Pranav Srinivasan Carpenter Honors American Literature, Period 7 27 November 2017Criticism Through the Use of Natural Imagery Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the nature of Puritanism in his 1850 historical fiction, The Scarlet Letter. The novel follows the consequences of a young woman, Hester Prynne, committing adultery with the town reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale. Condemned for her sin, Hester and her daughter Pearl are ostracized from society and Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her person at all times. Hester is also forced to conceal the identity of her former husband, Roger Chillingworth, as he enacts his revenge against Dimmesdale unbeknownst to the reverend. Dimmesdale, feeling guilt over his sin, becomes ill, and commits self-punishment in order to repent. This coupled with the life-sucking Chillingworth eventually lead to Dimmesdale’s death at the end of the novel.
Throughout the novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne incorporates detailed imagery of nature as an extended metaphor for the contrasting views towards individuals who do not conform to societal standards within the community, in order to criticize the concept of Puritanism.Hawthorne’s imagery of weeds throughout the story serves as a metaphor for the constrictions of Puritanism as well as its practitioners’ mentality. From his extended introduction, Hawthorne uses vivid detail to highlight the importance of weeds at the local prison yard: “Like all ..
. crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, … was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison” (Hawthorne 46). The overgrown weeds can be thought of as wild and unkempt, yet restricted. This mirrors how in Puritan Society, it is thought that individuals who have wild ideas are considered sinful and are kept in jail, restricted.
This is further seen when Hawthorne alludes to Anne Hutchinson comparing Hester to the famed “heretic” herself. Dr. Seymour L. Gross, a professor at Notre Dame University, says in his literary criticism, Solitude, Love, and Anguish: The Tragic Design of the Scarlet Letter, “Hester, like Anne Hutchinson … is convinced through an ‘Inner Light’ that her way is not a violation of God’s law” (Gross 337).
Similar to how Hutchinson believed that she had been enlightened by God, Hester has intellectual thoughts which are looked down upon by society. Hawthorne also makes a connection between Hester and the black flower. A black flower is an oxymoron as the flower is representative of the flourishing ideas of individuals with “Inner Light” such as Hester, while the word Black provides a negative connotation that represents the individual’s standing in Puritan society. The comparison between Puritanism and weeds is further discussed through Pearl.
Due to her status as a product of sin, she and her mother are ostracized, leaving Pearl to use her imagination in order to entertain herself. Hawthorne describes her activities stating “Pearl wanted not a wide and various circle of acquaintance. The spell of life went forth from her ever creative spirit, and communicated itself to … the unlikeliest materials …
Her one baby-voice served a multitude of imaginary personages, old and young, to talk withal. The pine-trees, aged, black, and solemn … needed little transformation to figure as Puritan elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted, most unmercifully” (Hawthorne 92). Pearl is described as being magical and creative, yet her treatment of those she considers related to Puritanism is described as unmerciful.
This further cements the antagonism between the townspeople and the individuals with “Inner Light”. Hawthorne’s allusion to Martin Luther, one of the founders of Protestantism and indirectly Puritanism, however, cements the criticism against the Puritan rigidity. The belief that Pearl is “a brat of that hellish breed” mirrors the depiction of Luther by Catholics. The parallels between the two are apparent yet, ironically Pearl is still condemned along with her mother. Hawthorne criticizes this ironic treatment of Hester and her daughter and the limitations placed on them by Puritan Society. Hawthorne uses vegetation throughout the story in order to highlight the unfortunate circumstances that societal outcasts, such as Hester and Pearl, faced from Puritan society, and how this has led to decreased development in individual ideas. During their visit to Governor Bellingham, Hawthorne describes features of his large garden: “Pearl .
.. looked across the vista of a garden walk, .
.. bordered with some rude and immature attempt at shrubbery. But the proprietor appeared to have relinquished as hopeless … amid the close struggle for subsistence, the native English taste for ornamental gardening. Cabbages grew in plain sight; and a pumpkin vine, rooted at some distance, had run across the intervening space, and deposited one of its gigantic products directly beneath the hall-window; as if to warn the Governor that this great lump of vegetable gold was as rich an ornament as New England earth would offer him.
There were a few rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple-trees, probably the descendants of those planted by the Reverend Mr. Blackstone” (Hawthorne 95). The “few rose-bushes” that were around Bellingham’s house were “the descendants of those planted by Reverend Blackstone.” Reverend Blackstone was a British settler of Boston before the Puritans took over, who was opposed to the Puritan ideology. His disagreements with the Puritans would lead him to sell the colony and become the first settler of Rhode Island, a colony from where individuals ostracized from Puritan communities, like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, found haven. The fact that the remnants of what he cultivated long ago are still growing and that they are the only beautiful plants in Bellingham’s garden is evidence that Puritan ideals cannot flourish in nature, which is a place of pure emotion.
This connects to Hester whose perspective on life and what is considered sin differs from those around her. Similar to Blackstone, she separates herself from the rest of society, due to disagreements about ideologies. While she uses this as a way to help her community, the townspeople their stance and condemn her. Only after she had conformed to their ideals, did they attempt to bring her back into the community.
Hawthorne shows how Puritanism limits the development of ideas, bolstering his criticism of the society as a whole. Throughout his novel, Hawthorne’s vivid natural imagery and its use as a metaphor is effective criticism towards Puritan ideology. Hawthorne’s frequent use of imagery for scenes involving weeds serves as a symbol of the rigidity of the Puritan ideology as well as its ironic hostile attitude towards individuals with forward-thinking mentalities. His imagery also serves to show how Puritan society treats individuals with “Inner Light” poorly simply due to their differing beliefs, and how these beliefs were not expanded due to limitations set upon them. According to many esteemed literary critics, such as G. A. Santangelo, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses his novels as a method to criticize the nature of Puritanism.
However, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is still applicable as a commentary towards bigots today who would judge others without understanding the complexity and background of their beliefs. Works CitedHawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Place of Publication Not Identified: Tom Doherty Associates, 1988. Gross, Seymour. “Solitude, and Love, and Anguish- The Tragic Design of The Scarlet Letter.” Afterword.
The Scarlet Letter: An Authoritative Text Essays in Criticism and Scholarship. Norton Critical Edition ed. Vol. 3. Unspecified: W. W.
Norton, 1978. 336-43.