Criticism of Puritan Society: Nature in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”
Throughout the late 18th century and 19th century, Romanticism was a highly popular literary style adopted by many novelists. Nature, a prominent element of Romanticism, is used in these authors’ writings not just for descriptions and images, but also to emphasize major ideas. One gifted author influenced by Romanticism was Nathaniel Hawthorne, the creator of “The Scarlet Letter”. In “The Scarlet Letter”, Hawthorne uses nature as a romantic source for critiquing Puritan life: the harshness of its society, the unjust laws of the Puritan theocracy, and the corruption of the Puritan humanity.
Hawthorne uses a strongly romantic view of nature to emphasize the Puritans’ harshness and lack of compassion. For instance, in the first chapter, Hawthorne describes the town as “the black flower of civilized society” (45). In this passage, he uses a flower, an element of nature, to symbolize the despair of the prison town. He further emphasizes this symbol by describing the prison’s plot of as “overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation” (45). By representing the prison and scaffold as a gloomy place of punishment, Hawthorne foreshadows the immoral events that are soon to take place.
The use of nature to symbolize the prison also establishes a dark atmosphere that sets up the scene by the scaffold, the place of punishment. During this scene, the women watching take a “peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue” (48). The supposedly moral Puritans are portrayed as people with no compassion for Hester, the “criminal”. One of the women even demands that they brand Hester’s forehead with the letter “A” (49). These women are depicted as merciless people whose religion emphasizes God’s wrath, not God’s love. Hawthorne contrasts the prison and scaffold, the evil symbols of Puritan society, with the “wild rose-bush…[which] might be imagined to offer its fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in…in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him” (46). The rose-bush, a symbol of Nature, is a completely pure component that has not been “tainted” by the harshness of Puritan society. It is also used as a symbol of hope for the town, contrasting with the evil and darkness of the prison and scaffold. Hawthorne effectively uses nature to criticize Puritan society by illustrating the prison and scaffold as the embodiment of societal evil. Hawthorne purposefully uses these descriptions in the beginning of the novel to establish the mood. By contrasting nature with Puritan society, Hawthorne successfully criticizes the Puritans.
In “The Scarlet Letter”, the forest, a symbol of freedom, is contrasted with the town in order to criticize the cruel, strict laws of the theocracy. Hawthorne’s use of the forest also emphasizes the Romantic aspect of the novel. The forest is considered a place of evil, where the Black Man dwells. However, Hawthorne describes the Nature of the forest as a “wild, heathen Nature…never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth” (177). Even though the Puritans believe the forest is an evil place, Hawthorne depicts it as an almost holy sanctuary that contrasts with the destructive and unforgiving town. Furthermore, Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale and Hester’s love to depict the forest as a place of happiness and freedom. In the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale can be alone for the first time in seven years. The two lovers unite and Hester undoes “the clasp that fastens the scarlet letter, and taking it from her bosom, throws it to a distance among the withered leaves” (176). Hester is defying the town and the Puritan faith by removing the scarlet letter from her bosom. She can only do this in the forest, a place free from boundaries and laws. Once again, Hawthorne uses the forest as a contrast to the strict Puritan society.
This contrast is elucidated further during the scene where Pearl points out that the sunlight in the forest does “not love [Hester]. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on [Hester’s] bosom” (160). The scarlet letter symbolizes the laws of the town, and therefore the destructiveness of the Puritans. The sunshine in the forest, a component of nature, shuns Hester because of this letter but fills the forest with light when Hester removes the letter from her chest (177). The sunshine in the forest is shown as a symbol of happiness and holiness, where the sunshine only shines upon the good. The Puritans believe that their town is a sacred village, and that the forest is a place of evil and sin; however, Hawthorne shows the forest as a place of pureness, freedom, and happiness. Through the forest, he exploits the Puritans’ ignorance, once again criticizing Puritan society through the use of nature.
Hawthorne’s final criticism of Puritanism uses nature to reveal the corruption of Puritan society. Hawthorne achieves this by revealing that the Puritan view of Pearl is unjust. The Puritans of the town scorn Pearl and think of her as an “imp of evil” because she is an “emblem and product of sin” (84). Because Pearl is the result of the sin Hester and Dimmesdale committed, the people of the town look down on her. Nevertheless, Hawthorne uses nature to transform Pearl into a sacred figure. During the sunshine episode, Pearl exclaims that Hester is not loved by the sunshine, but Pearl “actually catch[es] the sunshine, and st[ands] laughing in the midst of it, all brightened by its splendor” (160). The sunshine only runs from the corrupted; it does not run from Pearl, a completely pure child. This event contrasts the Puritan opinion of Pearl as an evil child who is no more than the product of a sin. Hawthorne criticizes the corruption of Puritan humanity by attacking the Puritans’ unjust attitude towards Pearl.
Hawthorne expands on Pearl’s purity during the scene where Pearl sees her own reflection in the brook. Pearl is “glorified with a ray of sunshine” (181) and is depicted as a pure child free from the corruption of Puritan society. Her purity is again shown when the forest becomes the “playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how” and “it put[s] on the kindest of its moods to welcome her” (178). Pearl is engulfed by the wilderness, and actually becomes part of the wild. By exalting in Pearl’s purity, Hawthorne draws attention to the corruption of Puritan humanity. Again, Hawthorne criticizes the Puritans’ humanity through nature and the purity of Pearl.
In “The Scarlet Letter”, Hawthorne effectively criticizes Puritan society through the use of nature. Christianity, a faith commonly thought of as very forgiving, is depicted as a caustic, punishing religion. Hawthorne uses the flower of the rosebush to criticize the Puritans’ vicious ways, and the forest and Pearl to criticize the laws of their theocracy. Because of his effective use of nature, Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” qualifies as the work of a Romantic author.
Rereading The Scarlet Letter as a Proto-Feminist Text
The Scarlet Letter, perhaps the most notable work of prodigious American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, was first published in 1850 and has since been subject to a plethora of literary criticisms, including those from psychoanalytic, new historical, and reader-response perspectives. In each of their articles, scholars Jamie Barlowe, Jesse F. Battan, and Suzan Last aptly choose to analyze the text through a feminist lens. While they each approach the subject in varying ways, these scholars all allow the reader to intuit that, despite being written by a male during an era when men were considered to be highly superior to women, The Scarlet Letter is indeed a proto-feminist text.
In “Hawthorne’s Feminine Voices: Reading ‘The Scarlet Letter’ as a Woman,” Last argues that though “the narrative contains many passages that characterize the narrator as a champion of patriarchal values,” Hawthorne’s use of distinctly feminine narrative techniques has “the effect of creating a narrative of radical sympathy for women suffering under patriarchal oppression” (Last 349). Last goes on to list the vast differences between feminine and masculine methods of discourse, stating that female narratives are often written from “many perspectives” rather than from a “one subject perspective,” do not follow a typical “beginning-middle-end” format, possess a sense of “plurality of meaning,” and are usually more “subjective” than “objective,” among a multitude of other discrepancies (Last 350). She also notes that it is vital “to keep in mind that these distinctions are only arbitrary, and necessarily artificial, based on social constructions” (Last 350). However, the notion that these definitions are merely social constructions does not render them meaningless in the least. Over time, they have become deeply ingrained in the manner in which our society operates, and thus we respond to them in very real ways.
Looking back at The Scarlet Letter, we can detect these supposedly “feminine” qualities in Hawthorne’s writing. As in most of his other works, there is much ambiguity to be found in the novel; for example, it is left up to the reader to discern how the scar on Arthur Dimmesdale’s chest manifested itself or if it is even truly there. The novel also fails to follow the typical beginning-middle-end structure, instead commencing in media res, as Hester Prynne leaves the town prison with her young daughter Pearl in tow and the infamous “A” already emblazoned on her chest. Additionally, the Hawthorne’s use of an omniscient narration style allows the novel to reveal the contrasting perspectives of several characters.
The combination of these seemingly feminine characteristics in Hawthorne’s prose results in what Last refers to as “a much more profound sympathy with female oppression than is usually to be found in a male text” (Last 351). As a product of this sympathetic sentiment, by the novel’s conclusion, Prynne comes across to the reader as more of a heroine than a heathen, despite her constant condemnation by the Puritan townspeople that she is surrounded by. This sense of compassion and understanding for Prynne is just one of the examples of proto-feminism that can be found in The Scarlet Letter.
In “‘You Cannot Fix the Scarlet Letter on My Breast!’: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America,” Jesse F. Battan discusses the reconstruction of gender roles that was brought about by a group of Victorian women in the 19th century who were known as the “Free Lovers.” Battan compares these female activists to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, postulating that “throughout the last half of the nineteenth century it was precisely the kind of woman symbolized by Hester Prynne who would emerge as a confidant to the discontented and as a prophet of a regenerated emotional life” (Battan 601). In spite of her strong similarities with these more modern feminists, Battan points out that Prynne is never able to fully embody the role of a “catalyst” because “Hawthorne gloomily concluded that the role…would be reserved for a woman who is ‘lofty, pure, and beautiful,’ rather than one, like Prynne, who was ‘stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow’” (Battan 601).
A less optimistic reader could see Prynne’s inability to fully personify this revolutionary role as a means for Hawthorne to reinforce the patriarchal perception of women as weak and ineffective when compared to men, a commonly held stereotype of the time. But the fact remains that he comes to this realization “gloomily,” therefore reiterating Last’s claim that Hawthorne’s narrative is decidedly feminine and consequently shows genuine sympathy for the plight of women. One can assume that Last would wholeheartedly agree with Battan’s conjecture that Prynne’s character typifies many of the qualities found in future women’s rights activists; perhaps Last might even venture further to assert that Hawthorne did so intentionally.
Here, too, lies an essential distinction that makes Hawthorne’s work come across as proto-feminist and not fully feminist: although Hawthorne characterizes Prynne as an intelligent, independent, and tenacious individual, she is still held back by her gender. In most feminist texts, the female protagonist ends the novel with a sense of “possibility,” rather than the conventional conclusions of a happy, traditional marriage or death. Yet at The Scarlet Letter’s finale, Prynne is still marked by her sin in the form of the crimson “A” on her breast, and thus she is debarred from transforming into the agent of change she so desperately wants to become.
In “Rereading Women: Hester Prynne-Ism and the Scarlet Mob of Scribblers,” Jamie Barlowe takes issue with the unfair interpretations which numerous male literary critics have made about The Scarlet Letter, pointing out that “the primary way in which male mainstream Hawthorne scholarship has Othered women has been in its almost total disregard of women’s scholarship on The Scarlet Letter” (Barlowe 198). This “Othering” she speaks of can be defined as the view of Prynne as a sexual object rather than as an actual human being–a problem that is constantly faced by women outside of the literary realm, as well. Barlowe reasons that Prynne is so often sexually appropriated because “no woman has been viewed as more continuously desirable to white men than one who, like Hester Prynne, is beautiful, strong, silent, self-regulating, (hetero)sexual, and subversively sinful enough to break sexual codes” (Barlowe 200).
Whatever the reason for Prynne’s sexualization may be, it has certainly pervaded pop culture. A cartoon feature in an issue of Playboy “‘depicts [Hester] at the head of a bevy of Puritan lasses…beaming smugly and proudly, Hester sports an A+ on her bosom while all her companions have just simple A’s’” (Barlowe 200). In the recent film Easy A, Emma Stone’s allegedly promiscuous character embroiders the letter “A” on a racy black corset that she later wears to school, thus perpetrating the notion that the “A” and, by association, Prynne, are sex symbols rather than literary archetypes. Even the “supposedly wholesome musical The Music Man” contains a sexual innuendo addressed toward Prynne, as follows:
“I smile, I grin when the gal
With a touch of sin walks in.
I hope, I pray, for Hester
To win just one more ‘A.’” (Barlowe 200).
Disturbingly, these examples are just a few of the countless instances in which this overt objectification takes place.
Thankfully, more enlightened critics, such as Barlowe, Battan, and Last, refuse to see Hester as a mere object for male pleasure to be projected upon. Their feminist analyses prove that she is far more than that; she is a symbol of early feminism and a beacon of hope for future feminists. Surely, had Barlowe read the works of either Battan or Last, she would have been both refreshed by their inclusion of non-othering female perspectives and in agreement with the arguments that are proposed in each article.
Thus, Barlowe, Battan, and Last, through their feminist readings of the text, prove that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is truly a proto-feminist work. Interestingly enough, the first wave of feminism began in the United States not long after the initial publication of the novel. By 1920, women had gained the right to vote and the concept of “the New Woman” had emerged, popularized by the renowned British-American author Henry James, who was, unsurprisingly, a fan of Hawthorne’s work. With these facts in mind, one could hypothesize that by writing The Scarlet Letter and including the strong-willed Hester Prynne as the protagonist, Hawthorne inadvertently (or perhaps purposefully) helped to pave the way for feminists to come.
Barlowe, Jamie. “Rereading Women: Hester Prynne-Ism and the Scarlet Mob of Scribblers.” American Literary History 9.2 (1997): 197-225. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Battan, Jesse F. “”You Cannot Fix the Scarlet Letter on My Breast!”: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America.” Journal of Social History 37.3 (2004): 601-24. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Last, Suzan. “Hawthorne’s Feminine Voices: Reading “The Scarlet Letter” as a Woman.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 27.3 (1997): 349-76. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Hester Prynne as Heroine
In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne Prynne redefines herself despite being shunned by the Puritan community. Although she has sinned, she does not dwell in the past. She grows stronger as a person from the cruelty of the townspeople and the shame they place on Hester. Though everything seems to go wrong for Hester, the story ends in her favor. Hester grows stronger than both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. She becomes the voice of those who have sinned, and shows her caring and resilient nature even under the spell of the letter.
Although Hester is shunned by her community, she upholds herself with strength and acceptance. In the beginning of the story, the reader first meets Hester as she exits the prison while the townspeople watch. Hester is holding her child, a symbol of her sin of adultery, and is marked with an embroidered letter “A” on her dress. The women of the town gossip about Hester, and remark that Hester’s beautiful embroidery skills of the letter that was meant to be her punishment have made it appear as if she is proud of her sins. However, Hester is only making the best out of her situation. Although the townspeople expect Hester to be ashamed and embarrassed, she turns the other cheek: “Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (37). Hester shows her strength by refusing to crumble under public humiliation and being branded as punishment for her sin. She accepts her wrongdoings with grace and stands her ground: “In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at the townspeople and her neighbors” (37). This event is an example of Hester’s strength shining through her dark circumstances, and it is the beginning of her journey towards accepting her sin and becoming a better person because of it.
While Hester is vulnerable early in the novel, she develops confidence and a new perspective as an outsider, and then shows her dominance of Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth. While Dimmesdale’s sanity is deteriorating, Hester is finding peace with her sin and the letter. “‘Hester,’ said he, ‘hast thou found peace?’ She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom. ‘Hast thou?’ She asked. ‘None!-nothing but despair!’ He answered” (131). During the conversation between Hester and Dimmesdale, Dimmesdale is depressed and distraught, while Hester is calm and comforting. This is ironic because it was Hester who was publicly punished for her sins, yet Dimmesdale is letting his secret sin ruin his life. The shame Hester is expected to experience is affecting Dimmesdale instead. Hester also becomes impatient with Chillingworth’s evil and decides to meet with him. She explains that he no longer intimidates her thanks to her new found strength, and that she has risen above him: “Strengthened by years of hard and solemn trial, she felt herself no longer so inadequate to cope with Roger Chillingworth… She had climbed her way, since then, to a higher point. The old man, on the other hand, had brought himself nearer to her level, or perhaps below it, by the revenge which he had stooped for.” (115). Hester’s newfound confidence allows her to find peace and prosper above Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.
Hester finding peace with herself and her scarlet letter is another example of her ability to overcome challenges and isolation. Overtime, she becomes more and more accepted by the townspeople as they recognize Hester as an important part of the community. Hester has been under the radar and has lived a pure life since the incident, which softens the attitude of the townspeople. Hester also offers guidance and comfort towards others who have sinned. “Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one” (111). She becomes known as a “Sister of Mercy,” and the symbol of her letter actually shifts to mean “Able”. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—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 generously uses her new perspective that she gained from her punishment to help others, and in return is well received by the townspeople as a strong woman.
Though Hester Prynne suffers through cruel punishment and isolation due to her sin, she does so without letting it destroy her character. She perseveres through her circumstances and gains strength and perspective. She also turns her pain into the ability to sympathize with others. While the men hold the power in the beginning of the story, she triumphs over both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth by the end because she accepts her sin as a part of her life and attempts to make the best of it. Hester Prynne ignores the shameful symbolism of the scarlet letter and makes it a symbol of her own strength.
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.
Gender in Gothic Literature
Gothic literature uses gender to discuss social norms and explore stereotypes while commenting on whether gender stereotypes should be upheld or disrupted in society. In this essay, I will compare two female characters and two male characters in Gothic texts to establish how gender stereotypes are upheld and disrupted in Gothic literature. I will analyze the characters of Count Dracula and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Laura from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and Aylmer from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” as examples of how gender impacts Gothic literature. I will also compare how these characters interact with people of the same gender and people of the opposite gender. There is a link between gender and submission versus subversion, which I will explore further using these characters (Gbogi). I will argue that while Gothic literature uses characters that disrupt gender stereotypes, the texts primarily promote gender stereotypes as morally better and aim to normalize and enforce them in readers.
At the time that all of these texts were written social norms determined that a woman’s place was in the home, meaning that women were expected to be housewives and mothers (Prescott and Giorgio). The literature of that time and leading up to it promoted the stereotypical female character to normalize and enforce these stereotypes in readers, men and women alike (Gbogi 506). Laura Mulvey (Wagner xxxii) argues that cinema focuses on men that actively look for a passive woman and in turn women become passive as it is deemed more attractive. Although Mulvey discusses gender portrayal in terms of cinema, her argument can be applied to gender portrayal in literature as well. Passive female characters in Gothic texts tend to be perceived better by the male characters in the text; they are pure and behave as good Victorian ladies ought to behave (Prescott and Giorgio 487). Female characters are rewarded for their femininity and punished for showing masculine traits such as intelligence or unrepressed sexual desires (Mendoza). Likewise, masculine characters are heralded as strong and powerful if they are highly masculine, whereas any deviation from this is viewed as weak and unnatural (Kuzmanovic).
The character of Laura in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” lets her curiosity get the better of her and becomes consumed with the desire to eat fruit from the Goblin men. Laura is unable to pay the Goblin men for their fruit, but instead gives them a “gold” (Rossetti 261) lock of her hair. However, her weakness is not attributed to her character but rather the “evil gifts” (Rossetti 261) of the Goblin men, in other words, their masculine seduction is too powerful for a female to resist and hence, is not the fault of the stereotypically simple-minded woman. Many critics believe that Laura’s desire for the Goblin men’s fruit is really a desire for sexual pleasure (Mendoza). Rossetti’s poem also warns women about newfound sexual awareness and the consequences of giving into sexual desires being difficult to come back from. Laura’s misfortunes because of her curiosity become a cautionary tale to women about letting desire control them and is an endorsement for women to remain in the home.
Dracula’s (Stoker) Mina Harker is another female character that does not fit into the typical female stereotype. Mina Harker is a New Woman, yet for all her ideals she settles herself into the role of the passive female whose primary duty lies with her husband (Prescott and Giorgio 488). She is a complex character who cannot be classified as an “ideal Victorian woman” (Prescott and Giorgio 487), nor can she be cast purely as a New Woman. As a New Woman, Mina rejects the traditional gender stereotypes and is progressive by working as an assistant schoolmistress. She is reluctantly accepted into a band of men who praise her for her masculine intelligence while admiring her femininity. Yet when Mina narrates her seduction by Count Dracula she seems to forget her role as a New Woman and becomes the submissive female stereotype when she says, “strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him” (Stoker 251). At the end of Dracula Mina becomes the devoted wife and mother she aspires to be and relinquishes her New Woman title in favor of the socially acceptable female.
Masculinity is just as much stereotyped as femininity and like female characters, a male character who goes against the norm is reproachable. However, unlike these female characters, who are often portrayed as victims of male temptation or femininity (Mendoza), male characters who transgress social standards are portrayed as villainous (Zurutuza). Count Dracula in Stoker’s Dracula represents classical notions of masculinity through his physical and political strength, wealth, power to control others particularly females, and his title of conqueror of blood (Zurutuza 542). Even Dracula’s physical appearance exudes masculinity with “strong” (Stoker 23) facial features and an “aquiline” (Stoker 23) nose. The comparison between Dracula and an eagle in his initial meeting with Jonathon Harker hints at his intelligence, which is associated with masculinity rather than femininity. However, Dracula’s indiscriminate seductive advances towards people of all genders call into question his masculinity (Kuzmanovic 412). Dracula’s consumption of blood by piercing flesh with his “peculiarly sharp white teeth” (Stoker 23) that “protruded over the lips” (Stoker 23) is the vampire’s version of sexual penetration. Dracula is a figure of unrepressed sexual desire. Kuzmanovic (413) discusses Dracula’s seduction as being to tempt those with repressed sexual desires and causes identity confusion for those characters, particularly Jonathon Harker who unintentionally partakes in a homoerotic encounter with Count Dracula (41-4). The sexual confusion and desire Dracula causes along with the questions of masculinity he brings ends with his death, which is the result of honest masculinity from the other male characters combined with Mina Harker’s masculine intelligence.
Aylmer from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is not interested in seduction as Dracula is, but rather control. He uses his masculine authority to persuade his wife to let him remove the birthmark that “destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous” (Hawthorne 233). Aylmer becomes obsessed with its destruction and measures his own successfulness as a man by his ability to rid his wife of the mark. He perceives the birthmark “as a threat to his masculine dominance” (Howard 133). The birthmark is not really Aylmer’s issue, it is merely a symptom. Aylmer’s true problem lies with his wife’s obedience to him. Initially, she was hesitant to remove the birthmark, but is persuaded by Aylmer’s insistence. When Aylmer does succeed at removing the birthmark he rejoices in his masculinity. However, the removal of the birthmark causes his wife to die. Aylmer’s attempt to prove his masculinity ends by “ultimately destroying the mark, his wife, and his own almighty self-perception in the process” (Howard 135).
Both Laura in “Goblin Market” (Rossetti) and Count Dracula in Dracula (Stoker) are imbued with sexual desire, but their gender determines how their sexual desires are interpreted. Laura’s femininity renders her sexual desire as a symptom of being a victim to her femininity and thus, weak to the seductions of men. Dracula’s sexual desires transgress from the norm of masculinity making them unseemly, abhorrent, and villainous. Mina Harker on the other hand appears to be the epitome of a Victorian lady and is praised by the male characters for it. It is also revealed that she possesses a masculine intelligence for which the men also praise her, though reluctantly. However, she is neither completely feminine nor completely masculine and thus, is put in an in between category where she is not wholly accepted by either side. It is only when she fully embraces the female gender stereotype that she is accepted. While Mina Harker is criticized for being a mixture of both feminine and masculine, Aylmer is reproached for being excessively masculine and dominating his wife to the point of her death. These texts demonstrate that there is a fine line between being a socially acceptable gender character and being admonished for gender portrayal.
In “Goblin Market” Laura attempts to subvert the female role by allowing her curiosity to control her and in doing so becomes ill. She becomes well again after she submits to the female role. However, Laura is not portrayed as a villain, but rather falls victim to the Goblin men’s temptations (Gbogi 8). The Goblin men are deviants who trick women into buying their fruit tempting the women’s sexual desires (Mendoza 914). Similarly, Mina Harker also attempts to become an atypical female within the guise of the ideal woman (Prescott and Giorgio 488). Where Laura is punished for going against the norm, Mina is welcomed, however reluctantly, into male dominated territory. Laura and Mina have one major thing in common, they both become compliant with social standards and take on the persona of the stereotypical female character, which as Gbogi (506) argues, encourages readers to maintain the stereotype. However, there is also compelling evidence for Kuzmanovic argument that while female stereotypes are reinforced in Dracula it also encourages an open-minded approach to working with people of different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, and gender.
While these Gothic texts feature female characters who attempt to subvert social standards, it is the male characters who eventually force them into submission using their masculinity as a weapon of strength over the weakness of femininity. Dracula uses his transgressive masculinity to seduce men and women alike and coerce them into submitting to his will. His seduction of Mina Harker oppresses her New Woman principles and draws out the compliant Victorian lady (Prescott and Giorgio 487). However, Dracula’s monstrous masculinity is represented as being villainous and is used to contrast the gentlemanly masculinity of other male characters to enforce socially acceptable norms for men. Aylmer’s dominance and forced submission of his wife that results in her death is a warning from Hawthorne about the destructive consequences of men forcing women into submission. While these texts encourage female liberation somewhat, they identify a condition on said liberation. Feminine progression is only allowable if females remain submissive to the will of their male counterparts, if so, then they are free to subvert from norms within the boundaries set my men. This does not allow female characters much room for freedom, but instead reinforces a male dominant hierarchy while heavily suggesting enforcement of stereotypes (Gbogi 506).
Male and female gender stereotypes are evident in Gothic literature. Where some texts attempt to disrupt these stereotypes, such as Mina Harker in Dracula (Stoker), others maintain the stereotype, such as Aylmer in “The Birthmark” (Hawthorne). There is a disparity in how gender affects the interpretation of characters that transgress stereotypes. Where women are regarded as victims of their femininity, men are reproached for not being masculine. The stereotypical male characters aim to force the female characters into submission while the female characters attempt to subvert social norms. Gothic literature promotes the socially acceptable gender stereotypes by portraying characters that disrupt the norm who are then revealed to be morally incompetent for male characters and forced into submission for female characters.
Gbogi, Michael Tosin. “Refiguring the subversive in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”” Neohelicon, vol. 41, 2014, pp. 503-16. EBSCO, doi:10.1007/s11059-014-0233-1.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Gothic Evolutions: Poetry Tales, Context, Theory, edited by Corinna Wagner. Broadview Press, 2014, pp. 232-42.
Howard, Jeffrey. “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birth-Mark.” The Explicator, vol. 70, no. 2, 2012, pp. 133-6. EBSCO, doi:10.1080/00144940.2012.678414.
Kuzmanovic, Dejan. “Vampiric Seduction and Vicissitudes of Masculine Identity in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 37, 2009, pp. 411-42. Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/S1060150309090263.
Mendoza, Victor Roman. ““Come Buy”: The Crossing of Sexual and Consumer Desire in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”” The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 73, no. 4, 2006, pp. 913-47. JSTOR.
Prescott, Charles E., and Grace A. Giorgio. “Vampiric Affinities: Mina Harker and the Paradox of Femininity in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no. 2, 2005, pp. 487-515. JSTOR, doi: 1060-1503/05.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Gothic Evolutions: Poetry Tales, Context, Theory, edited by Corinna Wagner. Broadview Press, 2014, pp. 260-8.
Stoker, Bram. “Dracula.” Dracula, edited by Nina Auerbach & David J. Skal. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 1-327.
Wagner, Corinna. “Introduction.” Gothic Evolutions: Poetry Tales, Context, Theory, edited by Corinna Wagner. Broadview Press, 2014, pp. xxiii-xlii.
Zurutuza, Krisian Perez. “The Vampire as the Gender and Racial Construction of Western Capitalism’s White Masculinity in English and American Gothic Literature.” International Journal of Arts & Sciences, vol. 8, no. 8, 2015, pp. 541-9. EBSCO.
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.
A Natural Mirror of Impurity in The Scarlet Letter
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.
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.