The Scarlet Letter is set in Boston in the 1600s, prior to American Independence. At the time, Boston was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had been established after the first group of English settlers arrived in Plymouth in 1620. Boston was founded in 1630, and by the 1640s there were about 25 000 English settlers in the area. Many of these individuals had left England because they were dissatisfied with the Anglican Church and sought religious freedom for their dissenting beliefs. These settlers felt that the Anglican Church had not done enough to move away from Catholicism and become “purified,” which led to the term Puritans. Once they immigrated to the Colonies, Puritans were able to set up a society where they could make values like piety, modesty, and obedience central to the community. Hawthorne is quite specific about establishing the setting of the novel. In the frame narrative of the “Custom House” preface, the narrator discovers a document which specifies that Hester “flourished during a period between the early days of Massachusetts and the close of the seventeenth century.” In the first chapter, the prison house is described as it was “some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town.”
Hawthorne includes fairly detailed descriptions of the physical surroundings in order to illustrate the theme of nature versus society. For example, in the scene at the Governor’s mansion, he focuses on how Governor Bellingham “had planned his new habitation after the residences of gentlemen of fair estate in his native land” by describing details like the stone towers, the beautiful books, the portraits and even a suit of armor. This setting highlights the power of tradition, government, and the rule of law. All of these aspects significantly impact the life of Dimmesdale and Hester by punishing them for their affair and preventing them from freely following their hearts. Hawthorne also spends a lot of time describing the forest where the lovers eventually meet, and showing it as a more benevolent setting. The sunshine, the breeze, the babbling brook, and the woodland creatures all seem sympathetic and welcoming to a group of characters who are often ostracized in other settings. The contrasting settings of nature and civilization reveal the central tension that makes it impossible for Hester and Dimmesdale to live a happy life together.