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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.