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The Scarlet Letter: Puritan Law versus Nature

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is more complex than a simplistic story of an adulterous woman. Nonetheless, if we study the piece in depth, we will find different points of view standing out. Due to its complexity, which makes it a great piece of the American Romantic Literature, it has been given several interpretations. The novel set in New England shows how the puritan community judges Hester Prynne by her act of adultery. The patriarchs decide to punish her, forcing Hester to wear a letter “A” in her bosom, something imposed against nature. Thus, here we readers appreciate that within the novel there is a tension between two atmospheres, law and nature. Arthur Dimmesdale and the fathers of the Community take the role of law, acting as an oppressive society. Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, find in nature certain freedom, out of the constraints and repression of the Puritan Community.

The first contradiction between nature and civilization comes from the contrasting of the rose-bush and the prison. The fact that a prison and a cemetary are both the first things to be built in the town reflects the attitude of the Community. The prison represents the injustice of the puritans. It is depicted as a dark and gloomy place. This blackish color and an austere atmosphere are used too when Hawthorne describes first to the puritans: “A throng of bearded men, in sad coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats […], was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes (35) . It allows us to perceive an “obscure halo” surrounding them. The prison itself is also presented as the black flower of civilized society. In totally opposition to this black flower brought by the civilization, we find a rose-bush which represents the freedom of the nature. This rose-bush encourages the sinner to find the truth in nature. It symbolizes the passions and desires and how the freedom of human nature is imprisoned by the society. It also represents the kindness and forgiveness of the nature, in opposition to the pitiless Puritan Community.

Throughout the plot, Hawthorne criticizes puritan beliefs because they prevent humankind from the freedom that nature provides. An oligarchy controls population’s activity using mainly religion as repression. They believed that they had the right of governing because of the doom that had led them to the New World. Hence, they had power over the community and Hawthorne criticise them in various occasions, as Baym asserts: “And, having treated the Puritans in a number of ways in his short stories and sketches, he fixed on a use for them as symbols of authority and repression in both society and the self”. (Baym, 1970: 209) So, they condemn Hester because she has acted behind the permissions of the Community. However, to punish her is not natural because she has committed an act of passion and love, when the “self” is out of any constraint: “But this had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose” (150). Moreover, the character of Arthur Dimmesdale is a reflection of the hypocrisy of the whole Community. Although Hester has been condemned and the entire colony has beheld her shame, he does not confess until the very last moment. It is because he perfectly knows that if he assumes the offence, he will be expelled of the “fathers” and his career will come to an end. Besides Arthur still believes that the suffering he maintains during those seven years will save him, as Baym comments: “His belief that he is being punished enables him to keep his guilt secret by pacifying his sense of justice”. (Baym, 1970: 227)

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Another proof of the clash between civilization and nature is Pearl. She escapes from the discomfort of society through nature. Pearl is an elf child and his natural habitat is the forest. She is neither good nor evil. Pearl is the offspring of the sin, so she must belong to nature’s world because she can not longer remain in the world of the law and community when she is the incarnation of the sin of her mother. Many passages in the novel describe her direct connexion with nature, and perhaps one of the most significant moments is when she is at the other side of the brook, this former dividing both worlds and she staying at the nature’s one. “I have a strange fancy”, observed the sensitive minister, “that this book is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again (156).

In addition, Hawthorne also uses Pearl’s character to empathise her childish attitude in front of a Puritan Community full of patterns and restrictions to follow, as Garlitz supports: “At present most people consider children amoral, and hence, for the majority of literary critics, “Pearl represents the unmorality of a child”, “childish irresponsibility in a moral world”. (Garlitz, 1957: 690) The character of Hester Prynn is capable of managing these two worlds. The “fathers” of the Community impose over her the letter “A” as a token of shame, but Hester reaches freedom as a woman even wearing it as a symbol of punishment. The letter A leads her towards a life that not every woman is awarded: “The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread”(150). As Doyle points out, since she is condemned, she has the possibility of raising her child alone, challenging the traditional patriarchal model of family: “Certainly, among its other effects, colonization created a margin of possibility for being single and for other sexual choices among Anglo women as well as Anglo men” […]. (Doyle, 2007: 265) She also challenges the community beautifully embroidering her letter as if she was proud of wearing it, which certainly she was: “What we did, had a consecration of its own. We felt it so!” (146).

Finally, we have analyzed how this two worlds drawn by Hawthorne differ, each of them embodied by characters and symbols. The Scarlet Letter introduces the debate between nature versus nurture, making the readers think about the oppression performed by the Puritan Community and the search of freedom within its possibilities by such a woman as Hester Prynne.

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