamiliar with. The wilderness helps in his deceptive efforts which arguably disassociate him with the beauty and fertility that the natural world represents. Chillingworth decays over time and requires the vitality of others to live on in order to achieve his end goal. In this sense then, he becomes a leech, and instead of attempting to provide substantial care with the skill that he possesses, he feeds off the misery of Dimmesdale. He is a man who consumes the life of others for sustainability, rather than working to provide life, as nature does.

This sense of wilderness changes within Wharton’s narrative as, in Ethan Frome, the reader meets the titular character and quickly learns that he is one who has “been in Starkfield too many winters” [34]. We later learn this is due to his moral obligations, such as his father’s death and Zeena’s apparent illness. The narrator even brings our attention to “the storms of February […] pitch[ing] their white tents […] and the wild cavalry of March winds” [35], which suggests a kind of hopeless landscape to which Ethan is contained within. Winter acts with a relentless agency here, as it suggests a kind of inescapable hell, one that Ethan ironically feels incapable of living outside of. He is separated from the modern world, cut off from his potential dreams and potential life alongside Mattie as Starkfield’s residents are almost described to be at the mercy of nature. However, it is this same feeling of the unknown that Frome perhaps feels afraid of encountering. To him, this is the essence of a wilderness that he is unfamiliar with; a wilderness he envisages is the modern world outside of Starkfield. It is even described to the reader just how much Ethan is associated to the landscape itself “[he is] a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface” [38]. He is empty and shackled to his surroundings; encompassing the very winter that consumes the town and its citizens. Frome lacks the courage and the determination to make something of his life, which is reflected through the coldness of his character. This constitutes to his inability to correct his ways and runaway with Mattie, as he lives in constant fear of the consequences of betraying his wife and dishonouring his family. Ethan never changes because of this, yet we do find pockets of his desires led through his emotions towards Mattie. Ethan “looked at her hair and longed to touch it again, and tell her that it smelt of the woods, but he never learned to say such things” [103]. This idea of nature, which creeps into the description here, gives insight not only to Ethan’s inability of demonstrating his feelings but also to the landscape, the woods, as something he holds in great care, as he does for Mattie. Despite the landscape having such hostile imagery proposed to us by the narrator, we do find that the nature in Starkfield holds large emotional significance to Ethan. He perhaps treasures Mattie like he treasures the landscape; though it is his prison it is the only place he feels he can belong to. Mattie being contained within Ethan’s known environment reflects a shred of the desire within Ethan to pursue his goals. However, this gives out a false sense of security and hope that Ethan is capable of change; the tragic idea of his nature is carved through his isolation which works in a similar fashion to that of Hester and Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s narrative. This is perhaps extended further through the New England setting and the Puritan communal beliefs that affected the individual during the time. The wilderness to the educated man in such a society is that which is not taught in the same social sphere, which is the same isolation that Ethan inevitably becomes a victim of.

The weather and the landscape within the narrative are tightly woven into the feelings of the characters, so much so that the two are synonymous with each other. Nature, and the nature of each individual, come together as one in the same, shown especially through Ethan’s character development, which is as unchanging as the weather and cold that persists within Starkfield. This particular use of Wharton’s writing style helps the reader grasp a more concrete portrayal of the kind of emotions and natures of her characters that she wishes to display in the narrative. When Ethan and Mattie speak to each other outside of the home, their true selves are drawn out and we witness the truth of their feelings when they are alone: “They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars” [52]. We are drawn to the fact that nature here, specifically the woods they stand within, is a place considered not wild but comforting to them. Ethan and Mattie’s entrapment within Starkfield has eliminated this sense of vulnerability outside of their town’s community. Like Hester and Dimmesdale, Ethan and Mattie are able to free themselves of the strains of their monotonous lifestyles and enjoy the company of one another alongside nature. This ‘empty world’ that seems to surround them emphasises the intensity of their exchanges, like nothing else is able to interrupt them and they see themselves as the only ones united in a hopeless setting. It is also interesting to note that ‘the gloom of the spruces’ enables such an interaction between Ethan and Mattie. The darkness that covers their meeting together, created by the trees, suggests how the natural landscape is almost aiding their encounters by injecting this feeling of hope that the two will realise their emotions and escape. What may be the wilderness to other residents within the town is a known and emotionally significant area to Ethan; helping with his way of coping in his frozen hell. Ethan realises that this moment is special, as he “would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness” [52], as it is one of their very few moments together where he is able to separate himself from the reality of their situation. These moments of romantic suspension between the two recognises the wider tragedy that their love will ultimately be unfulfilled and blockaded by their own flaws. With this, the reader is perhaps able to see that Wharton could be instilling an optimistic outcome for Frome through nature’s representation as a safe haven for their love to flourish. However, this creates the illusion within the narrative that the nature in Starkfield is benign. We are inevitably drawn back to the fact that Ethan is a prisoner to his landscape, as even “the Frome gravestones […] mocked his recklessness, his desire for change and freedom” [54]. The fact these are gravestones that contain his past family members, where they seem to ‘mock’ Ethan’s hopeful outlook on a brighter future, further highlights the tragic element of his inevitable fate. Starkfield is woven into his heart and is therefore a part of his very own self, though he still roams the landscape without a definitive direction. This being said, then, as one can lose themselves in the woods, so too is Ethan lost within the wilds of his society with no end goal. The gravestones symbolise that nothing will save him from the same fate, but if that means being locked in the same position as Mattie, perhaps being lost together for Ethan is far better than being isolated entirely.

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The Aspects Of Wilderness In The Narratives The Scarlet Letter And Ethan Frome. (2021, September 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from
“The Aspects Of Wilderness In The Narratives The Scarlet Letter And Ethan Frome.” Edubirdie, 03 Sept. 2021,
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