In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, life is centered around a rigid Puritan society in which one is unable to divulge his or her innermost thoughts and secrets. Every human being needs the opportunity to express how he or she truly feels; otherwise the emotions are bottled up until they become volatile. Unfortunately, Puritan society did not permit this kind of expression; thus characters had to seek alternate means to relieve their personal anguishes and desires. Luckily, at least for the four main characters, Hawthorne provides such a sanctuary in the form of the mysterious forest. Hawthorne uses the forest to provide a kind of “shelter” for members of society in need of a refuge from daily Puritan life.
In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the pivotal characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. The forest track leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization vanish. This is precisely the escape route from strict mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up and be themselves. It is here that Dimmesdale openly acknowledges Hester and his undying love for her. It is also here that Hester can do the same for Dimmesdale. Finally, it is here that the two of them can openly engage in conversation without being preoccupied with the constraints that Puritan society places on them.
The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior, thus it is here that people may do as they wish. To independent spirits such as Hester Prynne’s, the wilderness beckons her: Throw off the shackles of law and religion. What good have they done you anyway? Look at you, a young and vibrant woman, grown old before your time. And no wonder, hemmed in, as you are, on every side by prohibitions. Why, you can hardly walk without tripping over one commandment or another. Come to me, and be masterless. (p.186)
Truly, Hester takes advantage of this, when Arthur Dimmesdale appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdale about subjects that would never be mentioned in any place other than the forest. “What we did…” she reminds him, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said to each other!” This statement shocks Dimmesdale and he tells Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an environment where he can openly express his emotions. The thought of Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate conversation in the confines of the society in which they live is incomprehensible. Yet here, in the forest, they can throw away all reluctance and finally be themselves under the umbrella of security that exists.
In Puritan society, self-reliance is stressed among many other things. However, self-reliance is more than stressed- it is assumed. It is assumed that you need only yourself, and therefore should have no emotional necessity for a “shoulder to cry on”. Once again, for people in the stations of life which Hester and Dimmesdale hold, it would be unthinkable for them to comfort each other. Yet, in the forest, these cares are tossed away. “Be thou strong for me,” Dimmesdale pleads. “Advise me what to do.” (p. 187) This is a cry for help from Dimmesdale, finally admitting he cannot go through this ordeal by himself. With this plea comes an interesting sort of role-reversal. When Dimmesdale asks for help, he is no longer sustaining the belief that he is above Hester. He is finally admitting that she is an equal, or even that she is above him. This is possibly one of the reasons that Puritans won’t accept these emotional displays- because the society is so socially oriented. Hester, assuming a new position of power, gives a heartfelt, moving speech. The eloquence of her words cannot be overemphasized, and a more powerful statement had yet to be made in the book. Hester’s speech turns out to bear a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale’s sermons. “Begin all anew! … Preach! Write! Act!”(p. 188) The questions she asks are also like the articulate questions which Dimmesdale would pose during his sermons. The answer is obvious, yet upon closer examination they seem to give unexpected results. “Whither leads yonder forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yea; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper into the wilderness… until, some few miles hence, the yellow leave will show no vestige of the white man’s tread.” (p. 187) If one looks at the title of this chapter, the meaning becomes much clearer. “The Pastor and His Parishioner” reveals that the roles are now reversed. Where else could an incongruity such as this occur, but in an accepting environment? What other platform is there for a man of high regard in the community to pour his soul to a woman who is shunned by the public for a grave sin? Nowhere else but in the forest could such an event occur.
Finally, the forest brings out the natural appearance and natural personality of the people who use it correctly. When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, we see a new person. We see the real Hester, who has been hidden this whole time under a shield of shame. Her eyes grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek. We recognize her as the Hester from Chapter 1. The beautiful, attractive person who is not afraid to show her hair and not afraid to display her beauty. The sunlight, which previously shunned Hester, now seeks her out, and the forest seems to glow. Dimmesdale has also come back to life, if only for a short time, and he is now hopeful and energetic. We have not seen this from Dimmesdale for a long time, and most likely will not see it ever again.
Puritan society can be harsh and crippling to one’s inner self. Hawthorne created the forest to give the characters a place to escape and express their true thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. It was here that thoughts and ideas flowed as endlessly as the babbling brook, and emotion was as wild as the forest itself. There are no restraints in the natural world, because it is just that, natural. No intrusion from people means no disturbance in the natural order, and therefore serves to bring its inhabitants away from their world, and into this older one.