In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne lives in seclusion with her daughter Pearl. Hester has been shunned from Puritan society and now lives in the shelter of the wilderness. The clear contrast between Puritan society and life in the wilderness intensify the all too similar fight between light and darkness and ultimately can lead to the truth.
Puritan society, ruled by a set of strict rules, is essentially in the dark and can not itself see the light. Many of the leaders of Boston are themselves breaking the rigid Puritanical laws. Governor Bellingham lives in a mansion whose ‘ brilliancy might have befitted Aladdin’s palace, rather then the mansion of a grave old Puritan ruler.’; (pg. 98) Bellingham’s extravagant house shows the hypocrisy of the Puritans. They seek to punish those, like Hester, who break the laws of Puritan society but at the same time they too violate their own laws. The Puritans can not see the faults within themselves. Puritan society is seen as a place where ‘iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people.’; (pg. 58) The Puritans pride themselves on the uniform goodness of their town and their ways of dealing with sinful dissenters. Hester’s public appearance is seen as a blessing on the ‘righteous Colony of Massachusetts.’; (pg. 50) The Puritans see their society as picturesque and proper. To them it is in essence the light shining bright in the darkness. An accurate comparison to this view would be the Garden of Eden of Adam and Eve. The Puritans see themselves as the perfect humans within the garden. Those people who, like Adam and Eve, become sinful ‘must be scourged out of the town’; and then ‘driven with stripes into the shadows of the forest.’; (pg. 46) Citizens not fit to live in the ‘paradise’; of Boston were cast out into the shadow of the forest. Yet it is in the forest that Hester is actually in the light and can see for herself, the truth.
Living in the wilderness, Hester Prynne is able to see the light of truth, as none in Puritan society can. The Puritans have punished Hester for her sin and she is now free to go where she pleases, yet she decides to stay in Boston. The woods are a haven for Hester and yet they are also a showcase for her sin. Hester’s secluded cottage, alone in the dark forest is surrounded by a circle of trees. These scrubby trees ‘did not so much conceal the cottage from view, as seem to denote that here was some object which would fain here been, or at least ought to be, concealed.’; (pg. 76) The Puritans despise secrecy, as is seen when Hester’s sin is displayed in public fashion and also in the scarlet letter itself. Both of these showcasings of Hester’s sin, leave her with nothing to hide before the Puritans. The forest is the right place for her in the Puritan sense, in that all of society knows she is there, yet none want to acknowledge her presence. She is much like Mistress Hibbins, who incidentally also finds haven in the woods. For Hester, this haven helps her find what she is in search of. Early on, Hester says to her daughter that Pearl must ‘gather her own sunshine. I have none to give thee.’; (pg. 98) Hester has been forced into submission by the Puritans and believes that she has nothing to give to her daughter. But as time goes on in the forest, Hester sees the that she need not submit to the evils of the Puritans. She finds the truth that she has sought and sees the light. As Hester sits in the forest with Dimmesdale, she comes to this realization of truth and flings off the scarlet letter. With the scarlet letter gone, ‘all at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine… gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees.’; (pg. 196) Freeing herself from the binds of the scarlet letter imposed on her by the Puritans, Hester is truly free. Being free, she can now see the truth that the Puritans could not, due to their binds. The Puritans are bound by their rigid laws and can never see the truth.
The light is elusive to the Puritans, as they can not surpass the boundaries of their rules, as Hester does, and thus can not see the truth. The Puritans have no trouble putting in ‘force the extremity of our righteous laws.’; (pg. 59) Not only do they have find no fault in their laws, they also find them to ‘righteous’;. Everyone must follow these godly rules or not be involved with in Puritan society. It is because of these no tolerance laws that the Puritans are not able to see the light. The light eludes them for they are too blind to see it. The Puritans can not see the truth behind Chillingworth and Dimmesdales’s exteriors. Dimmesdale can not accept the light for it would show him for who he really is. Pearl once wonders why ‘in the dark night-time, he calls us to him… but here in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not.’; (pg. 221) Dimmesdale will not let the light come to him, and let the truth be known, for the truth for him is not what the Puritans want to see. Chillingworth himself is a creature of the darkness. He never allows himself to truly be known to the Puritans. The truth revealed, Chillingworth simply ‘shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight.’; The physician can not ever be in the light, for his need for revenge causes him to be a being of the darkness. Along with Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, the Puritans can not surrpass the bounds of their laws to be open to the light and the truth.
The Puritan society, plunged deep into darkness seems in sheer contrast with the bright, sunlight-filled, earnest truth of the forest. Hester, having been able to experience life in both places, finds truth in the forest. In comparison, the Puritans, never allowing themselves to see beyond their rules, will never experience the revelation of truth and light one experiences, free in the forest.