Setting in The Scarlet Letter

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 way is to examine the whole Puritan world in which Hawthorne has set his novel. Not just the time and place, but the values and beliefs that define Puritan society. 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.
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