The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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One of the most significant writers of the romantic period in American literature was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote stories that opposed the ideas of Transcendentalism. Since he had ancestors of Puritan belief, Hawthorne wrote many stories about Puritan New England: his most famous story is The Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorne’s novel, life is centered on a rigid, Puritan structured society in which one is unable to divulge his or her innermost thoughts and secrets. Hester Prynne is among the first and most important female protagonists in American literature. She’s the embodiment of deep contradictions: bad and beautiful, holy and sinful, conventional and radical. Throughout the novel we see the protagonist, Hester being constantly bombarded with conflict.
From the beginning we see her embedded in these deep conflicts that define and shape her life. Throughout the novel, it is evident that the society that Hester Prynne finds herself in strives to follow a standardized system of values, beliefs, and morals. Hester realizes that her perception of what is right or wrong differs from that of society as a whole. “Thus she will be a living sermon against sin” (46) as her husband Roger Chillingworth believes. This was also the general feeling of the society, that she would be a living, breathing billboard of sin. Thus she was mocked and scorned: to be made the subject of many sermons: “If she entered a church trusting to share the Sabbath smile of the Universal Father, it was often her mishap to find herself the text of the discourse” (59).
The Puritan society looks down upon Hester for her transgressions and feels that she is not even fit to interact with them. There was no absolution for Hester, for when she even tried to reach a hand to the poor and make clothing for them they “often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them” (59). The puritan society antagonizes her to the point of oppression. There is evidence of this when the needs of the individual conflict with the Laws of a Society. Religion plays a big part in the Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne wore the Scarlet Letter to remind her of the mistake she made. Instead of taking Pearl away the people wanted her to wear the “A” for adultery. Hester’s whole lifestyle was altered.
She obeyed everyone and for seven years was cursed by standing on the scaffold. The people’s beliefs strongly enforced the idea that Hester would wear the Scarlet Letter, so she did. It constantly forced the thought of the sin she had committed and would haunt her for good. Society was an influence on the scarlet letter. Society ostracized her because no one in the town had ever dealed with any kind of sin such as adultery. The people in a way wanted to ruin her life because people actually thought she was bad.
Despite Hester’s attempts of staying strong with the sign of shame on her chest, society constantly tries to undermine her and does not let her forget her mistake. Hawthorne demonstrates society’s oppression on Hester through the scarlet letter; “Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast … the reality of sin” (55). The scarlet letter illustrates that the person wearing it is a shameful sinner. By forcing the scarlet letter upon Hester, not only does society have power over her, but they also strip Hester of her identity in exchange for her to be the symbol of adultery, shame, and sin.
After her trial, Hester becomes more reserved and contemplative about human nature and God, believing them to be her teachers in her punishment, contrasting the passionate woman she was before her affair. Roger Chillingworth provides as the ideal “bad guy” for this novel. Chillingworth is a name that has a strong connotation of evil. The word chill has meanings similar to the word cold. Having the suffix worth makes his name mean, of cold value. Cold is usually associated with evil: this can be seen in expressions like cold hearted. Chillingworth is a human being of cold value therefore he is a man of evil. He is the obvious antagonist with a deformed body and something to prove to whom Hester sinned with. It also doesn’t help that Chillingworth is a determined individual.
His single mindedness is shown early on in the novel when he states, “there are few things, – whether in the outward world, or, too a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought, – few things hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery” (53). This goal, combined with Chillingworth’s devotion to solving the mystery proves to be dangerous when the narrator states, “this unhappy person had effected such a transformation by devoting his enjoyment thence, and adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated over” (110).
These seven years of devotion caused him to have devil like qualities. The qualities that he possesses gives him the ability to commit the most horrid crime of them all, to kill a loved one. He does not kill Arthur Dimmesdale in a conventional way but Chillingworth kills him with guilt letting “the black flower blossom as it may” (113). This killing of Dimmesdale proves that Chillingworth proves to be an evil and maniacal character that is capable of inflicting great amounts of pain upon Hester. Hester Prynne lives as an outcast in her community because of the sin she committed against the church. However, she does not live alone, but with her illegitimate daughter, Pearl. Thus, society suppresses Pearl because of her birth and her relationship with Hester.
The young girl is a product of lust and passion between Hester and Dimmesdale. Her behavior coincides with her birth, as she has a fiery personality. Consequently, the community believes that Pearl is not human, but a spawn of sin, or an elf-child. Even her own mother sometimes doubts Pearl’s existence as a human or not. Pearl is the whole reason that Hester is suffering for her adultery. Without Pearl, there would be no proof of her committing such a crime. Hester admits this herself when she states, “She [Pearl] is my happiness! – She is my torture, nonetheless! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me in life too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter” (76).
Hester believes that Pearl is the living scarlet letter because of the pain and joy she feels with her. One may argue that to Hester, Pearl is much more her “happiness” than her “torture”, but it is easy to see that the Scarlet Letter can never be viewed as a good thing. The Scarlet letter itself is the reason for Hester’s toil and pain. She many times would have to refrain herself from “covering the symbol with her hand.” (59). It must be seen then that there was no good in the Scarlet Letter so there would be no help from Pearl to Hester Prynne but only pain.
Even at the very beginning of the novel we see the infant Pearl gaining, “its sustenance from the maternal bosom, seemed to have drank in with it all the turmoil, the anguish, and despair, which pervaded the mother’s system.”(50) The townspeople also believe that Pearl is the living scarlet letter but for a different reason. They believe that her strange and wild behavior has a direct relationship with it. The scarlet letter also suppresses Hester’s relationship with Pearl. From an early age, Pearl was intuitive about the stitch’s meaning and transfixed upon it. When Hester takes the letter off in the forest, Pearl does not approach her until she puts it back on.
This illustrates the power of society through the letter; it defines Hester as the wearer of the sign of shame, rather than the woman she is. Thus, Hester is suppressed by society, emotionally and spiritually. Governor Bellingham is the leader of the Boston Colony. He is therefore supposed to be one of the most spiritual and upstanding members of the community. As he “makes the rules”, he is supposed to follow them. This is why, when Hester visits his house to deliver his gloves, she is surprised at its state. Instead of a humble home tastefully decorated in the earth tones of the Puritan lifestyle, she was slightly amused, but not particularly surprised, to find very near the opposite.
Before they even enter, she is struck by the luxury of the house. It had walls, which were “overspread with a kind of stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were plentifully intermixed; so that, when the sun fell aslant-wise over the front of the edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against it by the double handful. The brilliancy might have befitted Aladdin’s palace rather than the mansion of a grave old Puritan ruler. It was further decorated with strange and seemingly cabalistic features and diagrams, suitable to the quaint taste of the age, which had been drawn in the stucco when newly laid on, and had now grown hard and durable, for the admiration of after times” (70). This was not in accordance of the laws of hard work, sacrifice, and the absence of earthly pleasures that the Puritans abided by.
In fact, it was vulgar and nearly gaudy, and not fitting for a man of his rank. These descriptions in The Scarlet Letter further illustrate the hypocrisy and deception of virtue of the Bostonians. Inside, Hester is confronted with more splendor. Not only is the house itself well made and well decorated, but also she and Pearl are greeted at the door by one of Bellingham’s servants. For a Puritan who has been taught (and is teaching) that each should be compassionate to his fellow man, owning one as property is fairly misleading to the rest of the colony. The house is fashioned after those of the lords and ladies of England, and contains lofty ceilings, steeple arches, and random items of all shapes, sizes, and purposes.
A leader of a community as “committed to the Lord” as Boston should be spending his time reading his Bible and praying. Hawthorne uses Bellingham’s lavish dress, extravagant architecture and questionable habits as another example of the hypocrisy and mockery of the Boston people. Not only are the everyday men and women critical and shallow, but also the Governor is no better, and provides no example to the people.
What is most remarkable about Hester Prynne is her strength of character even with all the pain and ridicule she went through. While Hawthorne does not give a great deal of information about her life before the book opens, he does show her remarkable character, revealed through her public humiliation and later, isolated life in Puritan society. Her inner strength, her defiance of rules, her honesty, and her compassion may have been in her character all along, but the scarlet letter brings them to our attention. She is, in the end, a survivor. Hester is physically described in the first scaffold scene as a tall young woman with a “figure of perfect elegance on a large scale” (40).
Her most impressive feature is her “dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam” (40). Her complexion is rich, her eyes are dark and deep, and her regular features give her a beautiful face. In fact, so physically stunning is she that “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (40). Contrast this with her appearance after seven years of punishment for her sin. Her beautiful hair is hidden under her cap; her beauty and warmth are gone, buried under the burden of the elaborate scarlet letter on her bosom.
When she removes the letter and takes off her cap, in Chapter 13, she once again becomes the radiant beauty of seven years earlier. Symbolically, when Hester removes the letter and takes off the cap, she is, in effect, removing the harsh, stark, unbending Puritan social and moral structure. Hester becomes an angel of mercy who eventually lives out her life as a figure of compassion in the community. Hester becomes known for her charitable deeds. She offers comfort to the poor and the sick. When the governor is dying, she is at his side.
“She came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble” (105). Yet Hester’s presence is taken for granted, and those that she helps do not acknowledge her on the street. Hawthorne associates this transformation to her lonely position in the world and her suffering. In her solitude, she had a great deal of time to think. Also, Hester has Pearl to raise, and she must do so amid a great number of difficulties.
Her shame in the face of public opinion, her loneliness and suffering, and her quiet acceptance of her position make her respond to the misfortune of others. In the end, Hester’s strength, honesty, and compassion carry her through a life she had not imagined. While Dimmesdale dies after his public confession and Chillingworth dies consumed by his own hatred and revenge, Hester lives on, quietly, and becomes something of a legend in the colony of Boston.
The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace through her suffering. Hester is the protagonist of the novel. When she is first presented in the story, there is already a scandal attached to her name that is symbolized by the scarlet letter “A”. When she walks to the scaffold from the prison, she holds her head high and remains in full public view without shedding a tear. Her spirit is also reflected in her decorating the scarlet letter with gold thread. Hester’s strength of character in public is in fact, her way of steeling herself against her inner wounds inflicted by her disgrace and punished by the scarlet letter.
Her weakness is revealed in her private vent of her grief through tears. Her silent suffering eventually wins the sympathy of others but still fails to gain her complete acceptance by the Puritan society that surrounds her. Hester’s life of seclusion shows her determination to seek penance for her sin. Through her life of suffering, she emerges a stronger person, better able to handle life’s agonizing moments. By freezing her world into a small circle containing only Pearl and herself, she shields the two of them from the mockery of a moralistic and cold society.
The most important symbol, which is carried throughout the novel, is undoubtedly the scarlet letter “A”. It initially symbolizes the immoral act of adultery but by the end of the novel the “A” has hidden much more meaning than that. The “A” appears in many other places than on the chest of Hester Prynne. It is seen on the armor breastplate at Governor Bellingham’s mansion. At night while Dimmesdale is standing on the scaffold he sees a bright red letter “A” in the sky. While Pearl is playing near the bay shore she arranges some grass in the form of an “A” on her own breast. The letter “A” also has a variety of meanings.
Originally standing for the sin of adultery it has a different meaning for each character. The Puritan community considers the letter a mark of just punishment. Hester sees the letter as a symbol of unjust humiliation. Dimmesdale sees the “A” as a reminder of his own guilt. Chillingworth sees the “A” as a quest for revenge to find the adulterer. Pearl is very curious of the letter and sees it as a great mystery. The “A” also stands for “Angel” when it is seen in the sky on the night of Governor Winthrop’s death. Lastly, the “A” defines Hester as Able rather than Adulterer. The forest is another important symbol in the novel. Hawthorne provides a sanctuary for his characters in the form of the mysterious forest.
Hawthorne uses the forest to provide a shelter for members of society in need of a refuge from daily life. In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the vital characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. The forest trail leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization vanish. This is precisely the escape route, from strict commands of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up, and be themselves. It is here that Dimmesdale can openly acknowledge Hester and his undying love for her. It is here that Hester can do the same for Dimmesdale.
It is in the forest that the two of them can openly engage in conversation, without being preoccupied with the constraints that Puritan society places on them. The forest itself is free. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior, so it is here where people do as they wish. To independent spirits like Hester’s, the wilderness beckons her. Hester takes advantage of this, when Dimmesdale appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdale about subjects, which would never be mentioned in any place other than the forest. “What we did” she reminds him, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said to each other!” (126) This statement shocks Dimmesdale, and he tells Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an environment where he can open up.
The thought of Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate conversation in the confines of the society, which they live, is incomprehensible. Yet here, in the forest, they can throw away all reluctance, and finally be themselves. In the Puritan society, self-reliance is stressed among many other things. However self-reliance is more than stressed, it is assumed. It is assumed that you need only yourself, and therefore should hold no emotional necessity for a shoulder to cry on. Once again, for people of this society, it would be unthinkable for them to comfort each other.
Yet in the forest, these cares are tossed away. “Be thou strong for me,” Dimmesdale pleads. “Advise me what to do” (127). This is a cry for help from Dimmesdale, with him finally admitting he can’t go through this ordeal by himself. With this comes an interesting sort of role-reversal. When Dimmesdale asks for help, he is no longer sustaining the belief that he is above Hester. He is finally admitting she is an equal, or even that she is above him. This is possibly one of the reasons that Puritans won’t accept these emotional displays, because the society is so socially oriented. Hester, assuming a new power position, give a heartfelt, moving speech.
The questions she asks also are like the articulate questions, which Dimmesdale would pose during his sermons. The answer is obvious, yet upon closer examination they seem to give unexpected results. “Whither leads yonder forest-track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yea; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper into the wilderness until, some few miles hence, the yellow leave will show no vestige of the white man’s tread” (p. 127). Where else could a difference such as this occur? What other way is there for a man of high regard in the community to pour his soul to a woman who is shunned by the public for a grave sin? Nowhere else but in the forest, could such an event occur.
Finally, the forest brings out the natural appearance, and natural personality of the people who use it correctly. When Hester takes off her cap and unlooses her hair, we see a new person. She “undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter…(and)…took off the formal cap that confined her shoulders” (130). This act of rebellion was a clear sign of the oppression and conflict that had risen between the society and Hester Prynne. In fact Hester herself had not even, “known the weight until she felt the freedom” (130). This clearly shows that society was an aggressive antagonist to Hester. We see the real Hester, who has been hidden this whole time under a shield of shame.
Her eyes grow radiant, and a flush comes to her cheek. We recognize her as the Hester from chapter 1. The beautiful, attractive, person, who is not afraid to show her hair, and who is not afraid to display her beauty. The sunlight, which previously shunned Hester, now seeks her out, and the forest seems to glow. Dimmesdale has also come back to life (only for a short time) and he is now hopeful and energetic. Puritan society can be harsh and crippling to one’s inner self. Hawthorne created the forest to give the characters a place to escape and express their true thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.
It was here that thoughts and ideas flowed as endlessly as the brooke, and emotion was as wild as the forest it self. There are no restraints in the natural world, because it is just that, natural. No intrusion from people means no disturbance in the natural order, and therefore serves to bring its inhabitants away from their world, and into this older one. Individuals who did not live by society’s rules and regulations were eventually suppressed by them. By committing the sin of adultery, Hester wears the scarlet letter as a sign of shame and for the public to humiliate her.
She becomes spiritually controlled by society through the letter. Pearl’s birth makes society treat her as an outcast, as well as fear her devilish personality. Because of his fear of public opinion, Dimmesdale’s guilt and suffering cause his demise. The strict order of the Puritan society forces these characters into submission to their laws. Although they believe this is just and fair, the Puritans emotionally suppress these individuals. At the end of the novel, the power of the scarlet letter has greatly diminished, and the community no longer scorns Hester. Even forgiveness and empathy can be found in the most rigid communities.
Through the Puritan community Hester’s character had evolved from the shame of the town, to a well-respected individual. But it is through those times of trial and suffering, that Hester has outlined her character, as strong and virtuous. When the ordeal at the market place finally ends, Hawthorne reverses the roles, as Hester is the only person in town without sin while the townspeople have become hopeless and self-righteous. Hester continues her life, secluded on the outskirts of town. She is obviously repentant, as she chooses to remain in Boston, even when she is free to go elsewhere and start a new life.
“Here had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like because the result of martyrdom” (56). She had become a modest woman, seeking nothing but having her sin be forgiven, in the place where it had been committed. Hester proves herself strong minded and willed, as she lives her life through the torture. For Hester to go through such torture daily seems almost inconceivable, but because she survived, Hester had become known as a strong woman. Hester had come to accept the Puritan religion, and punishment of adultery.
Hester had also come to, and risen above, the expectations that were set upon her. She had been excluded by the Puritan community, but survived. Hester became to the community, a symbol of a strong minded individual to the people of Boston. Though the novel clearly signifies Hester as a strong woman mentally and physically, there is another aspect to which she proves to be a valuable asset.
Hester Prynne and her sin are Hawthorne’s means of conveying a different message; Hawthorne in his novel, uses Hester’s character to uncover the flaws of puritan society and the hypocrisy of their reactions to Hester. The character of Hester Prynne is created as to exploit these flaws. In the end Hester becomes a character of feminism, and one that is not only represented by the Puritan community, but one that portrays the Puritan society.