Symbolism Of Forest And The Scarlet Letter

In the Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne discusses the hurdles Hester Prynne, the protagonist, goes through due to her sinful nature with her child, the mocking Puritans, and the past always creeping up on her. Often these obstacles appear when she is in the forest, making it a very critical locality in the book. Nathaniel Hawthorne brilliantly uses symbolism to convey how the three main aspects of the forest—the stream, the logs, and the sunshine— all correlate to the Scarlet A that Hester wears on her chest.

In the beginning of the novel, the scarlet letter is seen as a symbol of Hester great sin of adultery and the child she has thence bared. Hester has always seen the scarlet letter as a shameful symbol of her sins she has made. Yet Pearl, Hester’s daughter, matures only knowing her mother with the scarlet letter and loving her for it. Pearl grows to love the A so much that she her self tries to duplicate it, “As the last touch to her mermaid’s garb, Pearl took some eelgrass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s A letter- the letter A- but freshly green, instead of scarlet” (Hawthorne 155).

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The scarlet letter has become a significant symbol in Pearl’s life and she cannot bare the thought of not having it. This deep attachment to the A leads Pearl to desiring one for herself. In one instance she had a fit about it by, “Stamping her foot, wildly gesticulating and, in the midst of it all, still points its small forefinger at Hester’s bosom” (183).

Unlike the Puritans, Pearl views the scarlet letter in a very positive way, as a symbol to represent her mother, or rather her family. As a result of this profound attachment to the A, Pearl cannot stand seeing her mother without it. Pearl immediately realizes when Hester doesn’t wear the scarlet letter and quickly becomes in a distraught state. She refuses to cross the stream, to join her mother until the letter is put back on.

The stream remains as an obstacle between the two. Hester feels that by putting back on the letter and crossing back over the stream she will be rejoining her life of impurity and shame. Yet, Pearl is very stubborn, and Hester has to give in. Both of these key events occur in the stream, making it represent a critical place in the book of the scarlet letter’s symbolism.

As a result of having the A on her chest, Hester Prynne is prone to abundant amounts of mocking from the Puritans. As most can imagine, Hester must feel multitudes of stress and self-hatred by being marked with the A, and as a result, wants to find a safe and quiet place to escape. The log in the forest is just that place for Hester. This is where she can escape the raw disdain, provoking commentary, and looks of disapproval in the townspeople.

One day, while sitting upon the log, Hester felt so free from the scarlet A’s torment that she tore it from her chest, “The past is gone! Wherefore should we linger upon it now? See! With this symbol, I undo it all, and make it as it had never been” (176). Because Hester experiences continual torment from the Puritans and frustration by keeping secret the identities of her husband and father of Pearl, she feels drawn to the Scarlet A. To her this is a way of saying she regrets everything she has done and wants the past to be taken away; she yearns to be released from her conscious.

She desires a long awaited peace. While sitting on the log, Hester analyzes the forest, realizing that it has it has its own secrets too. She thinks to herself, “All these giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing, perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of the pool.” (168). Hawthorne’s strong use of personification in the forest shows a suppressed side of the forest linked Hester’s scarlet letter that the readers have never seen. Both have secrets that supposedly would have been horrible if they had been revealed.

A final, and possibly most important, aspect of the forest is the sunshine. The sunshine seems to interact with Hester’s A. Pearl, fascinated with the A, talks about many times is the sunlight and how it dislikes the A on her mother’s chest, “Mother, the sunshine doesn’t love you. It runs away and hides itself” (160). Pearl points out in a moment of curiosity that the light always runs away and hides from Hester.

Most believe that Hawthorne’s intent of this was to illustrate a symbol of God’s light of purity and how it runs away from Hester’s sin, marked on her by the scarlet letter. To furthermore prove this theory, the sunshine almost immediately runs back to Hester when the A is removed, “All at once as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest and gleaming everywhere” (177).

Many things suddenly seem to change after removing the A, the sunshine runs to Hester, rather than hiding in the shadows from her sin. Without the A, the sunshine, a clear symbol of her new purity, leaps out to shine on her and bestows a new beauty. Hester is flooded with light, joy, and peace. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbolism to convey how the three main aspects of the forest—the stream, the log, and the sunshine— to marvelously link the attributes of the forest to the scarlet letter A that Hester wears on her chest. With this symbolism, we as the readers are challenged to get to a deeper level meaning or rather understanding of the feelings the A invokes in both Hester and Pearl. Hawthorne reveals the beauty of digging deeply into literature to find a connection to something the reader can literally see as the words of the novel are read.

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