A "Battery of Flowers": Nature between the Lines

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A "Battery of Flowers": Nature between the Lines

Jackie O'Mara

What is it that gives meaning to the world? Every academic discipline is in search of meaning be it of the past in history, of the universe in astronomy, or of Shakespeare in theater. When disciplines combine, the possibilities to pull meaning out of an event, a text, an equation, multiply, and the learner has the potential to be thrust into a new sphere of meaning. Moby Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Letter, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have several elements in common, one of which is that they are all tied to the natural world. This is not a coincidence. These are four very complex and intricate texts, and a relationship to nature, which is also very complex, is an inherent part of these texts. By combining literary works with an ecologist's viewpoint, these nineteenth century novels, The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular, take on even deeper meaning. Significance can be found in the natural world just as in the texts themselves. Nature is depicted as a wild, free place, and the characters of these novels such as Huck, Pearl, Hester, and Jim find their freedom in nature. The signs in nature, just as the signs in the texts, could and should be observed. They are a means to further understanding what happens in our world these signs are not there on accident. We are inextricably tied to and dependent on nature and it is important to see this relationship played out in the lives of the characters in these classic texts.

Aside from some very apparent themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter religion, guilt, and social order, to name a few the presence of nature and the biological world lends an additional way of reading some of the scenes. The opening chapter of the novel, The Prison-Door, describes the town prison and a "wild rose-bush" near its entrance (Hawthorne, 45). Hawthorne presents some options as to why the rose bush has survived in that location as long as it has, and gives it a special importance by saying, "we could hardly do otherwise than to pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader" (46). That very rose bush comes back to the reader later on in the story when Pearl declares "that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door" (99). Pearl equates herself to one of the roses from the bush that has survived since it was part of the New England wilderness. In doing so, Pearl presents a comparison between herself and a very tough and hearty group of organisms in the plant kingdom. Pearl has also been given "to the reader" (46) as one of the roses on that wild bush. Roses grow quite fast and are often found to grow where other plants cannot. The thorns on roses known technically as prickles (Swanson, 3-15-06) are thought to be both a defense mechanism and a way to grab on to other plants as the roses grow up over them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose). These are interesting characteristics to keep in mind when considering the behavior of Pearl. In The Prison-Door, Hawthorne is presenting the reader with something strong and potentially painful but beautiful at the same time. Pearl herself is also simultaneously these things. She is angelic in her appearance but often harsh in her actions, and she is strong enough to survive in a difficult environment.

Hawthorne describes the naming of Pearl as a result of the "great price" that Hester, her mother, paid for her (Hawthorne, 80). Pearl possesses "nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison" (80). Upon closer reflection, however, Pearl has dark features, and is very beautiful even at a young age (81). This picture of her leads to another comparison: not to a pearl that is white and pure, but rather to a black pearl. Black pearls are highly valued for their rarity. While all pearls are formed from an irritant inside the shell of a mollusk such as a particle of sand inside an oyster shell black pearls are rejected from the mollusk sooner than pearls of other colors (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl). Pearl is born rejected from society, and was conceived in sin. There is no other child like her, and she is extremely valuable to her mother and to the course of the novel. Pearl's name is, in a way, quite accurate when her dark and mysterious behavior is considered.

The parallels between Pearl's character and the nature that surrounds her are striking and illustrate just how much an individual can be tied to nature. We all come from the natural world, according to the theory of evolution. Our biological roots exist in the oceans as simple organisms. The strict Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is, quite possibly, one of the furthest things from the natural origins of life on earth. By placing Pearl in a wild, natural setting, Hawthorne shows how the natural world that we came from can be a more accepting place than the societies we find ourselves in now. Pearl's rejection from society beginning on the day she was born allows her acceptance into the opposite of society nature. She reverts back to base, wild ways, which are made all the more clear by Hawthorne's vivid use of natural imagery.

The pivotal scene between Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale in the forest further demonstrates the way in which the freedom of nature can free the individual who comes in contact with it. While Hester and Dimmesdale are talking, Pearl amuses herself by fluttering around the forest:
The mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child. (Hawthorne, 178)
Pearl is "gentler" in the forest than in town or at their cottage (178). In the wild she is no longer outcast, as she other places. This scene illustrates another side of the issue of social acceptance, which is one of the themes of the novel. Nature does not know when someone has sinned. It does not know what myriad possibilities a scarlet letter "A" could stand for; nor is it aware of the oddities of an equally scarlet-clad child in a Puritan settlement. Nature does not judge or discriminate in the way that the townspeople of The Scarlet Letter are wont to do every time they encounter Hester and Pearl. The sun shines on the three characters, and Pearl plays with the birds and flowers of the forest (177). In this scene the reader sees nature's acceptance of social outcasts.

The biological meanings of the natural imagery in The Scarlet Letter may not be readily evident to all who read it. This is proof of the reader's opportunity to draw multiple interpretations from the events in The Scarlet Letter, and from Hawthorne's telling of Hester's story. Hawthorne's use of nature in various scenes is a subtle way of enhancing the complexity of his novel. One of the most crucial scenes in the novel occurs in a forest. The duality of the forest scene complex personal interactions mixed with the intricacies of the natural world suggests that nature can mirror human life, and also that the signs we see in nature have just as much significance as the signs we see in our day to day lives.

Nature's mirroring capability is literally shown in the interaction between Pearl and a pool of water in the forest scene. Pearl finds herself standing apart from Hester, on the other side of a small brook in the forest. The brook has been "murmuring" along (Hawthorne, 163) until the place where Pearl happened to stand:
Just where she had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. (181)
The pool of water a biological barrier to many organisms that just "chanced to form" where she stood acts as a barrier between Pearl and her mother, or Pearl and the society that she has never been a part of, but that her mother would be a part of had she not had Pearl. One of the most important events in the evolutionary history of our world has been the colonization of land by plants and animals. The loss of a dependency on water was a very difficult obstacle to surmount, and the evolution of this can be seen in many areas of nature. Certain land species frogs and salamanders, for example need a water source to lay their eggs. The idea of water as a necessity for life and also a barrier to development of a house or a road, for example is almost intuitive. In that same way, the brook is a barrier between Pearl and her mother, as Mr. Dimmesdale says, "I have a strange fancy . . . that this brook is the boundary between two worlds . . . is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream" (182)? The ability of the water to reflect and enhance the image of a flower-covered Pearl can be interpreted as a link between the qualities of nature and those of her humanity.

There is another example in nineteenth century literature that deals with a body of water as a barrier and also as a life-line: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a force of it's own, moving along at it's own pace and not giving Huck and Jim much of a choice as to what will happen next or where they will end up. If the river curves, Huck and Jim will curve with it. The river "seems to not know where to go", but it goes there anyway and on "a course that offers little / hope of telling why it went that way" (Stewart). This floating, aimless quality of the river and Huck's journey is one of the defining characteristics of the novel. The Great River is still a significant, powerful body of water in America. It is the second largest river in the country, touching ten states, and it has the third largest river basin in the world after the Congo and the Amazon draining America's land from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_river). The Mississippi River is a life force for many species of plants, birds, fish, and other animals, as well as a source of life for humans in the form of trade and commerce. Huck and Jim are dependent on the river to get them around and to keep Jim hidden. They also have a dependency on the riverbanks for coverage during daylight hours. Huck's relationship to the river is one of the give-and-take of two kindred spirits. One can see the similarities that can exist between a meandering boy and nature in the form of the river that carries him along.

The life of Huck on the river could be compared to the life of the river itself. As in Life on the Mississippi, Twain outlines the course he will take in his writing:
We can glance briefly at its slumbrous first epoch in a couple of short chapters; at its second and wider-awake epoch in a couple more; at its flushest and widest-awake epoch in a good many succeeding chapters; and then talk about its comparatively tranquil present epoch in what shall be left of the book. (Twain, Chapter 1)
Huck begins his journey playing games with Tom Sawyer and going to school, fishing and moseying around with Pap. He then proceeds to fake his own death and go with Jim down the Mississippi on a raft where they have several adventures, but always get a way out and end up back on the raft eventually. These parts of his story might equate to the "slumbrous first epoch" of the river's life. Huck then begins to have a few more serious adventures on his journey: dealing with death at the Grangerfords and fraud with the King and the Duke. He is slightly "wider awake" at this point in his journey, becoming aware of human cruelty in a very adult-like way: "It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race" (Twain, 208). The third "epoch" in Huck Finn's trip down the Mississippi is when he finds himself on land and in the company of Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally. Huck is "widest-awake" here as he deals with the childish plans of Tom to free Jim from captivity. Everything on earth changes. Riverbanks erode, and people grow up. Huck Finn cycles through the events in his life in an increasingly grownup way much like the river itself has moved through the country. He is still Huck Finn, at the end of the day, and the Mississippi River is still just that, but as time passes, the flow of life keeps change inevitable.

These texts present us with a way to read the natural world. A scientist could accomplish this without a literary framework, but by using classic novels such as The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it becomes clear that signs from nature can have meaning for everyday life. In science, it is best not to go looking for a result. Some of the world's most influential discoveries have been made by accident. Take, for a moment, a comment by Albert Einstein on the origins of ideas: "A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions" (Stachel). Scientific experiments operate best when the experimenter has enough science in his repertoire to put together a smart design, but not so much that he over-analyzes and muddies up the work with expectations. The observation of nature is a science in many ways, and follows these rules just as physics or any other basic laboratory-style science does. It is possible for nineteenth century American texts can be analyzed in a "natural" way the signs that show up in the text are similar to signs that show up in nature, and natural signs occurring in the texts themselves are an example of that similarity, as is seen in plethora of natural images in The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In his essay, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses a harmony between the nature of man and the nature of nature:
The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. (Emerson, Chapter 1)
Part of what allows the reader to see many of these natural signs is that in both The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we deal with children, Pearl and Huck, and their relationship to nature. If the reader has a bit of science under her belt, and if the text is armed with characters that can still play with nature in a way, then signs and similarities between the text and nature are quite clear. Consider the forest scene in The Scarlet Letter:
In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. (Emerson, Chapter 1)
This relates to the actions of Dimmesdale and Hester in the forest when Hester "casts off" the scarlet letter and the cloth covering her hair and, all of a sudden, "as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine" (Hawthorne, 177). The "perpetual youth" of the woods is also mirrored in the child, Pearl, herself, who embodies the very qualities of the wilderness. Similarities between text and nature are there to be observed, as are many scientific "discoveries", we just need to know where to look. According to Emerson, "where to look" in nature is all around. The Scarlet Letter and Emerson's Nature unite under the common theme of finding freedom in nature, demonstrating that this message can be seen in the vibrant natural imagery of Hawthorne or in the literal words of Emerson.

Nature is a great equalizer. "All mean egotism vanishes. . . The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance" (Emerson, Chapter 1). As Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi, Huck struggles with the fact that Jim is a runaway slave and that he, Huck, is facilitating his escape (Twain, 113). With the passing of time on the river, however, it becomes more and more evident that Jim is Huck's protector a friend and a parent to him in many ways and that they survive on the river without titles. Again, the reader sees the same message, conveyed by the help of natural symbolism in one text and by literal explanation in the other.

The signs are everywhere. Through the actions of Pearl, as well as Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter one sees how similar nature can be to a person. Pearl's behaviors, characteristics, and even her name all take on a deeper meaning when the natural world is considered. The momentous scene in the forest also benefits from natural imagery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another nineteenth century American text that takes advantage of the meaning that natural imagery can have for a reader, particularly a reader with nature and science in mind. As opposed to countless uses of nature, as in The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has one main natural presence: the Mississippi River. The river is as important a character in the novel as Huck or Jim. Huck and the Great River coexist; their lives are linked. Twain's use of natural signs is slightly broader and slightly more hidden than Hawthorne's but present nonetheless.

As one observes these natural signs in classic texts, just as with science, the texts can take on an unexpected meaning and certain interpretations will fall into place. Emerson accomplishes this in so many words:
In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in the streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. (Emerson, Chapter1)
Nature is freeing, and nature is who we are at our core. These natural signs are not only present in the texts but in the wild world itself, just waiting to be seen and understood. The texts offer an additional way of looking at how nature is tied to human life and behaviors. Many organisms interpret and respond to signs around them: birds migrate when the seasons change, plants grow towards sunlight. As members of this planet, we also need to interpret and respond to signs that our environment gives us. We cannot operate as though we are merely living on earth and not with earth. The relationship between nature and the characters in The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates the importance of natural signs. They are all around to help us better understand where we have come from and where we are going.


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