The Dichotomy Role of Hester Prynne as the Sinner and the Saint
“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.
The Place of Sinners in a Repressive Society
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.
A Preview of the Background of Hawthorne in His Work
Nathanial Hawthorne successfully exposed the puritanical lifestyle in its’ entirety within his celebrated novel, The Scarlet Letter. He was born during the 19th century, but set his story in the 17th century, revealing his keen knowledge on the subject of puritanism. His desire to examine the curious human nature compelled his beginning within this particular time period. “Hawthorne’s works probe into human nature, especially its darker side. He set many stories against the somber background of Puritan New England, the world of his ancestors” (Clendenning). Nathanial was one of the few authors of his time willing to step out on a limb and depict a more obscure way of life to readers, catching the eye of many a critic. He received a plethora of analyses, both favorable and unfavorable. Nonetheless, he set plenty of his other writings within this certain time period as well. Despite Hawthorne being born in the 19th century, he took the risk of portraying a grimmer time period in which Puritanism was prominent. His primary motive was to illustrate the act of isolation practiced on notorious sinners, which was unfortunately scorned upon by many critics.
During the sixteenth century, a religious movement known as Puritanism surfaced within the Church of England. Most Puritans strayed from the organizational church in order to participate in a more profound form of worship. They were frequently satirized for allegedly living solely by His word, and using the Bible to pilot their lives. The Puritan movement to create a sovereign church helped to found New England. Under siege from church and crown, it sent an offshoot in the third and fourth decades of the seventeenth century to the northern English colonies in the New World–a migration that laid the foundation for the religious, intellectual, and social order of New England (Delbanco). Thousands of Puritans inhabited what would eventually be New England, and claimed they had not separated from the Church of England, but merely migrated to pursue a more self-righteous method of reverence. Their method appears hypocritical to historians, however, due to the fact that Puritanical documents indicate a rigidly religious lifestyle.
Hawthorne grew up aware of the Puritanical regime his relatives embraced throughout their lives. His inquisitiveness allowed his knowledge to adequately expand on the subject, and he eventually reached the point of setting his books during this era. “The Hawthorne legacy was one of strict Puritanism which Hawthorne grappled with in his stories and novels, The Scarlet Letter perhaps being the most well-known” (Nathaniel). Puritanism was widespread throughout New England, and continued expanding outside into more western territories. Nathaniel could have chosen any town practicing this way of life; nevertheless, he had emotional ties to Massachusetts. “This old town of Salem- my native place, though I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years- possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here” (Hawthorne). He ended up moving away from Massachusetts after completing The Scarlet Letter, yet looked back on his years in Salem fondly after realizing the positive effect it had on his life. Experiencing a different town gave him a newfound appreciation for his home, and he continued setting his novels in [Puritanical] Massachusetts.
Most of Hawthorne’s works dealt with dark themes, which attracted numerous critical readers. Sin and its’ consequences were of utmost importance during Puritan times, so his preference for gloomy theses was easily incorporated in his writing. “Hawthorne often dealt with the themes of morality, sin, and redemption. Among his early influences were the parables and allegories of John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser” (Clendenning). John Bunyan became a preacher after being baptized and began giving sermons without permission from the Anglican Church. This landed him in jail for quite a while, so to pass the time, he wrote his most famous work: The Pilgrim’s Progress. (John). “Bunyan’s remarkable imagery was firmly rooted in the Reformation doctrines of man’s fallen nature, grace, imputation, justification, and the atonement–all of which Bunyan seems to have derived directly from Scripture” (John). Bunyan’s themes appear to directly coincide with Hawthorne’s [themes], and provide readers with another sense of his aspiration to write novels set in Puritan times. Bunyan’s ability to incorporate the darkness of fallen nature with the light of the Gospel inspired Nathaniel to highlight the flaws of human nature and the supposed methods of chastisement for these individual and societal imperfections. Nevertheless, even with sufficient inspiration, Hawthorne was unable to evade the derisive voice of his critics. “The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States upon its release in 1850 and it gathered much praise and criticism for the novel’s supposed morbidity” (Nathaniel).
Despite Hawthorne’s dark settings within his novels, he considered himself a romance writer. He believed his dissection of the aspects of human nature suitably regarded his writings as romantic. Unlike most fiction writers of his time, he was not primarily interested in stirring the reader with sensational or sentimental effects. Hawthorne called his writing “romance,” which he defined as a method of showing “the depths of our common nature.” To Hawthorne, romance meant confronting reality, rather than evading it (Clendenning). Nathaniel was not compelled to trigger a warm satisfaction in readers through his work, but rather give them a sense of reality, no matter how ugly the genuineness may be. He created this veracity gracefully, though, providing intriguing storylines and relatable characters. Readers develop empathy for Hester as she expresses her feelings for Dimmesdale, and they sympathize with little Pearl as she longs for a father figure within her family. People resent Dimmesdale for abandoning his family on the scaffold and blame Chillingworth for preventing the three of them from being together. By setting Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl on the scaffold as they create an electrifying union, he dampens the mood as they are in a place of disdain. Similarly, when Hester and Dimmesdale connect in the forest, the reader cannot help but consider the malevolence within the trees. Only bad happenings occur in the forest, and those who enter voluntarily must be evildoers.
Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, has received much commentary and popularity because of its’ prevalent setting and melancholic themes. Puritans certainly glorified the Lord, but in doing so, created a corrupt society by taking legal actions to the extreme. Isolation, as seen with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, is an outdated form of humiliation sure to psychologically damage any human being. Nathaniel’s exploration of human nature revealed this, and he enlightened readers through the scene in the forest when Hester hurls the ‘A’ off of her chest. His heritage helped inspire him to write not only during Puritanical times, but also in his home state of Massachusetts. After leaving Salem, his appreciation for his home intensified, he reiterates to readers. “And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection” (Hawthorne). His unwillingness to write about light subject matter attracted all sorts of criticism during his time, while literary enthusiasts of the current era praise his exceptional work. Critics believed he should keep the settings of his writing in the present, as he supposedly lacked proper expertise on Puritanism, a much darker time. To conclude, despite the unscrupulous reviews Hawthorne received in the 19th century, his novel has become a classic due to his remarkable portrayal of such a grim time period, and his detailed examination of the evolution of human nature.
- Clendenning, John. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” PBS. PBS, 2007. Web. 08 Nov. 2014. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/hawthorne.html>.
- Delbanco, Andrew. “Puritanism.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.history.com/topics/puritanism>.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel, and Leland S.. Person. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. Print.
- “John Bunyan Archive.” John Bunyan Archive. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.chapellibrary.org/literature/bunyan/>.
- “Nathaniel Hawthorne – Biography.” Nathaniel Hawthorne. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.egs.edu/library/nathaniel-hawthorne/biography/>.
More Than Meets The Eye
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Everyone knows this hackneyed quote, but people still judge others based on outer appearance. By doing so, these people ignore the possible inner greatness of those they so quickly set aside. The character Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is a victim of such judgment and proves the quote to be valid advice. Hester’s actions and mien substantiate the theme of appearance versus reality throughout the novel.
In the beginning of the book, though Hester may give the appearance of being a boastful rebel, she is actually quite distressed about her miserable circumstances. For example, when Hester steps onto the scaffold and the crowd sees her beautifully stitched and gold embroidered letter, one of the Puritan women comments, “She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain… but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates…” (45). By accentuating the letter with beautiful decoration, Hester reinforces the facade that she is proud of her crime. A woman with much shame will not take time from the contemplation of her state to make herself look nice, thus the crowd thinks that Hester is blasphemous and uncaring. She is incapable of giving in to the pressure of society and showing that she is in any way hurt by her dilemma, at least in public. Hester’s actions show that she feels her adultery was an act of love and passion and that she does not deserve punishment. However, Hester’s bravery on the scaffold is an illusion. Her true feelings wait to surface until she is out of the community’s prying eye: “After her return to the prison, Hester Prynne was found to be in a state of nervous excitement that demanded constant watchfulness, lest she should perpetrate violence on herself, or do some half-frenzied mischief to the poor babe” (59). Pretending to be irreverent in public, Hester hides her true torment until she is safely alone.
As years pass, Hester suppressing her actual feelings breeds “sinful” notions in her thoughts. She hides these thoughts, however, by performing acts of benevolence throughout her community. Hawthorne describes Hester’s position in society this way: “It was perceived, too, that while Hester never put forward even the humblest title to share in the world’s privileges, – farther than to breathe the common air, and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful labor of her hands… None [was] so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty” (140). These kind acts allow people to see that Hester is not really the sinful wench they thought, but a selfless Good Samaritan who tries her best to make life better for the people around her. She gives the little she has to anyone who can benefit, living a more charitable life than some of the most pious around her.
However, Hester continues to wonder if “existence [is] worth accepting… The whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… before women can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (144). Hester ponders thoughts that no God-fearing woman in her community would ever imagine. Because Hester’s thoughts break the law of her town and that of the Bible, they appear evil and blasphemous. She can only conceive of progressive, feminist ideals because of her sin. On some level, Hester knows that she is on her way to Hell no matter what she does, so she lets her thoughts venture into places that others never do, for fear of damnation. Her mind takes great liberties and creates ideas that, if discovered, would be given greater punishments than those of adultery. Hester’s public works and humility give the impression of great piety, while at the same time her mind thinks “blasphemous” and “damning” thoughts.
Though Hester can fake possessing devoutness, externalizing her spirit is quite different. Hester’s outer appearance gives the impression that her soul is dead; however, Hester eventually shows that it is, in fact, quite alive. Hawthorne describes Hester’s appearance after seven years of wearing the scarlet letter and states that, “All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might have been repulsive, had she possessed friends or companions to be repelled by it” (142). Living for years under the burden of her sin has a devastating affect on Hester’s physical appearance. As humiliation and shame bombard her emotional state, Hester loses much of her beauty and feminine grace. She spends years contemplating her actions and not communicating and socializing with people. Hester’s ignominy crushes her appearance and soul; she appears to have given up hope altogether and believes herself incapable of feeling anything ever again. However, when Hester and Dimmesdale are in the woods they talk about what they are going to do with their lives. Hester cries out, “‘Thou are crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery… But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! It shall not cumber thy steps.” Dimmesdale replies, “O Hester… I must die here. There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!” To this Hester has nothing more to say but, “Thou shalt not go alone!”(173-174). Hester is, in fact, capable of not only feeling emotions, but the greatest one known to man – love. She loves Dimmesdale to the point where she is willing and wanting to leave everything she knows to lighten his burden. Despite the fact that the town has brought great pain to Hester, it is the only place she calls home. To be able to leave her settlement shows much bravery and the magnitude of the sacrifice which she makes for Dimmesdale. Though Hester is in an incredibly weak emotional state at this point in the novel, she can still support Dimmesdale. Hester may appear to be an emotionless corpse on the outside, but her inner spirit is strong and full of love.
The people of Hester’s community, judging only what they can see, misunderstand Hester’s motives and ideals. Like others who form opinions based solely on appearance, the community forfeits the possibility of truly knowing – even learning from – the deep, strong spirit belonging to the woman they have shunned.
Fearing Misgenation as Illustrated in the Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the young American establishment appeared to have surmounted the instability of its formative stages. The citizens of what had originated as a disorganized and inefficient alliance of thirteen diverse territories succeeded in cultivating a nationalistic pride in the destiny of their great democracy. A new generation recognized the devastations of a distant Revolutionary War and the subsequent struggles for unity as mere specters of history. However, beneath a surface of harmony and contentment, currents of discord threatened to plunge the United States into ruin and collapse. Racial tensions had rested at the center of public focus for much of the preceding century, commanding widespread attention since the contentious issue of slavery first became a matter of federal divisiveness in 1808.
Not surprisingly, the subject of ethnicity functions as a primary topic in a substantial portion of the era’s literary canon. The external inevitably rendered its impact upon human psychology, and numerous works dating to the epoch in question chronicle the interactions between Caucasian settlers and the other peoples who populated to vast U. S. landscape. In many of these narratives, the latterly mentioned individuals hail from African descent, but the prejudices Anglo Saxons harbored toward their black slaves were rivaled by the paranoia white harvested for the American Indian. In policies of forced relocation, the federal government acted on a variety of fears regarding the Native American, chief amongst which was that of miscegenation and the pollution of American culture by the primitive influence of the savage. Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter exemplifies the extent to which this obsession of bloodline preservation shaped national ideology and ingrained itself upon the intellectual productions of the 1800s.
The undertones of the narrative are evident immediately after the plot commences. A rosebush on the prison exterior functions as the focal point of chapter one. Signifying the elements of passion associated with the inmate, the flower serves to illustrate by contrast the bleakness of the rigidly civilized Puritan community and the encroachment of the surrounding wilderness upon the austerity of the city. Like the dangerous yet alluring plant, the forest and its inhabitants simultaneously attract and repel the sensibilities of the devoutly Christian pilgrims. From the opening paragraphs of the story, the connection between the heroine’s pregnancy and the sphere of the Indian is clearly delineated. As Hester stands atop the scaffold, her show of defiance is interrupted by the recognition of her long distant spouse at the periphery of the crowd gathered to observe the spectacle. Situated beside “an Indian in his native garb stood a white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume” (Hawthorne 53). The suspicions regarding the paternity of the Prynne infant are thus projected at the tale’s outset onto the man who might and should have been the girl’s father.
The conclusion at which the community has arrived involves a transgression even more serious than that of faith. The potentiality is that Hester, obstinate in her refusal to name the partner in her crime, has ignored the ultimate boundary: that of race. Considering the gravity of the religious felonies in question, the townsfolk cannot know to what extremity the sinner’s depravity extends. Her infidelity may have been perpetrated with one of the heathens indigenous to the foreign New World. The mysterious physician is the outlet onto which the fantasies and horrors of the pale men find their expression. His “heterogeneous garb” (53) is an amalgam of the rumors, verities, and terrors that the Salemites in have constructed to satisfy their curiosities and preconceptions concerning the scandal at hand. In much the same way, Hester’s movement to the dilapidated cottage is an active advancement toward the primal chaos of the wilds. The heroine associates herself all the more closely, both in a physical and metaphorical sense, to the lifestyle of the red man. Hester’s decision to relocate to the outskirts of the town is not one of independence but one of matrimony, a choice in which she weds herself to all of the dark possibilities and suggestions of the woods. To the societal scrutiny from which she is attempting to escape, such behavior is suspect indeed.
The link between the fruits of the protagonist’s affair and the realm of the nomad extends throughout the entirety of the book. The child is imparted with an array of properties that render her the mortal approximation of the titular seal of shame. Pearl is such an appropriate product of her mother’s lawlessness that she, “was indeed the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!” (91) The little girl is of a red aspect, not only in the fact that she is the emblem incarnate but also in the singularity of her personality. The seven-year-old conducts herself with a deportment that vacillates between tantrums and docility:
Above all, the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl. She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child’s disposition, but, later in the day of earthly existence, might be prolific of storm and whirlwind. (81)
This disconcerting strain of unpredictability mirrors the notions that might easily connote the image of the beastlike Indian unable to exert the necessary repressive devices that typify civilized culture. Such a sense of dis-ease is created by the ethereal sprite that, “Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl was a human child.” (82) The city from which the pariah has been ostracized agrees in totality with this doubtfulness. Pearl has no father, but, more importantly, is without a white father. The child lacks the legitimacy of a verifiably Caucasian heritage, and in the absence of racially untainted familial predecessors, she is incomplete. The narrator can consequently refer to her only as “an imp of evil” (83) and a “demon offspring” (88). Dimmesdale’s failure to publicly assume the responsibilities that he shoulders privately reiterates the significance of the effects generated by this mystery of paternity. Until the uncertainties surrounding her lineage can be resolved, Hester’s daughter is as unredeemed as the pagans. When the girl declares, “I have no Heavenly Father!” (87), the statement is unironic. This progression of ideas is underscored by the evolution of Chillingworth. Though initially welcomed by the village, the old physician quickly loses favor with the majority of Salem. Compelled by the same intuitions that reflected the doctor’s bonds to the dishonored Hester in the third chapter, the members of the congregation begin to view the erstwhile parent in a decisively pejorative context:
To sum up the matter, it grew to be a widely diffused opinion that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of especial sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth (114).
The stress is deliberate when the author informs his audience, “Two or three individuals hinted that the man of skill, during his medical attainments by joining in the incantations of the savage priests, who were universally acknowledged to be powerful enchanters, often performing seemingly miraculous cures by their skill in the black art” (113). The relationship between the diabolical and the indigenous is thus emphasized to a degree that demands acknowledgement from the participant in the fiction. The contrast between the misconstructions of the mass imagination and reality provides the central conflict of the novel, and it is this disparity between presumption and fact that propels the climactic scene in which the Reverend takes his place upon the scaffold beside his family. Open confession and abbreviated reunion are preferable to the darkness of that veritable jungle, the home of the redskin: “Is this not better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?” (231) The mystery of paternity is also solved in this scene, and the ramifications are of epic magnitude:
Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled (233).
The truth of the implications that haunted the seven years of Pearl’s life has finally been illuminated, and the revelation, however scandalous, is indeed more acceptable in the view of society than any alternative that gossip and rumors might have been allowed to perpetuate. A spotless ancestry has been confirmed, and the child is restored to the purity and blamelessness to which the young are typically elevated. The lives upon which she and her mother embark remain undistinguished by event or misfortune, and eventually assume the quality of normalcy.
Yet certain stigmas can never be completely forgotten, and it is for this reason that Hester returns to New England. The heroine will forever be associated with the untamed, the “Indian,” and finally resigns herself to these associations. Self-perception is largely determined by the influence of exterior opinion, and Hester consequently surrenders to the prejudices that will forever link her to the carnal, the bestial, and the savage.
Creative expression is frequently considered a testament to the power of the environment over the individual. The manifestations of artistic thought unavoidably bear the telltale signatures, on one level or another, of the atmosphere in which they were conceived. The Scarlet Letter operates as an invented past onto which Hawthorne transferred the fears of miscegenation that dominated the culture of which he was a contemporary. The writer’s masterpieces illustrates the profound repercussions of ethnic divides in the epoch of such perversely xenophobic policies as the government-endorsed Trail of Tears and underline the subjective component inherent in psychic labor.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.
An Unconfessed Soul’s Destruction in the Scarlet Letter
In the first chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a solitary rosebush stands in front of a gloomy prison to symbolize “some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne 56). Serving as a symbol of beauty and solitude, this rosebush foreshadows the dismal tone that will preside over the remainder of the novel and illustrates the beauty of confession and growth in contrast to the suppression and decay apparent within the prison. Hester can be compared to the rosebush due to her growth and inner beauty following her confession of having committed adultery and because she shows passionate and brazen countenance in the face of stern rigidity. On the contrary, Dimmesdale is the prison, confining his guilt of having committed adultery within himself and thus allowing the decay of his soul. It is through immense symbolism, contrasting imagery, and Biblical allusion that Hawthorne creates both a critical and gloomy tone while speaking to the ubiquitous theme that unconfessed sin destroys the soul.
Hawthorne employs Hester’s scarlet letter, her punishment for committing adultery, as a powerful symbol that juxtaposes the concealed letter that Dimmesdale must face due to his hidden guilt. In the first scaffold scene, before the crowd has even witnessed Hester or the affliction that is affixed to her breast, some of the women of the town gossip over her punishment. One young woman tells her neighbors, “Let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart,” (60) illustrating the fact that Hester feels shame whether or not she is forced to wear the mark. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, does not confess his sin and thus has no letter to shame his figure. On the contrary, adding to the gloom of the tone, Dimmesdale is tormented by his concealed scarlet letter, which gives him “an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look” (76). He is compared to “a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own” (76). Hawthorne also uses this symbol of sin and the guilt it generates to speak to his pervasive theme that unconfessed sin deteriorates the human soul. Hester, who is honest with both God and her neighbors from the onset, is forced to wear the scarlet letter, which forces her into reclusion within her Puritanical community. However, the letter “gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts” and allowed her to realize that, “if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom” besides her own (101). This realization, this awakening of her sense of reality, allows Hester to grow as an individual and to become more exquisite than anyone within the ordinary constraints of the otherwise stagnant Puritanical society. Personifying this stagnation, which arises from unconfessed sin, Dimmesdale does not grow as a person, and he does not gain any new senses of morality until his confession. However, by this point, he is entirely dilapidated from his guilt and dies in Hester’s arms because it is Hester’s growth and newfound strength that allows for Dimmesdale’s confession.
Also within the novel, vivid imagery serves to illustrate the paradox within Puritanical society while creating a critical and gloomy tone. The dark and drab society in which Hester lives is most accurately illustrated by Hawthorne’s depiction of their prison. And, although Hester and her sinful nature are considered to be a defilement of the Puritanical society, her growth, sympathy, and compassion for others seems to be incompatible with the state of purity her society strives to achieve. And, when society is paralleled to its prison in the fact that it is dull, dreary, and breeds stagnation, Hester serves as the rosebush, standing out and providing hope to those condemned by the paradoxical morals of society. Furthermore, society is comprised of little more than “a throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded” (55). There are no individuals among the crowd, and every member of society seems to conform to the dreary existence that accompanies Puritanical piety. The prison is also described as being “already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front” (56). Here again the prison reflects the gloom associated with the society as a whole, describing its dark and decrepit state. In contrast, the rosebush, which is “rooted almost at the threshold,” is described to be “covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems” (56). This parallels Hester’s metaphorical blossoming due to her realizations of the guilt present in all human souls and allows for Hester to become the only individual in the society who stands out in beauty and vigor, yet she is reattributed. And, by the end of the novel, Hester confirms “that the deep heart of Nature [can] pity and be kind” to all sinners (56). It is this idea of forgiveness that radiates from both Hester’s and the rose’s beauty, while dampening the tones associated with both the prison and the Puritan society.
In addition to symbolism and imagery, Hawthorne creates a Biblical allusion to further the gloom of both his tone and theme. Hester, for instance, is continually compared to Jesus through paralleled struggles. Hester is forced to march from the prison to the scaffold wearing her scarlet letter just as Jesus was forced to walk to Calvary at the top of the hill with his crucifix. And, Hester maintains her sense of dignity under brutal conditions by stepping “into the open air, as if by her own free will” just as Jesus marched to his death (61). Also, Hawthorne describes Pearl as being “worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there to be the plaything of the angels after the world’s first parents were driven out” (104). Pearl, representing innocence in its purity, is worthy to live in Utopia and perfect enough to reside among angels, yet is given the attributes of an impish demon to illustrate her sinful conception. Pearl also provides the only bright and hopeful tone in the novel by personifying the purity associated with confession. It is Hester’s confession and freedom from guilt that provides for Pearl’s innocence and purity.
Through pervasive symbolism, contrasting imagery, and Biblical allusion, Hawthorne creates a critical and gloomy tone and speaks to the omnipresent theme that unconfessed sin destroys the soul. Through the novel, Hester is a symbol of growth due to her freedom from the torment of unconfessed guilt while Dimmesdale represents the decay of the human spirit that results from unconfessed sin. It is Hawthorne’s dark and gloomy tone regarding Dimmesdale in contrast to the hopeful and accepting tone regarding Hester and Pearl that clearly personifies his belief that confession of sin revives the soul and allows for personal growth and empathy.
The Symbolic Meaning of Light Versus Darkness in the Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter employs dramatic clout within the characters with the light and dark contrast. The “blackness” did not allude to race. The dark colors underline sin and their evil, distraught intentions while the lightness emphasizes innocence and exposure. Hawthorne implies Calvinist beliefs of Innate Depravity within the color of Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter, the reactions of Pearl, Prynne’s daughter, depiction of the forest and the “Black Man”.
Hawthorne manipulates the lighting to enforce emotions, depravity, and power. This idea is especially evident with Hester Prynne and Pearl, emphasizing the contrast yet recognizing the irony. Prynne did bear an illegitimate child with Dimmesdale. Based on the idea of Innate Depravity, everyone is born sinful. Pearl was spawned from sin, born a sinner, therefore, she symbolizes sin. Chapter two emphasizes one of the many lights that Pearl is portrayed in. “She bore in her hands a child who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of the day…acquainted only with the gray twilight of dungeon” (36). The image evokes empathy for Pearl’s predicament and Prynne’s imprisonment, as well as revealing her powerless state as she is publicly bared in the day in front of the people in the market-place. The Scarlet Letter was traced with gold thread thus creating an illuminating appearance. Further on, while the stranger gazed at her, “The hot, midday sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame: with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast,” (44). Although she was vulnerable, the “A” was being displayed in power. The Scarlet letter was like the tormenting fire of hell, “Flaming on her breast, to depict the reality of sin” (54).
In addition to the situating of light, Hawthorne illustrates intents with the physical appearance of the characters. Although Pearl is the result of sin, she exhibited rich beauty, “With deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, which will be nearly a kin to black. There was a fire in her,” (69). Hawthorne emphasized the gloss and brightness allude to her negligence in regards to her being a product of sin. The dark hair emphasized her soul being unredeemable from a sinful state. The fire inside of her could possibly be an ambiguous reference to her forever depraved self or the sin that has yet to flourish; sin to flourish could be a result of her solitude leading to her depth in understanding and reliance on self. That idea is an implied concept of anti-transcendentalist. However, others, such as the old minister, relates Pearl’s appearance to that of the Scarlet Letter; “Pearl?—Ruby rather!—or Coral!—or Red Rose, at the very least judging from thy hue,” (75). The different shades of red are darkened with black hues, or thus reiterating depravity and darkness. Old Roger Chillingworth in contrast resembled qualities like that of the devil. Hester was indeed startled by his shaping appearance. “How much uglier they were—how his dark complexion deemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen—since the days when she had familiarly known him.” (77). Further, in the novel, Chillingsworth evil appearance is described the color of his eyes; “A light glimmered out of the physician’s eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace,” symbolizing his intents for revenge thus illuminating his soul and personality to some sort of “blackness” (88). His appearance begins to augment his metamorphosis as he begins to “leech” onto Dimmesdale and tortures him slowly. In regards to Dimmesdale, he is described as, “A subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that loved the truth, and loathed the lie; he loathed his miserable self,” (99). His “blackness” was reflected not only by his soul, but by the markings upon his chest and through his physical self-torture. (101-8)
The Black Man that constantly appears in the forest is symbolic of the devil in disguise. Just as the other kept dark secrets, Dimmesdale being the black man, as told by Hester, illustrates disguise, especially when in the forest because it is easy for one to camouflage in the dark. In the forest is also where the witch almost persuaded Prynne to sign her name in the book although she later refused. Black is the most dominant color used to describe sin. Although, “The sunshine does not love Hester, hiding away from the letter upon her bosom,” the deep red hue represents poignancy therefore illuminating overruling power of her sin (126).
By Hawthorne illustrating emotions, power, and sin by colors, it thoroughly connected the plot and created a vivid image of freedom from society. Although Hester was socially outcast for her sin, the social solidarity allowed her to define the whole race of womanhood, developing her feminist/ antinomian beliefs. Society was focused on refining a faith that was already determined, according to Calvinists as well as anti-transcendentalist beliefs, Hester was able to accept her faith rather than ponder on her sin. Besides being a free thinker, intuition over reason was also reiterated; “If the latter possess native sagacity, and a nameless something more, let us call it intuition…bringing all its mysteries into the daylight.” (85). Intuitive reasoning occurred to the characters rather than being practiced by them. In contrast to Hawthorne and Melville, Emerson, a transcendentalist, believed that an individual was guided by reason rather than in control of it. Mr. Dimmesdale experienced spiritual intuition (89) because he did not follow through with, “Publicly addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native languages,” (97). Therefore, the characters—Dimmesdale especially—“strike the uneven balance” because he remained a hypocrite to his religion and to himself, consciously. Hester and Chillingworth “strike the uneven balance” because Chillingworth was an imposter to others and Hester was becoming too dependent on self-reliance. They were the enemies of the “perfect” society entrusted by the Puritans.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.
The Veiling of Perception by Passion
In the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester and Dimmesdale are entangled in self-delusion because they are both caught up in a false interpretation of their respective sins and in an opaque vision of a better life. Hester is confused by her own interpretation of the Scarlet Letter, and Dimmesdale is caught up in Hester’s inspiring words for a better life.
Hester is disillusioned by the fact that she thinks her punishment and the burdens of her punishment will evaporate along with the removal of the Scarlet Letter. She feels as if she has done her share of penance. Hester asks Dimmesdale why they should “linger upon [the sin] now when “[she] could undo it all” She believes that they should not dwell on their sin and that the sin can be obliterated by literally ripping off the Letter. Hester also believes that she can “undo it all” by removing the Letter off her chest. The situation stated here shows that her delusion gives way to the misleading on her part. After removing the Letter, Hester feels “exquisite relief,” a feeling that she had not “known the weight.” Hester feels as if a burden is lifted from her shoulders; this is her freedom. But more importantly, Hester neglects the fact that the Scarlet Letter burdens her conscience as well. Materially, the Letter is an article of clothing for punishment and can be removed from the body physically, but not mentally. The “other” form of penance, however, is physically intangible; it cannot be cast off her conscience. Therefore, her removal of the Scarlet Letter has compelled Hester to believe that she can live without obligation to her punishment by taking it off. And this self-delusion misleads her to not think realistically, and not fully understand that she cannot get rid of her sin or the punishment from her conscience.
Dimmesdale is revealed to be caught up in Hester’s vision, reflected in his reaction to the release and purge of his sin and penance. He is thankful of Hester for aiding him in his transmutation from gloom in to one of happiness. After feeling pardoned by society according to Hester, Dimmesdale feels “a glow of strange enjoyment” that had an “exhilarating effect” on him. He feels as if he is finally free from his torment of sin. Beforehand, Dimmesdale never experiences such elation; he had only known torment and anguish. But now a “free atmosphere” envelops Dimmesdale. He thinks that he can now live free of his penance; his reaction shows his child-like desire to be free from his penance. Dimmesdale describes the nature of the current situation by saying that God is “merciful.” Dimmesdale believes that God has now forgiven him and bestowed “merciful” blessings upon him. However, his evidence for joy only exists because of Hester’s words of encouragement. Dimmesdale says that beforehand, he was “sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened,” but now he “[has] risen up all made anew.” The words “sin-stained” and “made anew” show a stark contrast between the “start and finish” of his change. The ensuing joy shows that Dimmesdale is caught up in Hester’s words. He directly gives credit to Hester for the change in his manner and refers to her as “[his] better angel.” The word “angel” personifies a savior or a heroine. If it were not for her words of encouragement, Dimmesdale would have thought a moment and found that society, in fact, would not forgive him. Out in the forest, he is free and innocent, but in society and his community, the knowledge of his sin would be devastating to his already tormented morale. Therefore, he is caught up in a more positive and optimistic outlook and looks towards Hester’s words and vision of a better life.
In the last two paragraphs in the selected passage, Hester and Dimmesdale’s belief that God and Nature were responsible for their return from a fall from grace shows that their perception is obscured by passion; the imagery of the forest and the changing surroundings further affects the couple. After removing the Letter, she feels “exquisite relief” and had not “known the weight until she felt freedom.” Hester is so overcome by her passion for a better life without the Letter that she thinks her “freedom” from the Letter will solve all her troubles. Hawthorne creates a scene where Hester’s hidden beauty illuminates and shines upon the gloomy forest. Hawthorne uses the phrase, “a sudden smile of heaven” to describe the oncoming rays of light. This shows that Nature has sympathized with Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s situation and forgiven them. The fact that the force behind this phenomenon is “heaven” boosts their morale. This shows that Goad and/or Nature is at looking out for them. Hawthorne also writes that the “Nature of the forest [is] never subjugated by human law.” He is saying that society’s rules and punishments have no power or jurisdiction in the forest of Mother Nature. Thus, Hester and Dimmesdale feel that Nature is sympathizing in their situation by shining light and pardoning them. This shows that Hester and Dimmesdale’s perception of a better life and Nature’s recommendation have compelled them to envision a blockade of the world around them, and thereby impose the rise of ambitions and aspirations for a better life.
“‘The Sunshine Does Not Love You’”: Use of Semiotics in The Scarlet Letter
Honors English 10
December 11, 2015
“‘The Sunshine Does Not Love You’”: Use of Semiotics in The Scarlet Letter
The Romantic Era: an undeniably significant milestone in the transition from British-American literature to American literature. The Romantic Era broke out of the confinements of the previous Enlightenment period to use more symbolism, natural elements, and emotion. For example, in describing the scientific concept of electricity, Benjamin Franklin plainly states states, “To electrise plus or minus… the parts of the Tube or Sphere… attract the Electrical Fire” while Nathaniel Hawthorne artistically phrases “the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time.” This being said, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter perfectly illustrates Romantic techniques. In order to fully comprehend the text, it becomes necessary to consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s implants of semiotics into The Scarlet Letter through clear symbols such as Hester Prynne’s embroidered “A”, the brook in the forest, and the use of sunlight.
Regarding the letter, Hester’s Scarlet “A” operates initially to humiliate her, with the letter representing Hester’s sin and moral failure, yet over time, it begins to have a positive connotation throughout the community. It remains to be seen that the scarlet “A” represents different concepts to different characters: to the Puritan community, it reflects their disgust with Hester’s actions, shaming her to make them look more pious; to Hester, the letter represents mere humiliation, for Hester fails to recognise what she has done as sin. Hawthorne once commented that the stigma “had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity” (41). This quote draws imagery of two worlds: one for the sinners, and one for the pure. Hawthorne’s Puritan community classically finds pride in covering up their own crimes by professing to be saints, lacking even the urge to transgress. The Puritans are so harsh on Hester because her wrong makes them look all the more holy by comparison. Hester’s “ token of infamy and sin-born infant” (48) serve as a reminder of both the consequences of sins and the sanctity of the rest of the community. On the contrary, the embroidered letter evolves into a sign of Hester’s nobility and kindness, uplifting her as an exemplary Samaritan though the “A” originally serves to isolate her from the community. To use Hawthorne’s words, it “ceased to be a stigma and became a type of something to be… looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too ” (199). The mere transition reads simply, but the warranted purpose for this transition proves more blurry. Rather heartwarmingly, Hawthorne seems to be perpetuating a “what comes around goes around” theme: despite Hester’s past actions, gender, and perspicaciousness (an ugly quality for a woman of that time), her charitable work justifies the evolution of her “A”. The original prosecutors then “said that it meant Abel… and had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token… of her many good deeds” (123). A complete analysis cannot be made without a full understanding of these essential semiotics.
To point out another dominant motif, as the epitome of Romantic Era literature, The Scarlet Letter uses nature and natural events to reflect inner feelings of and relationships between characters. Notably, Hawthorne specifically uses the brook as comparison to Pearl, symbolizing her characteristics and her relationship to Hester. Freely-interpreted metaphors aside, Hawthorne directly associates Pearl with the brook in saying “Pearl resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious” (142). This sentence serves to point out that Pearl has an equally devilish and holy origin, having been created out of wedlock but also having been created in love. Pearl has “flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom” (142) in constantly accompanying her mother in times of shame and humiliation as well as in times of praise. In making this one direct comparison, the reader automatically relates Pearl with the brook in future instances. When Hawthorne then writes that “the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintance and events of sombre hue” (142), a reader can not help but realize this refers to Pearl, limited by her mother’s reputation.
Sunlight also plays a very important role in this novel, as its presence indicates Hester’s success and/or happiness while its absence marks a time of solitude and/or discontent. You can especially visualize Hawthorne’s marks of imagery in “A Flood of Sunshine” where sunlight plays the constant role of interpreting emotion. When in the mysterious and secretive forest, Hester decides to temporarily escape from the confinement her scarlet letter provides by undoing “the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and… [throwing] it to a distance” (155) and removing “the formal cap that confined her hair” (155). All of the sudden, as if to symbolize her freedom and happiness in being free, “with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance” (155). There are more clear, representative instances. Once Hester had to repin her embroidered letter and retie her hair, “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine, and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her” (162). Hawthorne’s clear semiotic devices serve to help readers further imagine and connect to the thrill and pain that Hester feels.
In summary, as is fitting in the Romantic Era, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter relies upon symbolism, particularly in nature, to provide insight in the emotions of characters. Hawthorne was extremely effective in his techniques of conveying this. As one of the first Romantic American authors, Hawthorne not only used romantic techniques, but helped to create them. His ambiguity and his imagery fueled the imagination, causing The Scarlet Letter to be filled with emotion, opinion, and feeling, and fortunately so, for without significant symbols like Hester’s “A”, the brook in the forest, and the use of sunlight, the novel could not be read the same way.
A Study of the Use of Irony as a Literary Device in the Scarlet Letter
“Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom.” Through this statement, Anatole France, a 1921 Nobel Prize recipient, states his belief that irony is only lighthearted reflection. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne employs irony to reveal the distinctly morose themes of The Scarlet Letter. Within the novel, Hester Prynne, a young and vibrant woman, succumbs to the temptation of adultery in her small Puritan town of Boston. As punishment for her transgression, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet “A” to symbolize her sin. Although Hester’s wrongdoing is publicly recognized, the similar misdeed of her partner, Arthur Dimmesdale, the town’s young minister, is unknown. When her husband, Roger Chillingworth, reappears and discovers Hester’s actions, he vows to seek revenge on Hester’s lover. As Pearl, the result of Hester’s adultery, grows from childhood, Hester’s, Chillingworth’s, Dimmesdale’s, and Pearl’s lives become inescapably entangled. The effectual use of situational, verbal, and dramatic irony allows Hawthorne to convey complex themes of sin and repentance in The Scarlet Letter.
When dealing with prevalent themes of the novel, Hawthorne often uses situational irony to emphasize his concepts and meaning. Situational irony, the difference between what the reader expects to happen and what actually happens is evidenced throughout the novel. Dimmesdale’s dual role of adulterer and minister creates the most dramatic example of situational irony.
“Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it…and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!” (175)
Dimmesdale is guilty of a grievous sin even though he is greatly renowned as a minister within his community. It is unexpected that a church official as outwardly pure and innocent as Dimmesdale would commit adultery. Moreover, his actions have consequences that are startling.
The people knew not the power that moved them thus. They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouthpiece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. (131)
Instead of diminishing his effectiveness as a preacher of God’s word, Dimmesdale’s unconfessed sin allows him to reach his congregation better. The high regard given to Dimmesdale by those under his spiritual guidance serves to demonstrate the hypocrisy within Puritan communities. This use of irony is mirrored in the transformation of the meaning of Hester’s scarlet letter.
Such helpfulness was found in her…that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. (148)
Hester’s scarlet “A” comes to stand for her good heartedness and skill of needlework, rather than a symbol to be shunned. The original meaning of the letter is drastically altered in the minds of the community, an ironic event which is unexpected by the reader. Hawthorne uses situational irony when dealing with main ideas of the novel.
Unlike situational irony, Hawthorne utilizes verbal irony to represent the motives and desires of various characters. Verbal irony, when a character’s message is interpreted one way, but means something else, is found in the dialogue of the main characters.
“If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace…I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-suffer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, thou he were to step down from a high place…yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.” (63)
Although Dimmesdale is begging Hester to reveal that he is her partner in sin, his actions clearly show otherwise. The intense verbal irony of this scene can only be understood in retrospect, once the reader is aware of Dimmesdale’s link to Hester. Likewise, the irony of Chillingworth’s response to Hester in prison can only be fully realized once the plot develops.
“Why dost thy smile so at me?” inquired Hester, troubled at the expression of his eyes. “Art thou like the black man that haunts the forest round us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?” “Not thy soul,” he answered, with another smile. “No, not thine!”(71-72)
Chillingworth’s ambiguous statement implies that he will cause Dimmesdale’s downfall. Although he accomplishes his stated mission, Chillingworth’s quest for revenge ironically leads to his own downfall. Hawthorne continues to use verbal irony when Hester is discussing her scarlet letter with Pearl. “As for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its gold-thread” (166). Until this time, Hester has never lied about the meaning of the scarlet letter she wears. Because Hester says one thing but clearly means another, her dialogue stands as an example of verbal irony within Hawthorne’s piece.
While Hawthorne utilizes verbal irony in the dialogue of the characters, he employs dramatic irony to create and prevent suffering for the characters. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows something critical that one or more of the characters do not. Because other characters are unaware of certain details, their decisions often lead to unintended consequences.
The elders, the deacons, the motherly dames, and the young and fair maidens, of Mr. Dimmesdale’s flock, were alike importunate that he should make trial of the physician’s frankly offered skill. (111-112)
Had the inhabitants of Boston known Chillingworth’s true motive, revenge, it is certain they would not have sanctioned a close relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Their ignorance led to the eventual decline of their beloved Dimmesdale, a powerful example of dramatic irony. The Puritans in Boston are also oblivious to Dimmesdale’s relationship with Hester. Because of this, he effectually argues in her favor without seeming to be partisan.
“There is truth in what she says…God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements, both seemingly so peculiar, which no other mortal can possess.” (104-105)
Unbeknownst to the other characters, Dimmesdale sincerely desires for Hester to be allowed to keep Pearl. His position of apparent neutrality assures that his opinion will be highly regarded on an issue where it should be disregarded as biased. Although Dimmesdale does benefit in one instance of dramatic irony, he is gravely hurt when he proceeds through life unaware that an enemy is continually with him.
“Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!”
The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. (176)
Dimmesdale’s ignorance of Chillingworth’s evil intentions allows Chillingworth to infiltrate Dimmesdale’s life and cause wreck havoc upon his health and happiness. A supreme example of dramatic irony and its effect upon unknowing characters is Dimmesdale’s lack of insight concerning Chillingworth’s purpose. This blindness directly causes Dimmesdale’s downfall and eventual death. Hawthorne effectually employs dramatic irony to portray the relationships between the main characters of the novel.
Hawthorne’s application of situational, verbal, and dramatic irony throughout The Scarlet Letter adds layers of meaning to this otherwise simple novel about sin and redemption. By using situational irony to emphasize concepts and meaning, verbal irony to comment upon the character’s desires and motives, and dramatic irony to create and prevent suffering for the characters, Hawthorne immensely enriches his novel. Although Anatole France believes irony to be only the “gaiety of reflection,” Hawthorne masterfully utilizes it to develop his theme of sin and repentance.