One of the issues we looked at last week in our discussions on The Scarlet Letter was the tempestuous encounter between Hester and Arthur (and Pearl, in fact, though we didn’t really consider her role in this meeting), in the safety and secrecy of the forest. This episode occurs, as you will remember, in chapters 17-18.
Narratively, this is a hugely significant moment: it is the first opportunity we have to see the two characters in an intimate and direct interchange (up to this point, the novel has focussed on the consequences of their ‘sinfulness’ and has only allowed us the briefest of exchanges between them). It is an opportunity for the narrator to rekindle their feelings—something that is done in a hugely effective and profoundly suggestive way, as we saw—and it is a central moment in the overall plot of the novel, with Hester’s proposal of an escape to Europe finally offering the possibility of an ending to her years of marginality and sadness.
This is all important and each of these aspects could be given more attention. But I would like to emphasise another question (one that we touched on in class but which I think deserves fuller attention here). And that is the way in which this forest episode clearly reveals both of the lovers to be victims and how it strongly suggests that their ‘transgressions’ are natural, minor and utterly pardonable; in contrast, the inhuman malignancy of Roger Chillingworth is seen to be the true sin, a veritable evil that destroys both individual and community.
It might appear to modern readers that Dimmesdale is more a culprit than a victim, or that—at any rate—his suffering is minor compared to that of Hester’s. This is a fair point, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Arthur’s suffering is not significant. In my discussion of this scene, I suggested that the narrative focus on the two characters’ intimacy—and the way that it revealed just what opportunities had been lost between them both—was a clear suggestion that the ‘system’ that caused such suffering (that is, the justice imposed by the Puritan authorities) is at fault. It exposes extreme Puritan values to be harmful and destructive. And in revealing clearly that true evil lies with Chillingworth and not at all with Hester or Arthur, it is forwarding (at last) the notion of an alternative morality, one that rejects the labels of the founding communities and that sees, instead, the goodness, the ‘naturalness’ of the feelings expressed by the protagonists and, in contrast, the harmfulness of punishing such feelings according to notions of ‘correctness’ that have nothing at all to do with the true and vital love felt by Hester and Arthur.
In this sense, the episode in the forest is the clearest expression to this point of the novel’s emphatic stance against both Chillingworth and, indeed, against puritan morality. And this latter point is, once again, a significant reminder of how Hawthorne’s text is a constant reflection on the need to revise America’s foundational history and to question public discourse that attempts to justify a system of beliefs that is detrimental to the truer values of human dignity; a pressing issue as the storm clouds of the US Civil War gather on the horizon…