In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter the story takes place in Puritanical America where the young Hester Prynne, after committing adultery is punished on the basis of what the town thinks is right. She is simultaneously a part of the town and is also pushed away from it. Hawthorne explores the theme of liminality between society and nature through the motif of setting to convey the isolation that comes with sin.
The scaffold (where Hester stands to face her consequences), Hester and Pearl’s cottage, and the brook are all examples of setting that all contain elements of liminality in “The Scarlet Letter”.
Hester stands on the scaffold during the day to fulfill the consequences of her sin. She brings Pearl with her as she is the product of the sin. While the town has knowledge of what she has done they are still unaware of who took part in this crime with her. “They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another. ” (135). “They” is referring to Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale; the town’s minister who, the reader now knows, fathered young Pearl.
The light and dark imagery indicates the liminal state between the three of them and the rest of the town, “The light that is to reveal all secrets. ” The scaffold also shows a liminal state between Hester and Dimmesdale, “… and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. ” (135) When the three of them are on the scaffold together it shows the unity between them, but also a side that shows they are not fully united with one another. “All the dread of public exposure, that had so long been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him. (134). The passage “dread of public exposure” represents the guilt and fear Dimmesdale has about revealing the secret in his sin. This is what shows the liminal state between Hester and Dimmesdale; they sinned together, however only one of them will publically take responsibility for this action. This indicates that while there is a clear connection between the two of them (Pearl) the “dread of public exposure” creates a distance between them. Hester and Pearl are also, as another consequence, forced to live in a ottage on the edge of the town, isolated from the rest of society. This plays as a symbolic representation of liminality because the two of them are stuck in the area between lawful society and lawless nature. “It straggled onward into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering. It is said that Hester is recognizing her “moral wilderness” which further explains how she is not a real part of the Puritanical town but she is “wandering” within the in-between area of lawful society and lawless nature. Near the end of the story; Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl all stand together at the brook. Dimmesdale and Hester have just decided to move to Europe and finally be together where no will know of their previous sinful actions. Pearl stands on one side on the brook by herself, solemnly watching Hester and Dimmesdale who are on the opposite side. This brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again” (182). As Hester and Dimmesdale are together there is a clear liminal state between the two of them and Pearl, the words “boundary between two worlds” indicates the increasing distance created. Hester and Dimmesdale talk about being absolved and rid of the sin “Be the foregone evil what it might, how could they doubt that their earthly lives and future destinies were conjoined” (180). If Hester and Dimmesdale are rid of their sin, then they will be pushing Pearl away with it, because she is the physical symbol of the sin.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter the story takes place in Puritanical America where the young Hester Prynne, after committing adultery is punished on the basis of what the town thinks is right. Hawthorne explores the theme of liminality between society and nature through the motif of setting to convey the isolation that comes with sin. Liminality is shown through settings such as the scaffold, the cottage, and the brook. All places that created a drawing distance between Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. In the end, all of the three are lost in the “middle area” between lawful society and the lawless world of nature.