The entity of Nature acts as a double-edged sword in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In the novel, Nature shows its ability to both harm and heal through its effects on the characters. The novel highlights Nature’s complexity by showing that the Puritan idea of Nature as an entirely evil force is a naive misconception. The text reveals the beneficial attributes of Nature that the Puritans overlook or fear. Conversely, the text shows that aspects of Nature that help mankind also harm him. The duality and complexity of Nature mirrors the complex inner feelings and dual nature of the book’s characters. Nature represents the paradoxical juxtaposition of both good and evil in man, by showing both good and evil attributes in itself. Ultimately, Nature reveals man’s inherent inability to be pure.By presenting a number of aspects of Nature that are beneficial to man, the text manages to discount the one-sided Puritanical view of Nature as an utterly evil influence. Nature provides both Hestor and Dimmesdale with some feelings of restoration and relief by giving them a sense of freedom from society. When surrounded only by society and separated from Nature, Dimmesdale festers. He withdraws into his study or within himself, places where he can only breathe his “own polluted breath”(128). He longs to “at last draw free air”(128) and to live life without the burden of his guilt, the burden of his society. He first achieves this feeling of freedom during his “long walks on the seashore or in the forest”(119) with Chillingworth. Dimmesdale describes his relief and joy in conversing with another human outside the typical sphere of society as the feeling that “a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study where his life was wasting away”(120). Significantly, this sense of freedom occurs for Dimmesdale while he is out in Nature, away from the confines of society. The text metaphorically compares Dimmesdale’s sense of freedom to the relieving sensation of breathing fresh air. The idea of receiving fresh air alludes to the act of escaping confinement. It represents freedom from oppressive, dank, decaying ideas and institutions. By using metaphors that compare Nature to freedom Hawthorne highlights the positive side of Nature, and Hawthorne reveals Nature’s ability to provide relief and release.Significantly, Dimmesdale does not repeat the experience of release until he is in the forest again. The forest, as a representative of nature, lets Dimmesdale out of his self-imposed isolation, and the isolation of the Puritan community. While surrounded by Nature he experiences the “exhilarating effect” of “breathing [a] wild, free atmosphere”(198). The feeling affects him as though he were “a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart”(198). Nature provides him with relief and comfort from the oppressive Puritan society of Salem, as well as from the burden of his guilt. Since Nature is “an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region”(198), Dimmesdale can temporarily distance himself from his ties to society and the guilt those ties impose upon him. In this way, Nature acts as a place for Dimmesdale to air out his true self, to feel release, and to sense the presence of a world outside himself and outside of Salem.Nature similarly provides Hestor with a sense of freedom from the oppression of society. Being surrounded by the sea instead of by the town distances her from the oppressive societal influences of Salem. This distance allows her to gain insights that she could not have gained in the stifling air of the Puritan town. By living in a “lonesome cottage” near “the sea shore”(161), a place representative of Nature, she is able to conjure thoughts “such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England”(161). She manages to view the world in terms the Puritans do not understand. Her separation from Puritan society allows her to comprehend the important and inherent contradictions and duality within herself and others. She glimpses these contradictions during her brief interactions with the town when she senses the secret guilt other seemingly righteous people carry in their hearts. Her separation from her society allows her the perspective that is necessary to sense the duality in others. Her isolation from society amidst the freeing influence of Nature releases her from the restrictions that determine what is acceptable to believe, allowing her mind to roam “as freely as the wild Indian in his woods”(196). Her “estranged point of view,” her “fate and fortunes”, as well as her isolation by the seashore “set her free”(196) and give her insight. This freedom shows Nature’s ability to bestow beneficial influences on mankind, dispelling the idea that Nature can only be a force of evil.However, the novel forces the reader to recognize Nature’s negative aspects as well as its positive ones. Just as isolation leads Hestor to recognize complexities and contradictions in herself and others, so the novel leads the reader to recognize complexities in all things, including Nature. The text shows that although Nature possesses positive attributes, its detrimental aspects check and taint its otherwise beneficial ones. Dimmesdale does indeed enjoy the benefits of drawing “free air”(128) while surrounded by Nature, but the text insists that the air is “too fresh and chill to be long breathed with comfort”(120). The fact that the fresh air at first heals Dimmesdale but then harms him after an extended period of exposure to it, shows the duality of Nature. Likewise, Nature reveals its complexity through the “plants with healing balm in them”(119) that it produces. Chillingworth collects these plants on his walks with Dimmesdale. Significantly, they are beneficial to the body only in the correct dosage. When administered incorrectly they can be poisonous. Additionally, the plants that Nature produces do prolong Dimmesdale’s life, but to Dimmesdale this is cruelty. Therefore, Nature manages to harm Dimmesdale despite the healing relief it also gave him.Similarly to the way that Dimmesdale’s soul finds relief in Nature, Hestor’s “intellect and heart” find respite in “desert places”(196), or natural places. Hawthorne’s use of the term “desert” signifies that Hestor finds her respite in a place where she can be free of men, laws, and oppression. By using the word “desert,” he highlights the way Hestor’s situation both isolates her and brings her close to Nature. This isolation and proximity to Nature gives her freedom, creative inspiration, and release. However, as the word “desert” suggests, she also suffers from her isolation. Despite the overwhelming freedom a desert offers, it is ultimately too isolated, too harsh and too dry to be completely beneficial to a human soul. As the desert metaphor suggests, an excess of exposure to the freedom of Nature inevitably leads Hestor “amiss”(196). The text emphasizes with this metaphor, as well as with the fact that fresh air is too chill to be breathed for long, and that healing plants can be poisons, that too much of a curative substance can be harmful. As a force, Nature provides freedom and release, especially for Hestor and Dimmesdale. However, when experienced in excess, or when not diluted by the forces of society, it is not an entirely positive or harmless influence.The main danger of Nature for Hestor and Dimmesdale is its isolating influence on them. Being alone in the forest separates them from the civilizing and moralizing influences of society. The “intense seclusion of the forest”(184) leads both Hestor and Dimmesdale to disregard the morals of society, and tempts them to sin anew. The effects of this isolation and demoralization surface while they are in the forest. Hestor throws her scarlet letter “among the withered leaves”(198). She abandons all the mores and principles of her society with this gesture, because in this section the scarlet letter symbolizes society’s influence on her. Similarly, Dimmesdale metaphorically flings his “sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened “(198) self “down upon these forest leaves”(198) and rises “up all made anew”(198). However, the birth of this new self only occurs through the abandonment of his former societal self. The isolation and wildness of Nature causes Hestor and Dimmesdale to believe they can leave their societal duties and selves behind without consequence, and happily renew their sinful relationship. Hestor never realizes the error of their decision because she has been “for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed from society”(195) and entangled in the “moral wilderness”(196) of Nature. Due to her “long seclusion from society”(156) she has been unable “to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself”(156). Therefore, she no longer grasps the concepts of socially accepted morality. Dimmesdale also seems to abandon his societal self in favor of a more lawless one. He feels that “another man has returned out of the forest”(219), and he now “stand[s] apart” from his “former self”(219). He believes he grasps a “knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former [self] could never have reached”(219). However, once he re-enters the physical “limits of what [his] church define[s] as orthodox”(120), the physical borders of the town itself, he seems to begin to re-enter into the spiritual and emotional agreements he had with civilized society. The freeing, demoralizing spell of Nature and isolation appears to eventually dissipate because he realizes that he cannot flee his societal obligations, and finally faces the truth of them instead.The borders that Dimmesdale physically and spiritually seems to cross between Nature and society are extremely significant to the townspeople of Salem. The town tries desperately to create strict limits around itself in order to keep the evil of Nature out. In actuality, Salem may be keeping evil within its borders by isolating itself in the same way Dimmesdale isolates himself within his study and within his mind. Like Dimmesdale, the town has been “stifling with [its] own polluted breath”(128). The town has little contact with other communities or any other “kind[s] of intellect than those with which [they] habitually held converse”(120). This isolation breeds religious fervor, fear of the devil in the surrounding forest, and strict intolerance of sin in the Puritan town because it does not allow for an outside influence to check the proliferation of these fears and beliefs. Just as the forest isolates Dimmesdale and Hestor from Salem it isolates Salem from the rest of the world. In Hestor’s and Dimmesdale’s cases, the isolation tempts them to abandon society in favor of human weakness. Conversely, Salem’s isolation leads it to abandon the freedom of human nature in favor of the strict mores of society and religion.This isolation, and the way it causes the Salem townspeople to see things in absolute, black-and-white terms, is the true “Black Man” lurking in the novel. The townspeople of the text believe that the “Black Man haunts the forest”(74) around them. The novel, however, does not give any evidence suggesting the actual presence of the “Black Man” in the forest, but it does suggest that the town’s belief in the devil’s possession of Nature is a danger. Their belief in the devil of the woods causes the Puritans to blindly associate all of Nature with sin, danger, and temptation. Their assumption of evil leaves no room for the possibility of any positive influences to come from the forest. The townspeople, therefore, possess too narrow, and too one-sided a view of Nature. The novel shows that Salem’s society’s tendency to view thing in terms of absolutes extends far beyond their view of Nature. Their willingness to view Nature in terms of absolute evil mirrors their willingness to brand a woman with a scarlet letter and objectify her as the human embodiment of sin. The text itself presents a dual-sided image of Nature that refutes the citizens’ one-sided perception and suggests that the reader adopt the same awareness of duality and complexity in all things.In the novel, Nature acts not only as a mirror to society’s behaviors but also as a mirror to the characters’ emotions. Nature reveals the characters’ innermost feelings to the reader by reflecting them in its own outer aspect. Hestor’s melancholy spirits during her walk through the woods to meet Dimmesdale are reflected in the “chill and sombre”(179) weather. The sunlight eludes Hestor in the forest just as happiness eludes her in her life. The text even describes the long sought rays as “flitting cheerfulness”(179), directly addressing the parallel between the outer world of nature and the inner world of the characters’ feelings. The subsequent sudden “burst of sunshine”(199) that “pour[s] a very flood”(199) of light into the forest when Hestor and Dimmesdale declare their love for one another mirrors the characters’ joy at escaping from society’s laws and giving in to their true desires. This sunlight is like “a sudden smile of heaven”(199) that matches the smiles of Hestor and Dimmesdale.Readers may interpret this mirroring as the intense effects of isolation upon Hestor and Dimmesdale. This interpretation implies that the characters narcissistically interpret everything they see, including Nature, in terms relating to themselves1. In many respects the text supports this interpretation. The forest would probably have “been bright in Hestor’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s”(200) because of their happiness even if it had “kept its gloom”(200). However, the text seems to attempt to lead readers toward recognizing the complexities in all things. Therefore, readers may also interpret the reflections Nature seems to make of Hestor’s feelings and Dimmesdale’s feelings as more than just meaningless mirror images of the characters’ facial expressions. The reflections convey the very essences of the truth of the characters’ feelings and situations.Throughout the novel, Nature seems to extract truth from characters and events. The text presents Nature as a force that attempts to expose the secret truth of many situations. Nature especially attempts to reveal the truth about Dimmesdale’s and Chillingworth’s dark inner souls. Dimmesdale carries a “manifestation in [his] bodily frame”(133) of his spiritual sickness. This outer illness is Nature’s attempt to reveal the guilty truth within Dimmesdale. Likewise, Chillingworth also bears the marks of Nature’s efforts to reveal his sin in his physical appearance. He has a “low, dark and misshapen figure”(133) whose “ugly and evil”(124) facial expressions grow “more obvious to sight”(124) every day. This outer branding serves as Nature’s attempt to expose Chillingworth’s inner demons. Triumphantly, Nature reveals Chillingworth’s wickedness to Hestor and Dimmesdale during the night of the great meteor. “The meteoric light impart[s] a new expression”(152) of understanding to Dimmesdale. He sees the “malevolence with which”(152) Chillingworth stares at him, and he develops an intense “horror of the man”(153) who is his physician.Nature’s efforts to reveal truth do not only focus on Chillingworth’s or Dimmesdale’s sins. The text suggests that Nature also attempts to expose the inner guilt of Hestor as completely as it exposes Chillingworth’s or Dimmesdale’s sins. On the day of Hestor’s release from prison, Nature seems to pour sunlight upon Hestor “to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast”(75). Although this incident may only have been the perverse trick of Hestor’s “sick and morbid heart”(75), it also seems that Nature is highlighting the scarlet letter to signify that the focus of this situation is the letter and not Hestor. Nature’s role in the scene seems to be to show that Hestor’s life from this moment forward will revolve around the “A” on her breast. For most of the town, she exists only as the bearer of the symbol, the embodiment of shame, and not as a whole and complex person.Also seemingly in pursuit of revealing truth, Nature gives Hestor a child, Pearl, who is like a scarlet blossom that reveals the truth of her mother’s infidelity to the world. Pearl herself suggests that she “had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door”(108). The text reinforces the idea that Pearl is like “a lovely and immortal flower”(85) that blossoms out of the “rank luxuriance” of her mother’s “guilty passion”(85). Pearl then remains as a gift and a curse from Nature to forever remind Hestor and the citizens of Salem of the truth of her sin. True to the metaphor of the wild rose, Pearl appears to be a daughter of Nature. She embodies the “wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law”(199). She is “as wild as the sea breeze”(174) and is “gifted with a soul of the sea-fire”(240). Her kinship with Nature manifests itself not only in metaphors describing her wild personality, but also in her desire for and uncanny sense of the truth. Nature and Pearl together prevent Hestor from removing the scarlet symbol of truth from her chest. Pearl seems to know that Hestor cannot abandon entirely the society and the morals that the scarlet letter represents. She points “towards her mother’s breast”(205) while “assuming a singular air of authority”(205), insisting that her mother return the letter to its rightful place. Nature reflects Pearl’s angry “frown”(205), her “pointed finger, and imperious gesture”(205) in a little brook, “giving emphasis”(205) to Pearl’s demand. When Pearl’s distress escalates into “piercing shrieks”(206), the woods echo her cries. Because the forest reverberates Pearl’s screams, it seems “as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and encouragement”(206). The cooperation between Pearl and Nature causes Hestor to re-fasten the letter to her chest, symbolically continuing to declare the truth of her sin to the world.In fact, Pearl always seems to sense the truth of a situation, or to aid in exposing the truth. She constantly pesters Hestor about the meaning of the scarlet letter. As a young child she gathers “handfuls of wild-flowers and fling[s] them, one by one, at her mother’s bosom”(94), celebrating whenever she hits the scarlet letter. She seems to know that the scarlet letter, and consequently truth, are the keys to everything. Eventually, she comprehends that the letter denotes something sinful, something relating to the “Black Man”. She mentions Dimmesdale’s “hand over his heart”(184) when she sees him in the forest with her mother and wants to know why he does “not wear it outside his bosom”(184) as Hestor does. Perhaps through her kinship to Nature, she uncannily understands that Dimmesdale’s infirmity is due to his sinful spirit. She also quickly grasps that Dimmesdale’s sin somehow ties to her mother’s sin, and that declaring a sin in the way her mother does is best. Also in her pursuit of truth, she fervently desires Dimmesdale to stand with her and Hestor in the sunlight, unknowingly requesting that her father reveal the truth about the bond between them all.Her quest for truth eventually leads her to “pledge that she [will] grow up amid human joy and sorrow”(251), ceasing to “forever do battle with the world”(251), and instead “be a woman in it”(251). The novel culminates its message of duality by showing the lawless child of nature embrace, in part, the morality of society. In order to live truth, Pearl must hold on to her wild roots, while accepting a civilized future. She must free herself from the isolation of New England, but not give herself over to the complete lawlessness of the forest. She seems on the verge of living the message of the novel by accepting the duality of her nature.
Evolution is defined as “a process of change”(Webster’s Dictionary), and it has been proved many times in the past that sin is a direct process that leads to change in one’s spiritual as well as fleshly life. The three main characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, are all revealed as sinners and whether for the best or for the worst, reveal sin’s “evolution” upon their lives. Hawthorne reveals a lucid portrayal of this change by providing the reader insight into the deepest chambers of the characters’ thoughts regarding this sin.Hester Prynne first appears to the reader as a horrible and unrighteous woman, gossiped about by all the “pious” and “righteous” puritans, but yet it is stated “…seen in this beautiful woman…an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity…”(54). This statement proves that she gives the onlookers a vision of the Virgin Mary, beautiful, innocent, and pure. Upon her return to the prison she erupts into an emotional frenzy and she was “…found to be in a state of nervous excitement…”(67) leaving Master Brackett in shambles of what he is to do with this “possessed” woman. However, her independence is revealed when she begins a profession of needlework, which allowed Hester “…to supply food for her thriving infant and herself.” (78) This statement shows that Hester was trying to let this sin and her living token of sin (Pearl) affect her positively and help her achieve the redemption she so faithfully sought.Starting in the thirteenth chapter and thus onward, Hester’s position in the puritan society begins to transform from the “unrighteous hussy,” to a “…self-ordained Sister of Mercy…”(158) and conquers back the notoriety of some of her former ridiculers by her soft, gentle, giving, and merciful nature. The Scarlet Letter “A” evolved from a meaning of “Adultery” to a strong interpretation as meaning “Able.” Soon the reader is shown a happy Hester with “…the thrill of another joy,” (200) when her and Dimmesdale’s love are reunited in chapter seventeen. Although her sin had not been forgotten it merely lay dormant, and so dormant that Hester’s heart no longer felt the burden after removing the Scarlet Letter. In the end Hester reveals once more to the reader her strength and that she was and is, now more than ever, the backbone of the affair when she helped carry Dimmesdale onto the scaffold. This sin has “evolved” Hester, not into a viler sinner, but into a more caring, compassionate, and merciful human being, which shows not only that the Scarlet Letter showed its purpose, but also that her faith and resolve in God allowed her not to get dismayed and bound to her sin, but to thrive within the glory and grace which God gives us. It says Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As well, Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Although to some this may not be considered “exact” due to different doctrines of theology, this makes the reader ponder that Hester died spiritually at the time of this sin, that she was yet reborn once again, and cleansed by the wonderful hand of God, by her faith in her Lord and Heavenly Father. This thought proves that Hester “evolved” her life into a more faithful, humble life on account of this sin, which in the long run, increased her spiritual walk with God.The character of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is revealed as a “…pale young man…”(63) with “…eloquence of religious fervor…and a dewy purity of thought” (64). Never would such a “pious” and “religious” reverend commit such an act as adultery, but it is shown that not even the reverenced Arthur Dimmesdale was spotless, for it says in Romans 3:23-24 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is Christ Jesus…” As the novel continues, the reader sees that this notable Reverend is slowing dying. Despite Dimmesdale’s protests, “I need no medicine…” (118), the puritan community sees it as Providence that Chillingworth should be his doctor to help cure him of his ailment. Dimmesdale becomes “…feeble…” (139) in body structure, and his cheeks grow paler every Sabbath day. Though he was greatly reverenced, his mind only thought of that as a greater burden, that he was a “false-prophet” and a “hypocrite” who had led so many “pious” men and woman into a disillusion of his true self. Dimmesdale resorted to punishing himself by whipping his back, and he had horrid visions concerning Hester and Pearl. In chapter seventeen he reveals to Hester that he is “…most miserable…” (188) and says that his life was “…all falsehood!”(188). After delivering his most prestigious sermon to date, as the progression continued to the marketplace, in an act of utter brokenness, and yet strength, he lifts the burden of his sin and admits to the entire crowd his adultery, and with a saying very suitable, his last words were “God is merciful…Praise be his name!”(252). This incident tells the reader that Dimmesdale knew that God was not responsible for the pain he had felt for those seven years, and that it was sent by the devil. Dimmesdale also indicates that “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men,” (Matthew 12:31), namely, that God would not punish him for a sin that he had repented of, and that God had forgiven. Thus although the minister’s “evolution of sin” did not have as much of a positive affect as on Hester, it did help him to “evolve” more into his faith and, relying on that faith in the end, to grant him redemption by the merciful grace of God.Roger Chillingworth, otherwise known as Roger Prynne, was know to all of the Puritan community as “…the man of skill, the kind and friendly physician…” (120). After witnessing his once pure bride standing on the “pedestal of shame” carrying her token of sin, he was driven to “…a quiet depth of malice…”(136) as he sought revenge upon the man who stole his wife. Jesus says revenge is unrighteous, saying “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good those to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Yet, instead of following the direct will of God, he is bent on revenge and thus becomes the captive of sin. It says in John 8:34 “…Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin.” Whereas all people commit sin, it is those who dwell within that sin and consistently repeat the sin who become the servants of that sin, and Roger Chillingworth become a full-fledged disciple of revenge. Hester thought that this quest for revenge transformed the old scholar from “…a wise and just man into a fiend.”(170). Reverend Dimmesdale compares Chillingworth’s sin to Hester’s and his own and states that Chillingworth was the vilest sinner for he “violated the sanctity of a human heart.” (191). Dimmesdale realizes Chillingworth is a “…deadly enemy…” (192) with “…disturbed bad evil…”(247) and capable of any devious and hellacious action. The reader sees that this “servant” of sin, although some consider him a victim, was in fact held in bondage to sin by his lust for revenge, which “evolved” his life in the worst possible way. This possessed scholar sought to take justice, which is God’s, into his own hands and inevitably he failed to receive the outcome he so vigorously sought.Hester and Dimmesdale both chose to let their sin in some way help them to achieve their redemption, whereas Chillingworth fell deeply in bondage to his self-righteous sin. Sin will forever “evolve” life, change perspectives, and lead to growth or demise. The characters are testaments to what it says in Ephesians 2:8 “God is able and willing to forgive the vilest sinner.”
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes the consequences of one sinful act in a Puritan community. This sinful act involves three main characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingsworth. As The Scarlet Letter progresses, each character copes with his or her sin differently, and therefore the sin affects them differently. Shirley Guthrie writes, “There are three types of sin, 1) repentive sin, 2) unrepentive or hidden sin, and 3) deadly sin (7 types: lust, sloth, wrath, envy, gluttony, greed, and pride). All three can be forgiven by God’s grace, but only through the asking in Jesus’ Name”(pp. 105). Hawthorne allows The Scarlet Letter to be a backdrop, illuminating the truth of each character. This truth being that each character is a symbolic representation of one type of sin. Hester becomes repentive sin, Dimmesdale is unrepentive, and Chillingsworth is deadly sin. As each character develops, so matures the sin, which they represent.Hester’s adulterous affair, which is quickly discovered through her pregnancy, culminates in her wearing the symbolic representation of her sin, the scarlet A. Hester learns to find forgiveness of her sin though the trials of wearing the A. Hester becomes repentive sin to the reader. Like Hester, King David of the Bible was in a adulterous affair, yet he became one of God’s greatest kings of the old testament. This was accomplished through humble confession of sin for forgiveness. David writes, “So I confessed my sins and told them all to You. I said, ‘I’ll tell the Lord each one of my sins.’ Then you forgave me and took away my guilt”(Ps.32:5). David shows how the open confession of sin can free the sinner for the burden of guilt, but sin always has consequences. David watches his youngest son, born from the adulterous affair, die. Hester is forgiven by her repentive behavior, but still finds her daughter an incarnate of her sin. Malcolm Cowley writes, “[Hester’s] terror concerning her strange elvish child presents retribution in a form which is new and natural:–her slow and painful purification through repentance in crowned by no perfect happiness, such as awaits the decline of those who have no dark and bitter past to remember”(pp.634). Hawthorn shows through Hester, how repentive sin, though forgiven, is always with usan embodiment of our failure in living up to God’s perfect law.Dimmesdale is always hidden in the background of The Scarlet Lettera shadowy character in pain. Hawthorne purposely does this to always keep on the readers mind what he truly represents. Dimmesdale is unrepentive of hidden sin. He is the father of Pearl, yet his fear of the community keeps him from ever taking the step that Hester has taken. Dimmesdale hides his sin and it festers through his guilt. Dimmesdale begins to deteriorate. The Bible reads, “When I tell wicked people they will die because of their sins, and they do not [repent] their sinful ways, they must be punished. Now suppose faithful people start sinning, and I decide to put stumbling blocks in their paths to make them fall. They deserve to die because of their [unrepentive] sin”(Ezek.3:18-20). This passage shows the consequences of unrepentive sin, and the greater responsibility place on the faithful. Dimmesdale is a biblical leader in the Puritan community, and as such, he faces a harsher punishment for his hidden sin. Henry James writes, “It is upon [Dimmesdale] that the author project most frequently the cold, thin ray of his fitfully-moving lantern of guiltThe idea of a mystic A which the young minister finds imprinted upon his breast and eating into his flesh”(pp.108, 113). When Hawthorne finally has his minister reveal his hidden sin, it is too late, and he dies on the scaffold. Dimmesdale cannot escape his unrepentive sin, and it devours him whole.Hawthorne describes Chillingsworth almost as Satan Himself. Chillingsworth is a vengeful husband, who reappears with destruction on his mind, a conniving liar who becomes the embodiment of the Bible’s seven deadly sins. He prides himself on his intellect and wealth. He lust after and envies Hester’s youth. He is greedy to regain his lost property [Hester] or destroy in through his wrath. Chillingsworth is Hawthorne’s vision of evil. The Bible reads, “Rebelling against God or disobeying him because you are proud in just as bad as worshipping idols or asking them for advise”(1 Sam15:23). Through pride, Chillingsworth steps from Gods grace and never looks back, he becomes a single-minded sinner. George Ripley writes, “[Chillingsworth], who holds a principal place in the development of the plot, is depicted with such fearful directness and vigor that his infernal presence must long haunt the chambers of memory”(pp.2). Chillingsworth becomes the Devil, who hunts after Hester’s immortal soul, and like that King of Darkness, must face Gods judgment at the end of his life. The seven deadly sins, becomes the anchors that drag Chillingsworth to Hell.Hawthorne’s character glow with the power he imbues them with, they are sin and its judgment. The Bible reads, “Sin is what gives death its sting, and the Law is the power behind sin”(1 Cor.15:56). Simply put, no one need fear death that follows God’s commandments, but for those who sin, death becomes fearful. None can escapes death’s grasp, but to the forgiven, it is the next step to immortality. As Paul once wrote to a newfound church, “Death, has lost the battle! Where is its victory? Where is its sting?”(1 Cor15:54-55).Work CitedContemporary English Version. “Holy Bible” American Bible Society New York 1979Cowley, Malcolm. “The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” The Athenaeum Chicago 1850Guthrie, Shirley. “Christian Doctrine” Westminster/John Knox Press Kentucky 1973James, Henry. “Hawthorne” Harper and Brother Publishers New Haven 1876Ripley, George. “Review of New Books: ‘The Scarlet Letter'” New York Daily Tribune New York 1920
Hawthorne wrote his great, psychological novel, The Scarlet Letter, not only in the literal sense, but also symbolically to thoroughly instill his strong ideas into the minds of readers. He uses sunshine, the forest, roses, the scarlet letter, Pearl, and a prison door to portray deeper thoughts. The purpose of using symbolism rather than just telling something to the reader outright is: to makes him/her think more, delve into the true meaning of things, and to convey a much deeper image of Hawthorne’s words.The prison door conveys an intense image of the Puritanical severity of the law. Hawthorne describes the prison in The Scarlet Letter as old, rusted, yet strong with a “door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes” (34). This is representative of how the laws of the Puritans have lasted through time and are taken very seriously. Also, the description shows that there is an inability to break free from the regulations. Another thing the passage demonstrates is that the Puritans have no tolerance of deviance.A symbol of both goodness and uninhibited passion is sunshine. Hester says to Pearl, “Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee” meaning that she has no pureness to offer to Pearl, because she had committed sin, and that Pearl should obtain her own (Hawthorne 72). Another time in which the sunshine signifies innocence is when Pearl says to her mother, “the sunshine does not love you” (Hawthorne 127). The sunshine flees from Hester and only shines on Pearl, because Pearl is wholesome and innocent and Hester is not. Hester and Dimmesdale met in the forest, let go of their inhibitions, and felt free from the moral restrictions that apply in Boston, when this occurred “forth burst the sunshine,” which is indicating that their unrestrained passion had been set free (Hawthorne 140). In the forest they were able to surrender to their feelings of passion for one another.In The Scarlet Letter Boston represents morality and the surrounding forest epitomizes immorality. Hester decided to live “(o)n the outskirts of the town…not in close vicinity to any other habitation,” which displays the fact that she was in limbo between the moral and immoral universes and decided to live in both simultaneously (Hawthorne 57). The forest was a mutual place for Hester and Dimmesdale to revive their love and passion, “(s)o strangely did they meet, in the dim wood” (Hawthorne 131). The fact that Hester and Dimmesdale met in the woods proves that the forest was an immoral place where they could express their true emotions. The winding, melancholy brook in the forest represents Hester’s uncertainness about what will happen in her life. There are many things blocking her view of what is to come, the same as “(a)ll these giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook” (Hawthorne 129). There is an innumerable amount of possibilities for Hester’s life, and she is unsure of which one she will choose.One thing Hester has already chosen for her life is passion, and the symbol for her passion is the rose. Outside the prison where Hester stayed for part of her punishment “was a wild rosebush” that had “survived out of the stern old wilderness” (Hawthorne 35). Connecting the rosebush to the wilderness denotes that passion is an immoral thing. Also, putting the rosebush directly outside of the prison indicates that at that point in time Hester was at the peak of her passionate state. Pearl is the offspring of Hester’s passion, “plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door,” thus Pearl and the rose are the moral elements of the novel (Hawthorne 78). Until the moral is obvious and the sin is in the open, Pearl will not be satisfied, “Pearl, seeing the rosebushes, began to cry for a red rose” (Hawthorne 75). Desperately Pearl wants everything to be morally correct and pure, and she will continue to be bothersome until that occurs.An additional bothersome entity in Hester’s life is the scarlet letter. The symbol of the scarlet letter upon her bosom has a substantial influence on Hester’s existence. An image of the magnitude in which the brand impacts her is exhibited when Hester looks into a convex mirror, “the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance” (Hawthorne 74). Because of the scarlet “A” Hester was ostracized “(i)t had the effect of a spell, taking her out of ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself” (Hawthorne 39). As a badge of Hester’s sin, the scarlet letter makes others in the community feel superior to her. The “A” also exemplifies the hidden shame of the community, “sometimes…she felt an eye-a human eye- upon the ignominious brand…as if half of her agony were shared” (Hawthorne 60-61). Hester was not the only sinner in the community; others would look at the brand and sympathize with her,but they would never fess up to their sins nor forgive Hester for hers. Preachers would single Hester out as an example of sin, “Clergymen paused in the street to address words of exhortation” (Hawthorne 60). As Hester took off the letter in the forest she felt free, “(s)he had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom” (Hawthorne 140). Her beauty was revived, as was her passion, and the sun shone brightly upon her. Even though Hester felt an immense liberty, Pearl did not allow her to keep the “A” off.Pearl is quite possibly the most important symbol in The Scarlet Letter. She is the scarlet letter come to life. Pearl is sent to punish Hester just like the badge of shame given by the magistrates. Pearl is the product of Hester’s sin and embodies the shame of her adultery. The meaning of Pearl’s name is a significant representation of what she is, “as being of great price-purchased with all she had-her mother’s only treasure” (Hawthorne 62). Hester gave up everything to have Pearl, most importantly her respect in the community. Pearl places disgrace upon her mother by violating moral codes set by the Puritans, including “(skipping) irreverently from one grave to another” and “(throwing) one of the prickly burrs at the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale” (Hawthorne 93-94). When Hester threw aside the scarlet letter, Pearl would not come to her. This is because essentially when tossing the badge of shame away she is throwing Pearl away. When Hester figures out that the reason Pearl will not come to her is because she is not wearing the “A,” she says, “Bring it hither!” and Pearl replies, “Come thou and take it up!” (Hawthorne 146). Pearl will not bring the letter to Hester, because she is teaching Hester and Dimmesdale that passions overrun them without thinking of the consequences, but more importantly she is making them take responsibility for their actions. Pearl’s mission given by Providence is to make her father announce his guilt, until doing this she cannot know herself. When Dimmesdale stood upon the scaffold, revealed his sin, and died, “Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled” (Hawthorne 176). On that day “a spell was broken” and Pearl “developed all her sympathies” (Hawthorne 176). Finally, Pearl’s role as the scarlet letter come to life was complete and she could go on to live a normal life with her mother. Pearl accomplished her God-given mission and helped to bring peace to her mother and her father.Without symbolism in the novel, the images presented would not be as potent. Every aspect in a figurative piece of literature is important, from the seemingly smallest thing, such as the prison door tomain characters, like Pearl. Hawthorne wrote his great, psychological novel, The Scarlet Letter, not only in the literal sense, but also symbolically to thoroughly instill his strong ideas into the minds of readers.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us,” stated Oliver Wendell Holmes. This eventually proves to be especially true for Hester Prynne, the main character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne, a fair young maiden whose husband had disappeared two years prior to the opening of the novel, has an affair with the pastor of her Puritan church, resulting in the birth of her uncontrollable child Pearl. Because of this act of adultery, Hester Prynne is branded by the scarlet letter “A,” which she is forced to forever wear upon her attire. The plot thickens as Hester’s former husband returns to New England and becomes fixated upon the idea of revenge towards Hester’s anonymous partner in sin. At the same time, the feeble pastor slowly begins to waste away towards the gloomy gates of death. However, as those around her grow ever weaker or morally decayed, Hester grows ever stronger. Hester grows so strong and morally righteous that it appears that she is actually favored by Hawthorne despite her ³sin.² The qualities which cause Hester to be favored are her traits of helpfulness towards others, her intense maternal love towards Pearl, and her defiance and pride demonstrated towards those who attempt to impose their values upon her.Even as those she assisted were cruel towards her, Hester remained generous and helpful towards others. For example, after becoming recognized as a talented seamstress and gradually beginning to earn fairly large sums of money, ³Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them.² This proves that although Hester was rejected by society, she continued to care for this same community. She had such a kind nature and willingness to assist others that the fact that those whom she fed often returned the generosity with nothing but insults did not cause her to cease in her endeavors. Then, towards the end of the novel, after returning from Europe to the New England town in which she had sinned and repented numerous years before, Hester began to counsel other unfaithful women. For example, ³Hester comforted and counseled them as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” This also demonstrates Hester’s generosity and helpfulness. Although the New England town harbored such unpleasant memories for her, she was willing to return in order to assist others in need. She was willing to relive her own pain and absorb the pain of others in order to benefit future generations, and she was willing to give back to a society which had given nothing to her.Hester harbored an intense love for her child Pearl although the child’s mischievous and imp-like qualities brought nothing but pain to the child’s mother. This is demonstrated as Hester, after having her talents as a seamstress publicized, began to change the attire of her family. For example, ³Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most somber hue; with only that one ornament,–the scarlet letter,–which it was her doom to wear. The child’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fanciful, or, we may rather say, a fantastic ingenuity, which served, indeed, to heighten the airy charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl.² This demonstrates that although Hester herself would dress only plainly in order to redeem her lost purity, she wished to make her child stand out. She had such an intense love for the child that she wanted only the absolute best for Pearl. Also, Hester was simply astounded and horrified at the idea of Pearl being taken away from her when this question was brought to the governor. This is demonstrated in the line, “‘Speak thou for me!’ cried she. ‘Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest, – for thou hast sympathies which these men lack! – thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are, when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!'” Hester’s speech demonstrated that her only true reason for life was the child, and that if that one richness of her life was devoured by Puritan thought and society, she would have lost all. Her child was her heart, love, and life. It was all that she had left to lose, and she would do anything to protect her Pearl.Though Hester was accused of what Puritans considered to be an extraordinarily serious crime, she remained proud and defiant. While on the scaffold, Hester ³with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors.² Although the burning stares of the townspeople were upon her, Hester remained strong and managed a grin in order to anger the public and maintain her dignity. Also whilst upon the scaffold, Hester revealed upon her gown ³in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of thread,…the letter A.’ ” Although Hester was meant to be chastised by the letter ³A,² rather than submissively creating a dark and bitter badge of shame, she devised a lavish embroidery more suited for an affluent queen than an outcaste of society. This lawful and silent act of rebellion proved her defiance and pride, because rather than hiding from the cruel crowd, Hester proudly displayed herself before it.Hence, due to her generous and compassionate nature, her extreme love for her daughter Pearl, and her defiance towards the narrow-minded townspeople of her community, Hester came across as a character loved and admired by the author. In the quote mentioned in the introduction to this essay, Oliver Wendall Holmes stated that what previously had occurred and what are yet to occur are not important when compared with a person’s true nature. For Hester Prynne, though she had sinned in her past, she came across as strong and admirable because she was a benevolent person on the inside. She sought purity and truth to compensate for her unalterable past. Therefore, her wrongdoings were eventually overlooked in enlightenment of her better qualities. A coward can hind in the shadows of reputations and prejudgments, but only a hero can overcome these and manage to step into the daylight.
A few moments before Reverend Dimmsdale professes his sin to the crowd of onlookers, Hester’s hopes of escape are dashed by the knowledge that Roger Chillingworth also booked a passage on the departing shipa ship that she prayed would give her and her beloved freedom from the curse of the Scarlet Letter. Little Pearl, however, relays the message to her mother that her trip has been spoilt by the addition of the evil Chillingworth. A well-meaning sailor tells Pearl, “So let thy mother take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her this, thou witch-baby?” (224), implying that an additional passenger will be aboard the ship come departure. Hester, paling after hearing the news, watches her utopian plans fall to ruins as the minister breathes his last breath and she is once again left alone with Pearl, without escape from her bondage. The term “witch-baby,” though never repeated explicitly in other areas of The Scarlet Letter, demonstrates Hawthorne’s fascination with the language of witchery and its association with a child of the netherworld, Pearl.Before the sailor’s intriguing comment to the “witch-baby,” Pearl is accosted by the strange Mistress Hibbins who asks, “They say, child, thou art of the lineage of the Prince of the Air! Wilt thou ride with me, some fine night to see thy father?” (222). From this question, Pearl’s witch-like characteristics acquire a negative connotation due to Hibbins’ insinuation that she could be associated with Satan. Pearl, however, rather than repulsed by the supposed witch’s question, repeats her phrase to the sailor after he calls her “witch-baby.” Pearl says, “Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!” “If thou callest me that ill name, I will tell him of thee; and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!” (224). From these few examples, Hawthorne illustrates, through the language associated with Pearl, that otherworldly phrases will always follow the child. Even her own mother, Hester, continually looks upon the child as something associated with fantasy, witchery or ephemera. Hawthorne uses such words as “airy sprite,” “elf,” “fairy” and “imp” to denote Pearl’s actions and attitudes. Moreover, other characters in the novel illustrate the child through their own observations as that of another world inhabited by fairies and witches. Hester’s contemporaries cannot positively explain Pearl’s unusual sensibility and resort to that of her spirit of immortality. Even the Reverend Dimmsdale shows a certain amount of confusion when describing the tiny child. Again, Hawthorne resorts to the language of mystery when the man says to Hester, “In Pearl’s young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me” (193). Mistress Hibbins, though aged and frightening, is again compared to the young child solely because they both share Hawthorne’s understanding of unknown, inhuman power. The idea of the “witch-baby” lives in almost every description of Pearl, even when Mr. Wilson sees her in the hallway of the Governor’s home and exclaims, “The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I professShe needs no old woman’s broomstick to fly withal!” (104). Bellingham comments as well that Pearl appears to be something from his old world in Englandsomething hardly describable in such an environment as Puritan New England. He calls Pearl a “small apparition,” a child of the “Lord of Misrule” (98). Though much of Hawthorne’s description of Pearl revolves around the Prince of Air or the Lord of Misrule, the otherworldliness of Pearl does not have a terribly negative connotationrather, she seems steeped in another reality that is inaccessible by the puritans of Boston. The little girl tends to exist even outside the sphere of her outcast mother; Hawthorne, to prove the point of Pearl’s mysterious identity, associates her with the sprites, elves and imps of a world that no human knows intimately. His constant use of “witchery” language gives Pearl a certain character sense that implies her fate as a unknown resident of another land.
In Hawthorne’s intricately woven tale The Scarlet Letter, his characters create a parallel theme with the Biblical story of Original Sin. By examining the characters and their interactions and insights about each other, one can examine the symbolic parallels with the Garden of Eden.One aspect of the Garden of Eden theme is portrayed by the connection of Hester and Dimmesdale. Hester’s story parallels Eve, the original mother of mankind, a woman exiled from the New Garden of Eden due to an unforgivable sin. She is doomed forever to walk outside the garden, no longer able to partake of the fruits of paradise, barred from reentry by seeming “divine intervention.” Hester is the temptress of Dimmesdale, offering him the fruit of good and evil which, heretofore, removes all naivete and forces him to walk, tortured, through the world with the knowledge of right, wrong, and the magnitude of his sin seeming to accost him at each new turn of the dim path down which he walks.Dimmesdale is a fallen hero, one of God’s chosen, who has fallen from grace in the moment of his original sin. He, also, is excluded form society because once his eyes are opened with the knowledge of good and evil, he cannot remain a true member of the blind, child-like Puritan society. Instead of leading the life of brilliance one would expect to arise from Dimmesdale’s profound faith, he is ever tortured by his two-faced appearance. He imagines, “A herd of diabolic shapes grinned and mocked at the pale minister, and beckoned him away with them” (Hawthorne 141). Thus, Dimmesdale provides his own character insight as he examines his divided character and his appearance. He realizes that society is innocent and blind, and that, even while admitting to his guilt, they cannot believe him because they do not see the evil. “He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood” (Hawthorne 1410.Hester’s connection with Dimmesdale appears more deeply rooted, just as Eve was Adam’s wife in such a connected way because “from Adam’s rib there was made a woman” (the Holy Bible). When Dimmesdale and Hester meet again after their sin, their reaction is close to that of Adam and Eve who, having eaten of the fruit, discover their nakedness and hide from the Lord in the shadows of the garden. When Hester meets Dimmesdale on his forest walk, the pair feel an unvoiced need to hide in the shadows, in both a moral and a physical sense. “Without a word more spoken neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpressed consent they glided back into the shadow of the woods whence Hester had emerged” (Hawthorne 181). Here they feel they can nearly return to the position of innocence they held before their fall.Yet none of this sin would have occurred without the serpent, the earthly embodiment of the Devil, a creature seeking the ruin of morality and righteousness. Chillingworth represents this Black Man, outright named as such a satanic character numerous times throughout the novel by the insights of various characters. Chillingworth, once an upright man, reduces himself to a state of groveling, condemned to crawl across the earth on his belly because of his role as an evil tempter. He admits to Hester, “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay” (Hawthorne 79). He admits that he is the cause of Hester’s sin, the malevolent character who pushes an innocent youth quickly toward the brink of ruin. Once he has wreaked this original havoc, the poisonous evil has entered his soul, causing him to determine, “I shall seek this man as I have sought truth in books, as I have sought gold in alchemy” (Hawthorne 80). This serpentine character is determined to carry his evil plot to a revengeful level, prodded onward by his selfish, scheming heart.The pearl that Dimmesdale steals by violating the marital trust is sought ceaselessly by Chillingworth. When the devilish fiend finds he cannot again obtain the beautiful treasure, he decides instead to destroy the soul of the innocent thief, who has only a vague notion of his presence. Just as Satan leaves a trail of sin and sorrow, so does Chillingworth leave a trail of black decay of morality. When Hester confronts her former husband about his behavior, she finds a darkness in his soul that he delights in. Surprised, “Hester gazed after him a little while, looking with half-fantastic curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early spring would not be blighted beneath him, sear and brown” (Hawthorne 168). Thus, Chillingworth handsomely finishes the parallel of Original Sin, ensconcing himself in darkness and malevolent desires.By examining thematic links to the story of the downfall of man, one can trace a new level of character insight. One examines the role of Adam, Eve, and the Devil in the New Garden of Eden, following their sin and exile closely in the characters of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth.
Why does Hawthorne give Hester Prynne the name Hester? Hawthorne himself, as is well known, changed his family name from Hathorne, to distance himself from those Puritan ancestors whose achievements and excesses haunted his fiction. The Scarlet Letter tells of Roger Prynne’s reinvention of himself by an act of naming: when he finds his wife Hester in disgrace in the new world he adopts the name Chillingworth. Hester names Pearl with reference to the gospel of Matthew: “But she named the infant ‘Pearl,’ as being of great price, – purchased with all she had, – her mother’s only treasure!” (1:89). (1) The romance’s central symbol, on the other hand, the scarlet letter A, resists the sort of hermeneutic rigidity that naming entails. As an initial letter, or simply as an initial, the A notoriously hints at all sorts of names while claiming none. As a great orchestrator of meanings, Hawthorne is aware that names are full and even overfull of meanings, and he could in no way be said to arrive at his characters’ names casually. It is surprising, then, that critics of Hawthorne have not carefully considered the question of Hester’s name. The multiplicity of biblical intertexts may reflect Hawthorne’s desire to write a story of new world Puritanism that would acknowledge and, moreover, incorporate the extreme textualization of that society. Sacvan Bercovitch remarks that Hester Prynne “builds upon the tradition of the biblical Esther – homiletic exemplum of sorrow, duty, and love, and figure of the Virgin Mary . . . . But primarily Hawthorne’s ‘sermon’ traces the education of an American Esther.” Bercovitch does not draw any further parallels between the Book of Esther and The Scarlet Letter. Kristin Herzog and Luther S. Luedtke mention the coincidence of names in reference to Hester’s magisterial bearing.(4) To my knowledge there are no other references to the Book of Esther in the literature on Hawthorne. The lack of any serious critical investigation of The Scarlet Letter’s relation to the Book of Esther, despite the fairly broad hint of Hester’s name, remains puzzling. It may be that investigators have been thrown off track by Hawthorne’s revolutionary approach to the Book of Esther, his delight in turning the traditional story in quite untraditional ways. “Hawthorne was a diligent reader of the Bible,” Hawthorne’s publisher, James T. Fields, recorded in his memoirs, “and when sometimes, in my ignorant way, I would question the use of a word, he would almost always refer me to the Bible as his authority.”(8) Recent critics have tended to scant Hawthorne’s imaginative involvement with biblical literature (as compared, say, with Melville’s), but have not done so entirely. For instance, Sacvan Bercovitch argues in an essay on “Endicott and the Red Cross” that Hawthorne’s familiarity with traditions of biblical exegesis is “subtler and more extensive than his critics have acknowledged,” and Frederick Newberry in an essay on “The Minister’s Black Veil” claims that “Hawthorne’s sophisticated grasp of [the] theological and historical background is indisputable.”(9) Even without these expert opinions, Hawthorne’s deep reading in Puritan literature and his understanding of the Puritans would necessarily entail a sophisticated grasp of scripture and divinity. By leaning on the Book of Esther, by asking (however quietly) to be read through the scrim and outline (however faded) of the Book of Esther, The Scarlet Letter positions itself as a kind of updated scripture that must be considered in the context of the broader trend Buell describes in antebellum writing. Yet if The Scarlet Letter has quasi-scriptural pretensions they are undercut by the scarlet letter itself, the letter Hester is made to wear. As a hermeneutically destabilized text, Hester’s A hints at the interpretive instability of any text. Hawthorne appears to throw into question his own appeal to the authority of scripture, to the grounding ur-text of the Book of Esther, by making of the “A” a symbol of authority’s inability to control interpretation. These connections are extensive and elusive, at once apparent and veiled. (12) Not only are there many threads that connect Esther and Hester (a connection confirmed and authorized by Hester’s name), but Arthur Dimmesdale finds a counterpart in Mordechai (a spiritual leader of the Jews whose secret and ambiguous relationship to Esther is never resolved), as does Roger Chillingworth in Haman (who ruins himself in the course of an extravagant revenge against Mordechai). Major parallels include a central plot episode that the two texts share, analogies between the principal characters, and thematic congruenciesVisit to Magistrate. The decisive moment for Queen Esther occurs when she risks death to appear at King Ahasuerus’s inner court. Hester’s courageous visit to Governor Bellingham’s mansion to plead to be allowed to keep Pearl – she felt that she “possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to the death” (1:116) – corresponds to her namesake’s courageous visit. Both heroines have until this moment been at least outwardly obedient to the discipline of the regimes under which they live. In these scenes, they give up their passivity. Esther receives the clemency of the King, who promises to grant any request she makes; Esther’s namesake Hester, appealing to Bellingham as to a king (and herself distinguished by the scarlet letter as if she were “a great lady in the land”), also has her request granted. Bellingham’s decree is that she will be allowed to keep Pearl. There are broader analogies between Esther and Hester than their dramatic scenes before the patriarchs of their respective societies. “Mine was the first wrong,” Chillingworth says to Hester, “when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay” (1:74). Esther too has been brought into “a false and unnatural relation” with the much older Ahasuerus; she is first brought into his harem and then made his wife. “I felt no love, nor feigned any” (1:74), Hester tells Chillingworth; Esther feels no love, nor feigns any, for Ahasuerus. To the extent that Hester represents Hawthorne’s version of Esther, Hawthorne seems to imagine an Esther who is isolated and yet inwardly strengthened by her connection with a distant, older man. The “rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic” (1:83) that Hester has in her nature may thus develop naturally from the textual matrix out of which she in part emerges. Esther is Mordechai’s cousin, but she is orphaned and is raised by Mordechai in his house. Rabbinical interpreters pick up on a play on the Hebrew word “l’beit” (suggesting Mordechai brings Esther up to live in his house, to be his wife), and hold that Esther and Mordechai are married at the time that Esther is made part of Ahasuerus’s harem. In the Septuagint version of the story, Esther and Mordechai – the passionate woman and the timid man of God – not only have a secret sexual involvement but are related to each other. “And he [Mordechai] had a foster-child, daughter of Aminadab her father’s brother, and her name was Esther; and when her parents were dead, he brought her up for a wife for himself; and the damsel was beautiful” (Esther 2:7). To the extent that Dimmesdale represents Hawthorne’s version of Mordechai, Hawthorne seems to imagine Mordechai as a weak figure who looks helplessly on as the woman he cares for is made to endure a long ordeal of shame, solitude, and isolation. Haman and Chillingworth are less fully-developed characters who come to make “the very principle of [their] life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge” (1:260) – Haman’s revenge against Mordechai, Chillingworth’s against Dimmesdale. In an 1847 journal entry Hawthorne jotted down an idea for “a story of the effects of revenge in diabolizing him who indulges in it” (8:278); the diabolizing effects of Haman’s revenge may have struck him in this regard. (Another journal entry of Hawthorne’s seems to look forward to a disguised representation of biblical characters: “The famous characters of history – to imagine their spirits now extant on earth, in the guise of various public or private personages” [8:235].) The mechanics of vengeance, however, break down. Haman’s pursuit of Mordechai leads to his death on the gallows he has had built for his enemy, and to Mordechai’s accession to power; Chillingworth’s pursuit of Dimmesdale leads to his public undoing on the scaffold of the pillory, and to Dimmesdale’s death of “triumphant ignominy before the people” (1:257). The revenge in both texts ironically exalts its object even as it debases its agent; the very reverse of what the avenger seeks comes to pass. On Haman’s death his property is given to Esther; on Chillingworth’s Pearl is made “the richest heiress of her day, in the New World” (1:261). Queen Esther and Hester Prynne both must keep, and must finally disclose, a secret. Esther conceals her relationship with Mordechai, Hester her relationship with Dimmesdale. “Esther had not told of her people or her kindred, for Mordechai had instructed her not to tell” (Esther 2:10); Hester’s keeping Dimmesdale’s secret is of course essential to The Scarlet Letter. Were either Esther or her namesake Hester to come forward with her secret, the course of revenge plotted against (respectively) Mordechai and Dimmesdale would be undone and the malevolent third character (Haman and Chillingworth) rendered harmless. Haman would not be able to exact his revenge against a relative of the Queen and against the Queen’s people; Chillingworth would not be able to exact his revenge against Dimmesdale if his relationship to Hester were known. The turning point of both texts may thus be the heroine’s revelation of her secret identity. Both Esther and Hester hold religious beliefs unacceptable to the societies in which they find themselves. Esther must hide her Judaism from Ahasuerus and his ministers (the Book of Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile), Hester her antinomian inclinations from Bellingham and his ministers (The Scarlet Letter takes place during the Puritans’ exile in America). Hester’s antinomianism associates her with Ann Hutchinson, in whose footsteps Hawthorne places her, and also with such strong Quaker dissidents as Mary Dyer. (13) If Hester is related to the impassioned biblical heroine Queen Esther, the fact seems perfectly in keeping with her religious heterodoxy and places her in a tradition of dissenting women that antedates Mary Dyer and Ann Hutchinson by far. The Scarlet Letter’s involvement with ideas of dissent and tolerance, individual and community, may owe some of its power to the Book of Esther’s representation of the status of the Jews in Babylon and the religious quandary of Esther in Ahasuerus’s court. Finally, the Book of Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible not to include the word God; The Scarlet Letter also has at its center a peculiar verbal lacuna (the absence of the word “adultery,” for which the letter A patently stands). The lacunae can be seen as contributing to a literature of secrecy and hiddenness, coded signs, veiled clues, and cryptic meanings. While the correspondences between the Book of Esther and The Scarlet Letter are striking enough, they open upon further questions of how the deep analogy with the Book of Esther may have entered into The Scarlet Letter, and what may be its implications for Hawthorne’s text. What is the meaning of Hester’s A? It is a symbol, a character, a letter from one of many possible sets of symbol-systems; it remains ungrounded, and resists the canonization of any given interpretation by any given authority. The sacred awe invested in the letter by the Puritan orthodoxy is undercut; the process begins with Hester’s own embroidery of the letter, which causes one of the female onlookers to ask angrily, “What is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates?” (1:54). Even within the story told in The Scarlet Letter, scripture is unable to retain its original signification. Dimmesdale is presented several times as a Hebraist: his library contains, among other religious volumes, “the lore of rabbis” (1:126); when he returns from the forest to his study his eye alights on “the Bible, in its rich old Hebrew, with Moses and the Prophets speaking to him, and God’s voice through all!” (1:223). In the same scene Hawthorne again shows Dimmesdale standing “with one hand on the Hebrew Scriptures” (1:223). And yet Mistress Hibbins pictures Dimmesdale as a dangerously subversive biblical exegete: Who, now, that saw him pass in the procession, would think how little while it is since he went forth out of his study, – chewing a Hebrew text of scripture in his mouth, I warrant, – to take an airing in the forest! (1:241) Dimmesdale’s purpose in going into the forest is to pay a visit to the Apostle Eliot – himself a translator of the Bible. Eliot’s Indian Bible (1663) is the subject of a chapter in Hawthorne’s first children’s book, Grandfather’s Chair (1841). The effect of The Scarlet Letter, as seen through the prism of the Book of Esther, is – in keeping with the “literary scripturism” of the age – to reanimate and reconstruct one of the Bible’s books. Hawthorne’s book of Hester may be seen in a midrashic sense as finding a fresh way for the Bible to matter in antebellum America. Hawthorne’s story “The Man of Adamant” (1837) tells of a biblical hermeneutics so rigid and unsympathetic that it turns the story’s Puritan protagonist to stone, and it appears to be the narrow limits of doctrinal interpretation, rather than the Bible itself, that bear the brunt of Hawthorne’s satirical wrath. To appreciate more precisely the close relation between the sacred text which Hawthorne seems to reinterpret and the scarlet text which Hester is made to wear (and which through her embroidery she reinterprets), it becomes necessary, finally, to consider Pearl – the living embodiment of the scarlet letter and the only principal character of The Scarlet Letter for whom I have not yet suggested a counterpart in the Book of Esther. “Hath she any discoverable principle of being?” (1:134) Chillingworth asks of Pearl; and all the characters of The Scarlet Letter, including Hester, seem to be constantly wondering what Pearl is, where Pearl comes from. The mystery of her parentage is, in a sense, the mystery of The Scarlet Letter. Pearl is at times a text, a sign – a “living hieroglyphic” (1:207), “the scarlet letter endowed with life” (1:102) – and at other times a denizen of “that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth” (1:203). “Art thou a Christian child, – ha?” (1:110) Reverend Wilson asks in “The Elf-Child and the Minister.” “I am mother’s child,” Pearl replies. Reverend Wilson asks again, “Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?” (1:110) – upon which Pearl claims she was plucked from the prison-door rose-bush. All of these questions may be seen as interrogating Pearl’s status as a hieroglyph, a text, a sign. Is she a sacred text, written by God and conceived through divine guidance, or does she in fact, as she declares, “have no heavenly Father?” (1:98). Does this “living hieroglyphic” have a supra-human author, or is she merely co-authored by Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale? Must she be either a product of heaven or, as the Puritan townspeople maintain, a “demon offspring” (1:99, 204)? Can she signify without being a transcendent signifier? Esther and Mordechai in the Book of Esther have no children, but they do come together at the story’s end to write the final letter of the Book of Esther (the letter ratifies Mordechai’s previous letter establishing the holiday of Purim). Similarly Hester and Dimmesdale come together to write the letter that is Pearl. The question of whether Pearl is a demon-child mirrors the question of whether Hawthorne’s unauthorized version of the Book of Esther is a demon-text; and Pearl’s development mirrors and is perhaps coordinate with the development of The Scarlet Letter in the hands of its author.(21) Pearl does not entirely leave off her life as a letter and become fully endowed with human life until the final scene on the scaffold, when her tears for her father are “the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (1:256). Hawthorne’s characters are made to wear, embody and personify these vestiges and traces of their former lives. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl all try to shake off their identification with the various significations of a single letter. The questions Hawthorne’s characters face in the course of the romance thus seem to recapitulate many of the questions Hawthorne may have wrestled with in his imaginative reading of the Book of Esther. How can the confinements and limitations of the written be overcome? How can a text be endowed with life? How can a character be made to live?
In The Scarlet Letter, author Nathaniel Hawthorne uses Hester Prynne, an unhappily married seamstress, and Arthur Dimmesdale, the local Puritan clergyman, to prove that a community that forcefully suppresses the natural desires of an individual is dangerous, both to the individual and to the community. The story is centered around Hester’s public punishment for adultery: she is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest at all times. She is caught because she becomes pregnant while her husband is away, but the name of the other guilty party – the father, Dimmesdale – is withheld by Hester from the entire community. Stemming from this situation, which gradually increases in complexity, are the human symbols used to personify the theme; because of the oppressive community, Hester undergoes mental deterioration, Dimmesdale suffers physical ailments, and both of them ultimately undermine the Puritan system. Hester’s character speaks to the psychological side effects that can arise as byproducts of submission to an oppressive community. These side effects – which include rebelliousness and resentment – are dangerous to individuals within a society. Because of her “sin,” Hester becomes ostracized, is forced to wear the scarlet “A,” and is shunned, shamed and ridiculed, all because there was no acceptable outlet within her society to address her needs as an unhappily married woman. Although she commits adultery, she is not necessarily an immoral woman, as evidenced by her refusal to expose Dimmesdale. She is so firm in her refusal to reveal – and thereby taint – his name that, when pressed for the name of her lover, she exclaims, “I will not speak!…And my child must seek a heavenly father; she shall never know an earthly one!” (66). Such loyalty in the name of love and of God cannot exist in a person of low personal morals or spirit. Rather, she is a desperate and frustrated woman who lives in a community that is either unable or unwilling to reasonably deal with her position. Ironically, this highly religious society fails to offer Hester compassion and understanding, greeting her only with hatred and ridicule. One of the women in the Puritan community, who theoretically lives by the slogan “Love thy neighbor,” even suggests that “The magistrates…should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead” (49). Meanwhile, she acts with compassion by not exposing Dimmesdale as the father of her child. Living with this hypocrisy in the hostile Puritan society is the most significant force in her psychological afflictions, for what she believes to be a moral act often directly contradicts with her community’s ideals. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, represents not the brute end of the social system but the society’s inherent hypocrisy. A Puritan clergyman, presumably of high moral character, Dimmesdale becomes like Hester: unable to find refuge within his Puritan society. While Hester is publicly ridiculed and ostracized, Dimmesdale has to live a lie and play the part of a highly moral community leader. He suffers none of the ostracism and humiliation of Hester, but is driven to suffer just as deeply due to personal conflicts. Not only is he too weak to resist a desperate woman for whom society has offered no outlet, but he lacks the moral character to admit his shortcomings and weaknesses. His situation is almost worse than Hester’s because at least she has come clean and feels that she is doing the best thing; Dimmesdale is living in anguish over the sin that he carries. Hester’s public ridicule and ostracism may have resulted in psychological rebellion and deterioration, but Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy – which is symbolic of the hypocrisy of Puritan society – and secret immorality lead him to physical sickness. Despite fasting and prayer, he can not live under such a facade, and it eventually kills him. Although ostracized, Hester actually displays higher moral character and stronger Christian values than Dimmesdale. She is a frustrated woman, unhappy in her marriage with no outlet to escape from her misery. Dimmesdale, being a clergyman, should fully shoulder the blame, for he ought not to have any cause for romantic frustration. Hester displays her moral character by not exposing her lover and accepting with humility and suffering the ramifications of her actions, but though he is very holy Dimmesdale does not have the courage or moral fortitude to “come clean” to the community. His weakness causes him considerable personal pain in that he is forced to watch his daughter Pearl grow up from a distance, and he is forced to live with a guilty conscience, knowing that he failed his community, his faith, and Hester. What he does not realize is that he is Hawthorne’s symbol of Puritan hypocrisy. The whole situation foretells the demise of the Puritan society. There are two ideal characters that enable a Puritan society to function effectively: a holy, influential preacher, and an obedient, equally holy congregation. A moral clergyman would strengthen the community, but Dimmesdale’s lack of conviction weakens it and exposes the hypocrisy of the Puritan society. He undermines the community by abusing his highly important position as a preacher and by not abiding by the rules of the society. Hester, finding no appropriate way to rectify her situation, undermines the system by asserting her individuality and rebelling against the impossible norms mandated by that society. Dimmesdale’s physical ailments and Hester’s psychological rebellion are indicative of the danger that an oppressive society presents to the individual. On another level, the two represent the hypocritical extremes inherent in a society wholly contradictory to human nature. Hawthorne uses these symbols to show how strict rules and lack of tolerance result in a sickened, miserable social system.
Puritans are often mischaracterized as overly strict and moral persons whose lives revolve around killjoy attitudes and laws against all innocent social pleasures. Qualities of sympathy, charity, and compassion are rarely tied to Puritanism or seen as characteristics that exemplified their way of life. (Newberry, 101) In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” however, these traits are exemplified as recessive, as opposed to nonexistent, in the actions and lives of Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. These are outcasts shunned by society because they failed to live up to the Puritans’ strict and unwavering standards of moral behavior. However, the Puritans’ narrow moralism and social repression still had a much deeper influence in the United States than did the recessive qualities depicted in Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale (Barzun, 283). The current role of women in society and attitudes toward deception and scandal today exemplify Puritans thinking.Numerous events in “The Scarlet Letter” help us paint a clearer picture about the role of women in Puritan society. Cindy Lou Daniels writes about one reoccurring example, “In Hawthorne’s novel, the strict authoritarianism of Puritan patriarchy finds its object in the child Pearl, who…becomes the target of the Puritans’ efforts to control both human sexuality, and its literary, historical expression.” A patriarchic position results because the Puritans assume they have the authority to determine how Hester, and therefore Pearl, should live the rest of their lives. Hester is assigned a lesser value than the rest of society not only by living in seclusion, but also the very mark of the scarlet letter serves to set her apart from everyone else. Pearl however, is able to break away from this patriarchy because the community leaves it up to Hester to control her. Ironically, Pearl remains wild and free, and is not restrained by either the Puritan community or Hester, but rather continues to thrive unrestricted in nature (Daniels). Another example of Puritan patriarchy in “The Scarlet Letter” resides in the governor and the positions of power within the town. The governor’s breast plate of armor that Hester and Pearl find within the palace illustrates how the positions of power within the town are dominated by masculine ideas such as strict punishment and patriarchic rules (Easton, 114-5). This is exemplified in today’s society through the domination of men in areas such as politics, corporate leadership, and physically demanding jobs and activities. Likewise in contemporary society, we have seen the rise of women in these areas. The status quo position of women as being subjugated to males runs parallel to the dominant patriarchy that existed in Puritan society. At the same time however, Pearl, who personifies the recessive Puritan qualities of “sympathy, charity, and gaiety”, (Newberry, 101) exists in today’s world through the rise of women and their opposition to dominant male norms. Daniels also brings up Pearl’s “grace” as reflecting a changing role in women by “provid[ing] the impetus toward “good” for Dimmesdale, and in doing so, provid[ing] a new view of the power of the female in a male-dominated society.” In this way, going against the norm of patriarchy is a Puritan characteristic in and of itself, and is a “direct result of the Puritan moral code that served as a catalyst for this [Pearl’s transformation] profound change, a change still reverberating in today’s society” (Daniels).Our generation is replete with examples of scandal and deception, which although not objects of praise or worship, provide the opportunity to draw a myriad of parallels between the Puritans’ response to these occurrences, and the reactions of present-day society. There is no clearer illustration of scandal and deception in our world than what we see in the media. At any given moment one can find the latest scandal or newest government deception with just the click of a button or turn of a page (Robinson). Shock and disapproval are strongly defended, and responses to scandal range from mere head shaking to public protests that seek concrete action. This is not to say that society today has a high moral standard, for that is certainly a controversial debate, but rather society is exemplary of one’s judgment of the beliefs and actions of others. Barzun describes this as “…suspicion of other’s faith and morals. The smallest divergence from the absolute is grave error and wickedness. From there it is a short step to declaring war on the misbelievers.” (271-2) People today constantly seek to criticize others, especially those in a position of power, for any minor fault. The Puritans embodied this same criticism through their exclusion and persecution of others, as shown in “The Scarlet Letter”. Hester and Pearl are excluded from society precisely because Hester identifies herself as being different by being caught in the act of adultery. In their quest to define themselves as morally upstanding citizens, the Puritans in “The Scarlet Letter” ostracize Hester. Much like people today, the Puritans’ found no better way to boost up their self-confidence than by degrading that of another, regardless of the reason. Hawthorne criticizes this warrant for punishment by portraying the Puritans “as men and women in sad-colored garments with looks of grim rigidity.” (Mills) Their quest to punish at any excuse appeals to the letter of the law in such a way that it detracts them from living the true spirit of their faith, the spirit that lies in Hester and Pearl’s sympathy and charity. Hester’s response to this shunning yet again exemplifies less stereotypical qualities of Puritans. Rather than giving in to their criticism and allowing her life to collapse into shambles, Hester tries her best to allow Pearl to live a life as she wishes, free of society’s rules and criticisms. Despite what may at first seem to be an oxymoron, society embodies both the dominant Puritan characteristics of criticism and exclusion based on minor faults as well as the recessive Puritan characteristics, personified by Hester and Pearl, of coping with the criticism without being bothered by the backlash from society.The influence of the Puritan lifestyle on today’s world seems full of contradictions. Ranging from intolerance, persecution, and patriarchy to sympathy, compassion, and rebellion against dominant hierarchies, “The Scarlet Letter” embodies not only the characteristics typical of Puritan society, but also serves as a criticism for those characteristics in its account of Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. Hawthorne’s account of these three social outcasts demonstrates that some sought to change the dominant Puritan ideals, and the qualities they exemplified were more widespread than often believed. Despite these opposing qualities of Puritanism clashing and co-existing for many years and in many more instances than simply the town of Hester and Pearl, dominant patriarchy, narrow moralism, and the suppression of dissent have affected contemporary American society significantly more than their opposites (Barzun, 282-3). Works CitedBarzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (1500-Present.) New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2000Daniels, Cindy Lou. “Hawthorne’s Pearl: woman-child of the future.” The American Transcendental Quarterly 19.3 (2005): 221Easton, Alison. “A Critique of Puritan Society.” Reading on The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 114-26Mills, Nicolaus. “Commentary; A Useful Lesson About Sex From a Victorian; Scandal: President Clinton Won’t Be Wearing a Scarlet Letter, But He Might as well be by the Time the Gossip Subsides” Los Angeles Times, 17 Aug. 1998: B5Newberry, Frederick. “Hawthorne Examines English Traditions.” Reading on The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 100-13Robinson, Danny. “The Primary Color: How ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Captures the Mood of the Capital Today.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 1 Aug. 1998: A13