There are two ways to talk about setting in The Scarlet Letter. One way is to look at the meaning or emotional overtones of specific places. A second and broader way is to examine the whole Puritan world in which Hawthorne has set his novel. Not just the time and place, Boston in the 1640s, but the values and beliefs that define Puritan society.
THE MARKET-PLACE AND THE FOREST
Far and away the most important scenes in The Scarlet Letter take place in two locations, the market-place and the forest. These are presented to us as very different places, reflecting very different human aspirations.
The market-place is public. It lies at the very heart of the tiny enclave of civilization the Puritans have managed to carve out of the vast, untouched continent. The market-place contains both the church and the scaffold- institutions of law and religion. It is where criminals like Hester are punished, where penitents like Dimmesdale confess, and where men put on the faces they wear for the world.
The forest, on the other hand, is dark and secret. It is where people come to let loose and be themselves. The forest track leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization vanish. The forest track is precisely the escape route from the dictates of law and religion to the promised land to the west where men can breathe free.
The market-place and the forest are symbols of the choice that confronts the major characters in the novel. The choice is not as simple as it seems.
For all its restraints, the market-place is safer and warmer than the forest. And you can’t get into so much trouble there. In the heart of the settlement, there is the comfort of values that are shared, of laws that are laid down and respected. Above all, there is the comfort of people who care.
The open air of the forest is exhilarating, but cold. Nothing is known in the wilderness, everything is up for grabs. There is no one around to stop you from going to the devil. And when you do, he is right there waiting for you.
THE PURITAN WORLD
Surely the setting of The Scarlet Letter- the stern, joyless world of Puritan New England- is one of the grimmest on record. It is all gloom and doom. If the sun ever shines, we hardly notice. The whole place seems shrouded in black. A question comes to mind as we read the novel. Why did Hawthorne choose this dark world for his masterpiece?
Perhaps we can tackle that question by asking another one. Why did Hawthorne reject the contemporary scene? Even if he chose to ignore the richly suggestive American settings of the 1820s and ’30s, (the Erie Canal, for instance, or the Alamo), he had first-hand material to draw on in his own life and career.
Part of the answer, of course, is that Hawthorne could write about the contemporary scene. He did write about it in The Custom House. But what he could write was comedy. The pathetic old Salemites who worked for Uncle Sam lent themselves not at all to the tragic work he had in mind.
Perhaps if Hawthorne reached back to Salem in the 1600s, he would find more figures invested with the same dark and dusky grandeur, more men and women who would speak as directly to his creative imagination.
The Puritan world of the mid-17th century apparently gave Hawthorne something he badly needed- people who lived their lives to the full instead of snoring them away. In the pages of The Scarlet Letter, the Puritans emerge from the shadows of an earlier time, broad shouldered, ruddy cheeked, firm of step, and direct of speech.
They were a stern people, of course, and repressive. They probably put the lid on more natural human impulses and emotions than any society before or since. But just for that reason, emotions boiled over, passions a novelist could seize at red heat.
More important, the Puritans had a moral vitality never again found on the American scene. For a writer like Hawthorne, intrigued with the subject of conscience, here were people with conscience to spare.
Whatever their faults, the Puritans at least knew the difference between right and wrong. And that was the sensibility Hawthorne was after.
LAW VS. NATURE
We live in a permissive society. By and large, the law only bothers us when we bother the other guy. There is no law to tell us what to wear, how to think, or whom to love. In Puritan New England, life was vastly different. There, laws covered just about every aspect of life. Not surprisingly, human nature revelled against such strict supervision. Certain impulses and emotions, passion foremost among them, would not be denied.
In the love of Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne tells the story of one such rebellion. In a very real sense, the lovers are criminals. Their passion is a violation of the rigid Puritan civil and religious code. As wild as the forest which shelters it, the love of Hester and Dimmesdale asks us to weigh the justice of society’s laws against the claims of human nature; that is, against men and women’s most deeply felt desires and needs.
THE INDIVIDUAL VS. SOCIETY
The individual vs. society. Law vs. nature. These are really just different terms for the same basic conflict. Hawthorne is a Romantic writer with a Romantic subject: a rebel who refuses to conform to society’s code. Most of us instinctively side with the rebel, the nonconformist. But society in this novel has a good deal to be said for it. It has assurance, dignity, strength. We can argue that Hester is right in her assertion that fulfillment and love are worth fighting for. And we can argue, with just as much validity, that society is right in its joyless insistence that adultery is a crime deserving of punishment.
SIN AND REDEMPTION
Hawthorne, as a descendant of Puritans of the deepest dye, is the heir to a strong tradition of sin. Puritan theology began with the thoroughgoing conviction of sin. After Adam’s fall, every man and woman was thought to be born an awful and vile sinner, who could be redeemed only by God’s grace (not by good deeds or by any actions which lay within human control).
Now, Hawthorne is a 19th-century man of enlightenment. He is not a Puritan. Nevertheless, he is, morally speaking, something of a chip off the old block. As a writer, he is utterly immersed in sin, in the wages of sin, in the long odds on redeeming sin.
The Scarlet Letter is a study of the effects of sin on the hearts and minds of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. In every case, the effect is devastating. Once these characters stumble into evil, they flounder about as if in a morass. Sin changes the sinners. It darkens their vision and weakens the spirit’s defenses against further temptation.
And yet, sin also pays some unexpected dividends. Sin strengthens Hester. It humanizes Dimmesdale. Hawthorne, departing from his Puritan ancestors, considers the possibility that sin may be a maturing force.
If sin is an encompassing shadow in the The Scarlet Letter, redemption is, at best, a fitfully shimmering light. Chillingworth never seeks redemption at all. Hester looks for it in good works, and fails to find it.
Dimmesdale alone undergoes the necessary change of heart to find a doubtful peace.
THE HEART VS. THE HEAD
Is there really a war waging inside us between our emotions and our reason? Hawthorne thinks so, and he’s pretty sure which side he wants to win. The heart leads Hester and Dimmesdale astray, but the intellect- untempered by feeling, mercy, humanity- thoroughly damns Chillingworth. Hawthorne comes down on the side of the heart.
THE PUBLIC AND THE PRIVATE SELF
Hawthorne’s Puritan New England is a world which encourages duplicity. So much is forbidden that almost everyone has something to hide. Hawthorne’s characters walk around in daylight with pious and sober expressions on their faces. But once they get home at night and lock the door, they pull out their secret thoughts and gloat over them like misers delighting in a hidden stash of gold.
Let’s talk a little bit about what a symbol is. The common definition says that a symbol is a sign or token of something. A lion, for instance, is a symbol of courage. The bald eagle is a symbol of America. A white bridal gown is (or used to be) a symbol of purity. We take symbols like these pretty much for granted. They are a part of our everyday experience.
In literature, matters are a little more complicated. Literary symbols usually don’t have instantly recognizable meanings. Rather they take their meanings from the works of which they are a part.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives us a symbol, a red letter A whose meaning has to be deciphered. What does the scarlet letter mean? It is a question repeated by almost every character in the novel who is confronted with the blatant red token and who has to deal with it: by Hester herself, as she sits in prison, decorating the emblem with golden thread; by Reverend Wilson, who addresses the crowd at the scaffold with such terrifying references to the scarlet A that it seems to glow red with hellfire; by Pearl, who asks about the letter so often that she threatens to drive her mother (and all of us) mad.
The symbol’s meaning is hard to pin down because it is no passive piece of cloth, but a highly active agent. The scarlet letter provokes hostile feelings in the citizens of Boston, who shun Hester and insult her as something tainted and vile.
Society’s response to the letter, in turn, affects Hester. On the surface, she becomes a patient and penitential figure. She looks like someone seeking to live down the sin that the scarlet letter represents. But beneath the surface, rebellion is brewing. Society’s insults make Hester angry and bitter. She becomes a scornful critic of her world. Hester takes the letter to herself. She becomes in fact the renegade she is labeled. Hester breaks free of conventional ideas and, as we see in the forest scene, she opposes Puritan truths with some devastating truths of her own.
The point Hawthorne is making is that our lives are inevitably shaped by our past actions and by the signs of those actions- be they medals or badges of infamy- which we wear. Symbols like the scarlet letter shape our perceptions and our temperaments. They determine the kind of people we become.
Over the years, the scarlet letter and its wearer blend into one. The letter, whatever it means, is the summation of Hester’s life. But a letter is a remarkably ambiguous symbol. It can stand for any word beginning with A.
Does the A stand for Adulteress, surely the intention of the magistrates who imposed it in the first place? Does it stand for Able in recognition of Hester’s devotion as a nurse? Does it even mean Angel, with the consequent suggestion that Hester has risen above the society which condemned her?
There is danger and excitement in the uncertainty. If we knew for sure that the A stood for Adulteress, we would have Hester neatly pegged. We would know we were supposed to condemn her. But Hawthorne is not content to let the matter rest at that. He asks us to look at Hester from other, very different, viewpoints. We are never altogether sure whether we should condemn Hester or admire her.
The Scarlet Letter began life as a short story. (Hawthorne was advised to expand it into a novel, which he did.) In many respects, it retains the characteristics of a short story. The Scarlet Letter has the tightness and the economy we generally associate with the shorter fictional form.
Hawthorne’s novel has only one plot. There are no subplots- no secondary love stories, for instance, such as you find in the novels of Jane Austen. It also has only one setting: Boston in the 1640s. Although Pearl and Hester eventually sail off to Europe, the reader is not invited to follow them there.
The Scarlet Letter has only four main characters: Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl. All the other characters are really part of the historical tapestry against which the action takes place.
Perhaps most important of all, The Scarlet Letter has one predominating mood. For this, the lighting is largely responsible. We move in a world of darkness which is relieved only occasionally by a ray of light. (The darkness sets in early, with the beadle’s presence obscuring the sunshine in Chapter 2. It continues to the end of the novel, with the legend on Hester’s tombstone: so somber… and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light, gloomier than the shadow.)
Since Hawthorne’s novel is such a spare and unified work, it is curious that readers disagree about its heart or structural center. Some critics believe that the heart of the book’s structure is the scaffold, or penitential platform, to which Dimmesdale finally brings himself to stand by Hester’s side. According to this view, the scaffold scenes alternate with the pivotal forest scenes, where the lovers confront the critical choice of escape from society or return to it.
But no less an authority than Henry James (the novelists’ novelist and the acknowledged master of form in American fiction) disagrees. James dismisses the forest scenes- and indeed, any of the scenes where Hester plays a major part- as secondary. The Scarlet Letter, James says, is no love story. It is the story of retribution. And its center is the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, the guilty lover and the sinister husband whose sole purpose is to keep that guilt alive.