Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 novel depicting the treatment of adulterous Hester Prynne in Puritan-era Boston, after her sin is discovered. This depiction of Puritan America is close to the author’s heart; having been born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804, Hawthorne was likely fascinated by his region’s Puritan past (particularly his ancestor John Hathorne, who was one of the judges during the Salem witch trials of 1692 (Miller 20-21). In investigating the attitudes and anxieties of the people living in colonial New England, Hawthorne explores the xenophobia, religious intolerance, and daily struggles of the people who helped to form his home nation. Puritanism is shown to be an incredibly harsh and judgmental religion, whose draconian laws and guilt-based punishments take their toll on even the most saintlike.
The Scarlet Letter takes place in the Boston of the seventeenth century – at the time, the town was a Puritan settlement. Hester Prynne, a young, beautiful woman, is accused of adultery by the town, as she has had a child outside of wedlock – her daughter Pearl. To that end, the town forces her to walk down the town square from the prison to a scaffold; despite protestations and ridicule from the town’s leaders, she will not tell the people who Pearl’s real father is. Despite her husband being missing, he is in fact working in town as a doctor named Roger Chillingworth (his real identity known only to Hester). Arthur Dimmesdale, the town’s young minister, takes in Hester and Pearl to keep them together, and receives medical assistance from Chillingworth for his mysterious ailment. However, Chillingworth soon realizes that Dimmesdale’s psychological torment is due to his status as the father of Hester’s child.
Meanwhile, Hester has been carrying her head high despite her status as a scorned woman – having to perpetually wear a scarlet “A” on her chest (standing for adultery). She performs many good deeds around town, being a charitable, humble woman – this causes the community to treat her slightly less harshly. Despite this, Dimmesdale’s emotional torment continues (helped by the vengeful Chillingworth); Pearl begs him to acknowledge her as his daughter, but he simply cannot do that. Anticipating further revenge from Chillingworth, Arthur, Hester and Pearl agree to leave Boston and set sail for Europe one night. The morning before they are to leave, Dimmesdale gives an incredibly moving sermon and later admits that he is the father of Pearl. Soon after, he dies from his own grief and self-harm. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and live the rest of their lives fully and completely, Hester wearing the scarlet “A” as a badge of honor.
The Scarlet Letter investigates notions of sin, justice, persecution, and love, using the Puritan American setting to demonstrate just how complex human nature can be. The Puritan religion is extremely focused on sin and guilt, as followers of that religion attempt to hold themselves to a strict standard about what humans are meant to do – in essence, they are meant to honor God’s commandments and avoid sin. At the same time, they also cause untold suffering on those they perceive to have sinned; Hester is publicly shamed and ridiculed for her adultery, regardless of the circumstances behind it or her own character as an individual. Sin is perceived to be threatening to the community – a plague that must be sought out and destroyed. For her sin, one borne of love instead of hate, the Puritan community itself generates more hate and scorn towards Hester than she could ever generate herself. It is this hypocrisy that is at the center of the novel; despite her adultery, Hester is a saintlike figure – taking her punishment in stride and nonetheless striving to help the people of her community (the same ones who persecute her).
The differences between good and evil (and the nature of true evil) is depicted in the book through the “Black Man,” a mysterious figure who is often said to be the devil’s child, and is symbolic of pure evil in the book. Furthermore, the townspeople themselves are confused and perplexed as to what actually constitutes evil – questions abound regarding whether or not Chillingworth was evil in marrying Hester, if Hester was evil in sleeping with Dimmesdale, or if Dimmesdale’s cuckolding of Chillingworth made him the evil man he is. According to the narrator who bookends the novel, both good and evil feelings require “a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent . . . upon another” (Hawthorne). These feelings are found between Hester and Dimmesdale in their love (an example of goodness) and in the cruelty of Chillingworth’s revenge (an example of evil).
The exploration of these issues, particularly as they related to Puritan America, are precisely why Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter. The complex nature of good and evil, especially as it relates to Puritan religion and colonialism, is explored in the town’s rejection of Hester, Dimmesdale’s grief and Chillingworth’s quest for revenge. The town’s perception of these individuals is often quite unlike their real selves; Hester Prynne, despite being an object of shame and ostracized for her sin, is in fact an extremely charitable, kind and beautiful person. Her inner goodness is often painted over by the simple act of adultery she committed – one which occurred because of her own love for Dimmesdale and the missing nature of her husband.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, holds his dark secret within; his grief over having violated the commandments of his god – both by committing adultery and by being sexually active with a woman despite his priestly status – causes him to punish himself severely. No one in town is the wiser until his confession at the end, further demonstrating the town’s inability to truly judge good and evil. At the same time, the only person judging Dimmesdale unfairly is himself; his character shows the dark side of religious guilt, as he rejects his own human nature as a failing worthy of misery.
Chillingworth, despite being the town doctor and admired by these people, holds a dark secret of his own – the true villain of the novel, his motivations are fuelled purely by revenge and spite. He is single-minded in his pursuit of revenge, seeking to deceive the town in order to do so by changing his name. While Chillingworth sins, his sin is merely an extension of the hate that the townspeople have toward Hester; they punish her with the scarlet “A,” but Chillingworth seeks to undo everything good about their relationship by tormenting Dimmesdale to death and terrorizing Hester. Chillingworth is a parasite, feeding off the negativity of others, this single slight turning him into a twisted figure who is nonetheless liked within the town. That the town should vilify Hester and her daughter, while it tolerates and welcomes Chillingworth, demonstrates just how erroneous and wrong Puritan religious judgment can be.
In these ways, Hawthorne challenges the pervading wisdom about religion, sexuality and gender roles in American society, particularly during that time. It is difficult to believe that the man involved in the adultery would be subjected to such a punishment as Hester endures; much of this unfair treatment comes, most likely, because Hester is a beautiful woman. Many characters comment on her beauty, often as a way to mention that they did not think she could do such a thing. At the same time, the use of the scarlet ‘A’ is meant to make her uglier, to point a sign at her failings in order to detract from that beauty. There is a bit of jealousy and possessiveness the town has toward Hester, as this punishment seems extreme even for them. There are many factors that go into the manufacturing of such a punishment; not only is Hester beautiful, but new in town – she is the closest thing the town has to an outsider. With this punishment, the town leaders can demonstrate their control over her, and allow the town an easy scapegoat to direct their hate. Hawthorne shows just how unjust women are treated comparative to the men, and the glee by which the town is willing to shame her for acting on the same desires that men might have in Puritan society without as strict a punishment.
As a novel, I rather like The Scarlet Letter; the prose is wonderful, if sometimes a bit overly descriptive – great care is taken to talk at length about the nature of the town square and the platform, and often that can get a bit gratuitous. However, I very much enjoy reading about Hester’s trials and tribulations, and her attempts to keep her head held high despite her stigma in the town. Dimmesdale’s guilt and self-punishment is very interesting, as his character shows us what it is like to have to hate who you are, which conflicts with what you try to be (his lust making him violate his code as a priest). Chillingworth is a villain through and through, but Hawthorne’s writing of him makes us understand his motivations – he is a man so consumed by hatred and loathing that he focuses his life on making his wife and her lover utterly miserable. While there is not a great deal of action to the book, the subtle character interactions, and the way Hawthorne depicts Puritan culture, makes it unique and fascinating as an artistic portrait of Puritan life. 5. Why do you think your class instructor chose this piece? (class is History: United states till 1877)
There is a very good reason why my class instructor selected The Scarlet Letter for a class about early American history – its depiction of Puritan culture gives us an idea of what society was like in New England at the time. In the years following early settlement of the Americas, Puritanism and other religions were still a hugely active force in people’s lives. Many people attempted to gain some measure of control and solace over living in this strange new land by finding comfort in their religion; to that end, those who did not subscribe to those notions were soundly ridiculed and shunned, if not outright punished. The aforementioned Salem witch trials are a big example of the intolerance and persecution that occurred during this time, as people attempted to explain things they could not understand through notions of witchcraft and committing sins. By looking at the culture of early America through this book, we see how deeply Puritan culture and religion permeated American settlements at this time. In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a fine example of American literature, exploring themes of love and sin through a lens that critiques Puritanism and its extreme views on religion. The story of a woman who is punished because of an arbitrarily evil act (while the true villains are the ones who persecute her for a crime borne of love), the book is very well written, evocative, and reminds the reader of a time when societal behavior was strictly controlled through societal pressures and patriarchal ideas of chastity and worship. Hawthorne, through his prose, demonstrates the destructive and divisive nature of Puritanism, as its strict ideas of what constitutes good and evil lead a good woman to be attacked mercilessly by a town, and a well-meaning and loving man to be killed because of his own guilt and self punishment.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Dover Publications, 1994. Print.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. Print.
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