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CHAPTER 16: A FOREST WALK
Having faded to move Chillingworth from his purpose of revenge, Hester decides to seek out Dimmesdale and reveal to the minister himself the true character of the physician.
She has learned that Dimmesdale has gone to visit the Apostle Eliot, a missionary among the Indians. She decides to meet the minister in the forest on his homeward journey.
The forest is a very different sort of setting from any we have been reading about. We are far away from the market-place, the safe heart of the settlement. We are deep in the primeval woods where the only sign of humanity is a narrow footpath, hemmed in by the trees.
Perhaps we can view "A Forest Walk" as a stage director's efforts to create a set and arrange the lighting for the crisis of his play. The forest will shortly be the setting for a love scene, a setting as wild and as fundamental as the passion that seeks its shelter.
The forest, we should note, shows different faces to different people. To Hester, the woods are dark and somber, but she welcomes the darkness as an assurance of privacy. She has come here to meet Arthur Dimmesdale far away from prying eyes.
To Pearl, the forest is a friendly place. The brook babbles to her like a playmate. The sun caresses her, finding in her brightness and gaiety a spirit that matches its own.
NOTE: The fickle rays of sunshine follow Pearl, but flee from Hester because of the scarlet letter. The letter shows that Hester carries into nature a burden of guilt imposed by civilization. Society's token is not recognized in the woods. In the great realm of nature, it is the insignia of a foreign power.
To the Puritans, as Pearl reminds us, the forest has a darker significance. Here witches dance among the trees, and the devil walks abroad to claim souls for his own.
Pearl is, of course, repeating an old wives' tale, a story she has heard from a withered crone, huddled in the chimney corner for warmth on a cold spring night. But is the story just an old wives' tale? Or does it hold a kernel of truth?
The forest, we must remember, is free. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior to the magistrates. Here people do as they like. And what they like is breaking rules.