Scarlet Letter

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    Oct 09, 2013
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Salem Massachusetts Sculpture
Salem Massachusetts Sculpture
Photo by Rusty Clark

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses his novel, “The Scarlet Letter”, to criticize the Puritan religion. He thinks that Puritans are hypocrites and that the standards necessary to be a Puritan, are met by absolutely none of them. Hawthorne also attacks the Puritan faith ethics because he feels it is unrealistic. The author`s attitudes towards Puritan society are represented vividly in his novel “The Scarlet Letter”; particularly through his use of both religious and natural symbolism. In this novel Hester Prynne is a lonely Puritan woman who commits adultery with a preacher Arthur Dimmesdale and gets pregnant. The council of leaders punishes her by forcing her to wear a large, scarlet letter “A” on her chest. She is not sentenced to death because her husband Roger Chillingworth is missing and may or may not be alive.

As Hester Prynne is standing alone on the scaffold, she sees her alienated husband Chillingworth in the crowd. He pretends not to know Hester, and finds out from a man in the crowd that she was married to an English scholar who was supposed to follow her to Boston but never came. After two years, she committed infidelity that resulted in her baby and the letter “A” on her bosom. Chillingworth gets inside the prison to talk with Hester, and he makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his own identity. 

After three years in prison, Hester is set free and she moves to the periphery of Boston and earns her living as a sewer. Meanwhile, her husband is working in Boston as a doctor and one of his patients is a priest Arthur Dimmesdale. When Chillingworth finds out that the priest is Hester`s lover, he starts to make Dimmesdale`s life unbearable.  Under Chillingworth`s cruel care, Arthur`s health gets worse. Hester tries to help Dimmesdale by persuading him to escape with her and their daughter Pearl to Europe.

Unfortunately, he realizes that he won`t be able to go to Europe because he is dying. In the end he confesses his adultery to the crowd and reveals a scarlet letter carved on his chest. After that incident, Hester and Pearl leave Boston. Chillingworth dies a year after Dimmesdale, leaving Pearl a small inheritance. Many years later, Hester returns to her cottage on the periphery of town. Her daughter Pearl has married and she writes to Hester occasionally. Hester has died in Boston and she is buried alongside Dimmesdale and on their tombstone is engraved a letter “A”. “

The Scarlet Letter” deal with the themes of sin, knowledge and the human condition. Sin and knowledge are connected to the experience of Hester and Dimmesdale because their love story resembles the story of Adam and Eve. In both  stories sin results in persecution and agony. But it also results in knowledge and particularly in knowledge of what it means to be human. The scarlet letter permits Hester to think about her society and herself in a more courageous way than anyone else in New England. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, realizes that his sin makes him a better man and gives him sympathy towards mankind. Hester`s and Dimmesdale`s experience shows that a condition of sinfulness can lead to personal growth and compassion for others.

The Puritan society sees earthly experience as an obstacle on the way to paradise. They see a sin as a threat to community and they would do everything to protect community from the sinners. Another theme in this novel is the nature of evil. In`` The Scarlet Letter``, the characters often reflect the identity of the ``Black Man``, the embodiment of evil. In the novel, the “Black Man” is connected with three characters: Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl. Pearl thinks that Dimmesdale is the ``Black Man`` because he doesn`t want to acknowledge her as a daughter. His cruel act can be seen as an example of evil.  Evil can be also found in the carefully plotted vengeance of Chillingworth whose love has been corrupted. Chillingworth`s only joy comes from watching Dimmesdale suffer. He would do everything to make Dimmesdale confesses his sin. On the other hand, Pearl is considered by some to be devil`s child because she is the reminder of Hester`s adultery. She is different from other children because she is not so obedient. In the Puritan society children who are loud and self-willed are considered to be the children of a devil.

Identity and society is another theme in “The Scarlet Letter”. When Hester hears she can leave the town and remove the scarlet letter, she is not so happy. Hester`s reaction results from her desire to find her own identity and she does not allow others to determine it for her. To her, removing the letter would be admitting that the letter is a symbol of sin and something from which she wants to escape and hide. Instead, Hester stays accepting her sin and accepting herself.  In the end Hester has learned that individuality and strength are gained by embracing who you are, not by rejecting one`s assigned identity. Nathaniel Hawthorne`s novel has many abstract and significant symbols. The scarlet letter “A” is the best example because of the changes in the meaning throughout the novel. Originally intended to mark Hester as an adulterer, the “A” slowly begins to symbolize “Able”. In the beginning of the novel Puritan society views Hester as a person of sin.

The letter changes from a symbol of sin to a more ambiguous symbol. Society now sees Hester as a person who is strong, but at the same time wears a symbol which distinguishes her. Hester has learned to embrace the scarlet letter and to acknowledge it as a symbol of her own experience and character. Her past sin is a part of who she is and by pretending that it never occurred would mean denying part of herself. This letter can also be viewed as a symbol of guilt. It portrays the guilt of Dimmesdale, the Pearl`s father. Hester has learned to deal with her punishment and she became stronger because of it. However,  Dimmesdale who wasn`t punished for the sin must now live with the guilt of having an illegitimate child. Dimmesdale`s guilt slowly leads him to experience emotional and physical pain. He believes that Hester is in better situation than he is because her sin is known by the public and she doesn`t have to hide it anymore. Dimmesdale`s guilt leads him to the eventual decomposition of his mind and conscience and drives him to work hard toward redemption. In ``The Scarlet Letter``, 

Pearl is a sort of living version of her mother`s scarlet letter. She is Hester`s physical reminder of sexual sin and the symbol of a wrongdoing. But she represents not only the sin but also the love and passion that caused that sin.  Pearl does not want to let Dimmesdale in her life until he confesses and accepts his sin. When Dimmesdale confesses his sins publicly, Pearl kisses him. She feels as if a heavy burden has been lifted off her shoulders because she has finally received Dimmesdale`s public love and affection. Another symbol in the novel is meteor. While Dimmesdale was standing on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, a meteor was tracing an ``A`` in the sky. Dimmesdale sees the meteor as a sign that he should wear a mark of shame just as Hester does. However, the rest of the community view the meteor as  ``Angel``,  marking that Governor Winthrop has been accepted into heaven.

One of the motifs in ``The Scarlet Letter`` is sunlight and darkness. The sunlight is the symbol of honesty and innocence.  Darkness is the symbol of guilt and sin. When Hester and  Dimmessdale meet in the woods, their guilt is reflected in the darkness of the nature. The moment when Hester passionately lay down her hair, the sun starts to shine. In this scene the sun symbolizes her purity and grace. Another motif is civilization and wilderness. The town represents civilization where man`s misbehavior is punished. The f

orest, on the other hand, is the place of natural authority. In the forest society`s rules don`t apply.  Sin represents the evil: Hester Prynne committed infidelity and as punishment  she  is made to wear a scarlet letter `` A`` on all her clothes to show the wrongdoing she had done. She refused to reveal the name of the man who fathered her child and this  ate away Dimmesdale. Roger Chillingworth is another example of the evil  that is incorporated in this novel.  He wanted to get revenge on Hester by poisoning her lover. 

Change is also another anti-transcendental feature described in this novel. In the beginning of the novel Dimmesdale seems to be bold, self-confident and strong. As the novel progresses he shows his vulnerability by not being able to confess his sin publicly. Not admitting the sin shows his weak human nature and this flaw destroys his personality and transforms him into a weak man. Chillingworth also goes through changes. First of all, he changes his name in order to hide from the humiliation and embarrassment  of being Hester`s husband.

Hawthorne describes Chillingworth as `` a striking evidence of man`s faculty of transforming himself into a devil``. (Hawthorne, 2006:254). Here Hawthorne talks about the changes that Roger Chillingworth undergoes over the seven years in town. The author points out that Chillingworth used to be a gentle and caring man but he has been changed by the hate and void in his heart. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne never accepted transcendentalism, he was, subconsciously, profoundly affected by it. The main character of his novel, Hester Prynne, is mainly a transcendentalist. She is honest, self –confident and individualist. 

In the first chapter we can see Hester`s transcendentalist`s characteristics when she is punished to wear a scarlet letter ``A`` on her bosom. Instead of making it into something disgusting, she made it look like a beautiful ornament. This shows her courage. The towns people begin to see her as an able woman rather than adulterer because of her charity work. This is so evident in the chapter t thirteen.  Fellow community members say the following words to strangers: ``Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester, - the town`s own Hester, who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!`` (Hawthorne, 2006 : 244).


Hawthorne, Nathaniel (2006). The Scarlet Letter: ebook published by Planet PDF.

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