The Scarlet Letter
The Sin of Beauty in The Scarlet Letter
Beauty, in every form and aspect, is regarded by the general population as the eighth deadly sin. This becomes strikingly evident throughout the examination of Hester’s plight. Hester Prynne, a radiant example of elegance, begins to find reconciliation in the eyes of the public only once she extinguishes her flame of beauty. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s condemnation of what Hester’s beauty entails is sharply contrasted with the public’s condemnation of beauty itself.
The public believed that beauty was the direct path to downfall, sin, and ignominy. At the very beginning of the novel, at the height of Hester’s shame and disgrace, she is described as “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale” (40). This dazzling disposition, however, becomes a source of downfall for Hester. Her blatant refusal to look the part of a penitent Puritan is ill-received by the public. They interpret beauty as sin, as made evident through the self-professed Puritan saints, one of whom suggests branding the forehead of Hester; this other resident was “the ugliest as well as the most pitiless” (39). Those lacking beauty see themselves as the most worthy to pass judgment, condemning those who, in their eyes, are sinful because of their refusal to cast a shadow over their radiance. Hester is gawked at, gossiped about, and shunned from everyday life. She stands out, one bright flower in a sea of gray, making everyone around her not only suspicious, but angered by her blatant refusal to conform, which they see as synonymous with repentance and forgiveness. Hawthorne immediately brings to light the striking difference between Hester and the others. She is, from the very beginning, isolated in her own sphere of shame, kept there not only by her sexual transgressions, but by the sin and shame that her natural beauty brings her. While everyone around Hester passes judgment based upon surface level appearances, Hawthorne dives deeper, not condemning beauty, but condemning the deeper meanings and connotations of Hester’s beauty.
Hawthorne finds fault not in physical beauty, but in the condition of the heart’s interior. Hester, from the very beginning, felt the crushing weight of her sin in the deepest parts of her being. Although her outward appearance relays the attitude of a lack of repentance, she “underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her” (41). She is genuinely regretful, and is earnestly seeking repentance for her sin. Hawthorne is initially critical of the passion that Hester’s beauty entails, not of the beauty itself. As time progresses, Hester turns from “passion and feeling, to thought” (107). In light of the dramatic shift of the deepest parts of her being, Hawthorne praises Hester and her ability to turn away from her sin. Because of this, the reader is made to perceive Hester as a protagonist, as the only one is a town brimming with religious fervor to be truly holy. Hawthorne is capable of discerning what the others cannot: true character. For example, Roger Chillingworth was “a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil” (110). Chillingworth is, in the eyes of Hawthorne, the worst sinner in the town. His heart is blackened, and he is perhaps the most unsightly character seen throughout the novel. However, despite his clear attempts at malevolence, he was a “brilliant acquisition” and was “cordially received” by the community (80). The people find no fault in Chillingworth, as he is not suspiciously radiant, nor does he stand out among the crowd. He is exceptionally average in every aspect of his physical being, causing him to be accepted and warmly welcomed into the community. Hawthorne condemns Chillingworth for his awful and sinful internal intents. The community, however, is pleased to live in ignorant bliss, accepting his outward shows of religious life, and passively refusing to look deeper into the true content of his character. Hawthorne connects internal beauty with penance and forgiveness, while the public sees the most beautiful as those with the most sin. Refusing to conform to the Puritan beliefs of an earlier time, Hawthorne condemns a number of the ugliest people in the town, looking past their outward façades, to reveal their true sin and ignominy.
Yet while Hawthorne focuses in on the internal torment of Hester, the crowd only sees her “haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed” (40). Blinded by their strict regulations and stifling laws, the public is incapable of discerning anything but the outward appearance of Hester. Her scarlet letter, “in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread,” prompts immediate assumptions concerning the condition of her heart (40). Her beauty and extravagance and brilliance cause her to be perceived as a sinner beyond repair, and as someone completely worthy of the weight of shame thrust upon her shoulders. However, as time progresses, Hester takes on a humbled countenance, by causing “the attractiveness of her person [to undergo] a…sad transformation” (107). As she extinguishes her flame of beauty, there is a notable shift in the way Hester is perceived. The town showed “its former victim a more benign countenance”, in which the people began to re-assimilate her into their society (106). At the trough of her beauty, Hester experiences the climax of public acceptance, as people turn from scoffing to admiration, from the title “Adulteress” to the title of “Able”.
Scavan Bercovitch, a scholar invested in the study of early American literature and New England Puritan culture, states that “the bond [Hester] thus forges anew with the community lends another moral interpretation to her ‘new birth’ as American” (578). Hester is recreated in the Puritan society. As she “plays the part” of a Puritan, she quietly blends in with colorless dresses and slumped shoulders. In every aspect of a Puritan community, beauty is a sin, made evident through the “sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats” (36). Hester recognizes this, and is aware that she is incapable of being completely penitent while still indulging in sin. Thus, even when she is perfectly able to flee the community of her ignominy, she chooses to return, taking up “her long-forsaken shame”, and living a quiet and humble life void of extravagance (165). Hester does this in a final attempt to reach the point of full repentance, and to find acceptance in the hearts of the people around her by exemplifying her resounding commitment to repentance. Hester herself even begins to believe that beauty is sin, and thus feels the necessity to deprive herself of it. Her lonely sphere of confinement begins to disappear, as she begins to conform to the drab and solemn way of life of the Puritan community surrounding her. This acceptance, however, is not rooted in the transformation of her inner spirit, but rather in the transformation of her appearance. Beauty, according the Puritans, was one of the ways to measure holiness. Regardless of internal conditions, beauty was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a horrible and deadly sin. Hester believes that the “force of necessity attends [her] return, together with that self-denying, self-aggrandizing quest for martyrdom” (578). While Hester does begin to find her own sense of forgiveness, the people of her community are somewhat coerced into seeing her in a pure and golden light, as she submits herself to conformity. In a society constituted by dreariness in every aspect of life, Hester finally becomes a “full-fledged” member as she breaks the barrier between herself and the others, by casting away the radiance of her aura.
Hawthorne views internal beauty as worthy of praise; the Puritans, in sharp contrast, wanted humbled external appearances. During the times of her beauty, Hester is found to be repulsive and untouchable by everyone around her. However, once she begins to cover her radiance and take on a humbled countenance, she finds acceptance and even praise from the community. Furthermore, the actions of the people surrounding Hester serve to show their belief that beauty and purity are incapable of coexisting. Hester finds forgiveness in the eyes of Hawthorne once she becomes truly repentant, while she finds acceptance in the eyes of the public only once her outward being takes on the appearance of penitence.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The A-Politics of Ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 576-597. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 36-166. Print.
Hester’s Role as Both the Sinner and 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.
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 Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne: What’s Special about It’s Romantic Heroine
Hester Prynne is considered to be both one of the first heroines and feminist icons in American Literature. This is despite Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, being labelled as a misogynist, threatened by the growing feminist movement. How Hawthorne portrays his female protagonist and her interactions with the overbearing society around her prove that Hester Prynne is in fact the female heroine of “The Scarlet Letter”.
A Romantic Heroine is defined as a person who chooses not to conform to the flaws of society, but rather rises above them. Common traits of Romantic Heroes are isolation and regret for his or her actions. A heroine is a woman of distinguished courage or ability, possessing good character judgement and morals. Both descriptions apply to Hester Prynne. Although Hester is beautiful, which is described as shining behind her as if to make a “halo of the misfortune”, her beauty barely compares to her strength of character. We first meet the incredibly strong Hester on the scaffold with Pearl in her arms, beginning her punishment. The first description of Pearl notes her “natural dignity and force of character”. Despite feeling as though “her heart had been flung into the street for them to spurn and trample”, her face did not reveal her thoughts and her demeaner is described as “haughty”. Even though she has just stepped out of prison, her actions are described to be of her own free will. Hester also endures her punishment and the judgement alone. She does not succumb to the pressure of revealing Dimmesdale as the father and when she is told to “speak out the name of thy fellow sinner”, she refuses. Her loyalty and love for Dimmesdale is admirable. Hester also shows emotional strength by remaining in Boston and facing the humiliation rather than running away. She stays even though she is “alone, apart, a living critic of society”.
Hester is a devoted mother, even though she knows her daughter will be at a disadvantage because of her absent father. She names her daughter Pearl because she was “of great price-purchased with all she had, her mother’s only treasure”. Hester names her Pearl to associate purity and innocence with her rather than sin. Hester fought the authorities who tried to take her child away and provided for herself and her Pearl. The simple fact that Hester is able to raise her child while her punishment is ongoing shows her determination. Rather than seeing Pearl as a representation of her sin or the Scarlet Letter in another form, Hester chooses to see Pearl as a gift from God—the only company and link to humanity that she will have now that she is ostracised.
Despite being publicly humiliated by the Puritans, Hester remains kind and humble. Because she is shunned by her community, she has no friends or obligations. Her time is split between being in solitude or helping those in need such as the governor whom she sat with as he died and her charitable work. She does good deeds despite the people she helps not showing her the same generosity in return. Through her pious actions, Hester turned the A into a symbol of her good will, taking away the shame it was intended to represent. Rather than meaning “Adulterer”, the Scarlet Letter represented “Angel” or “Able”. In addition, Hester does not dress lavishly even though she had the ability to make beautifully embroidered clothing and hides her beauty by wearing the typical Puritan clothing.
In Chapter Five, “Hester at Her Needle”, the reader discovers that she independently supports herself and Pearl. This would not have been an easy task at the time. Hester becomes a seamstress and creates beautiful garments even though Puritans are supposed to be against such luxuries. Hawthorne describes her talent by saying “she had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic—a taste for the gorgeously beautiful”. There is irony present in the elaborate needlework of the Scarlet Letter. It is described as “fantastic flourishes of gold thread” and the letter is decorative, going against the laws that demand sombre, unadorned attire.
Hester made a difference to the Puritan society. Hester was not only able to survive the strict rules set by the Puritans but she also broke them and was able to emerge as a powerful female character respected by the other women in the community. A feminist movement was underway when Hawthorne wrote “The Scarlet Letter” and the patriarchy was being challenged by women in America, which resulted in a shift in female societal roles. Hawthorne himself was threatened by the growing feminist movement that could possibly displace his position in the literary world. Feminist critics could argue that Hester is the embodiment of strong-willed feminist women and thus is an important and complex heroine in American literature.
It could be argued that Hester Prynne is a transcendentalist. This term describes an optimistic person who has faith in the future, loves and sees God in nature. They are also honest and individualistic; much like Hester and her beliefs. Although she was scorned from society, she never tried to hide her mistakes. On the other hand, Dimmesdale made it appear like he did nothing wrong. He covered up his mistakes to protect his status. Hester followed her heart, not deliberately breaking the Puritans rules. Hawthorne says “the Scarlet Letter is a passport into regions where other women dare not tread… and they made her strong.”
On the other hand, some critics believe that Hester is not the heroine of the story. Some believe that rather than a heroine, Hester is a martyr or a victim to the Puritan society as they manage to destroy all happiness from her life with their rules and regulations. However, Hester can also be seen as a temptress, much like Eve from the Garden of Eden, as she enticed Dimmesdale with her beauty and made him commit a sin. Hester repeatedly provides evidence that she does not feel guilt for her sins which makes some readers believe she is not a heroic character.
Overall, I believe Hester Prynne is in fact the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. This is because Hester possessed the characteristics and traits common in heroes in literature and she sacrifices herself in order to save the person she loves.
Prejudice in Americanah and The Scarlet Letter
Prejudice or alienation is almost always a theme, whether a prominent one or a minor one, within a work of literature. Art is about the human condition, and the human condition only significant because of struggle; a blessed life does not make a story. The novels Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne both explore the theme of prejudice. Americanah does so with a direct approach, using the protagonist’s blog to specifically explore the prejudice of racism in America. The Scarlet Letter does so subtly, by giving Hester, the oppressed character, a humble and accepting nature, which arouses the sympathy of the audience. However, while both novels utilize different intensities when addressing prejudice, they share some of the same methods of arguing against prejudice. In the novels Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, both authors use irony and character development to oppose the barriers of prejudice: racism in Americanah and intolerance of fornication in The Scarlet Letter.
Both novels use irony to expose the faulty logic behind the types of prejudice. In Americanah, Ifemelu’s blog discusses the wariness of immigrant Africans in being associated with the general African-American community: “admit it – you say ‘I’m not black’ only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that” (Adichie 273). The irony is that individuals with darker skin see the way others with the same appearance are treated, and so sub-consciously reject the identity to avoid being treated with prejudice. The “black” identity is immediately recognized as one to be avoided, as society has rejected it. The existence of this repulsion with being associated based on skin color is overwhelming proof of the ridiculous discrimination based off of appearance. Adichie intentionally shows this idea to enlighten the readers of the realness of racism in America.
In The Scarlet Letter, there is irony in the treatment of Hester, who is a publically announced fornicator in a Puritan community. Hester treats all those around her with kindness, and rejects any self-indulgence. However, the community refuses to acknowledge her kindness in light of the poor stigma surrounding ‘sexual immorality’: “Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those who she came in contact… expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere” (Hawthorne 277). Even “The poor… whom she sought out to be the objects of her bounty, often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them” (Hawthorne 278). She is completely isolated and suffers intense humiliation constantly because the Puritan community functions on a system of hierarchy and superiority, as Hawthorne quietly argues with poignant situational irony.
Moreover, both novels use character development to reflect a growth of character, in terms of recognizing and overcoming prejudice. In Americanah, Ifemelu discusses the social responsibilities of being “black” in America, explaining: “When you watch television and hear that a ‘racist slur’ was used, you must immediately become offended… Even though you would like to be able to decide for yourself how offended to be, or whether to be offended at all, you must nevertheless be very offended” (Adichie 274). Ifemelu shows an understanding of the racial tensions in America, and although she may miss the specific significance of racist activity, she recognizes it is her responsibility as a fellow black American to reject any of such activity. This is in contrast to her previous ignorance in regards to racial slurs, in the occasion which Ifemelu does not understand why the lady in the store refuses to describe the store girl as “black”. Throughout her experience and education of American culture, Ifemelu grows more aware of the sensitivity of race, therefore growing as a character. In The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan community eventually forgets its bitterness towards Hester, and “in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too” (Hawthorne 281). While this is not because the community has a change of opinion regarding the unforgiveable sin of fornication, it shows a softening of heart and a recognition of kindness on the part of the community. Hawthorne shows the first step towards shifting prejudice: a change in heart.
Though taken from strikingly different eras, Americanah and The Scarlet Letter both effectively argue against the illogic of prejudice. Novels, by nature, are designed to remove the readers from their own bias and enable them to see a different perspective. Taking advantage of this, the two authors show the reader that a prejudiced society is not hopeless, as a broadening of perspective enables the growth of a community.
Analysis Of ”Scarlet Letter” By Nathaniel Hawthorne
The “Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a gothic romance of a public suffering adulter, Hester Prynne, and an unnamed to the public, but a private suffering adulter Reverend Dimmesdale. Hester has to wear a Scarlet Letter “A” due to her committing adultery with Dimmesdale. Puritan beliefs prohibit the community to forgive and move on about her unruly sin, therefore she is shunned by other Puritans. Dimmesdale, a well respected Puritan minister, is privately suffering from great guilt and self-conscious shame. Throughout the novel, Pearl, the devilish daughter of Hester Prynne, represents the ever-changing dynamic Scarlet Letter.
She is Hester’s private way of suffering. Roger, the husband of Hester, is another way of punishing Dimmesdale and increasing his guilt. Roger is not seeking justice. He is instead seeking revenge. He intentionally tries to destruct others, rather than tell them about their wrongs, again with Dimmesdale’s private suffering. Hester committed adultery with Dimmesdale, during this time period it was a capital sin that required the execution of both the adulterers. Sometimes instead of execution, they would serve public corporal punishment. Therefore Hester was punished dearly with 3 long dreaded hours of standing in front of the entire community on the scaffold. She also will have to wear the Scarlet Letter “A” on her bosom for the rest of her life. Hester is now going to be an outlaw with people shunning and making fun of her for the rest of her days. Hester’s humane acts of helping others in her community still did not benefit her situation.
The private and nonprivate torture that Dimmesdale goes through is more than enough punishment for them committing adultery. He is more wretched as he imposes a false or fake appearance while trying to maintain divinity. Dimmesdale’s innocence is conscious and manipulated. He even tries to come out to the community and confess on a numerous amount of times that he is the father of Pearl, but he is too weak to do so. He constantly throughout the novel tries to convince people that he is the worst sinner but people become joyous to him more and more, getting the aspect and inferring that he is really “humble”. He does not want to conceal the act of adultery because of his morals, but his degraded state does not allow him to confess. His sin leads him away from his goal of priesthood, and he becomes a victim of his own morbid imagination. Hester was not only punished by the townspeople she was also punished dearly by Pearl.
Pearl was a consistent and constant reminder to Hester of the terribly sin that she had committed, and that she could not take it back. Hester’s life would be ruined for the rest of her life, that is the great price that she paid for Pearl. Pearl caused Hester’s life to never be filled with joy. She continually constantly nagged and harassed her mother over the “A” which she had to wear day in and day out. She would harass her to the point she would make her own Scarlet Letter to wear, and sometimes this would include her playing games with her mothers, by trying to his it vigorously with rocks. Pearl would also decorate it which would remind her of the sin. Some of Pearl’s actions would reflect the desolation of Hester’s social life and her mental state. Throughout the book numerous times Pearl would get made fun off. Pearl would always respond like a demon-possessed baby. Even though Hester had so much trouble with Pearl, she took into account that this was another one of her consequences for cheating on her husband Roger and for sinning. Chillingworth’s vindictiveness dehumanizes him and turns him into a wretched person. He is a worse sinner than either Hester or Dimmesdale. Chillingworth is a pearl to Dimmesdale. While tempers with the nature of Dimmesdale, by making him feel guilty and shameful for his sin.
While he feels no guilt of the paint that he is causing Dimmesdale. He causes him to to complete mental, emotional, and physical insanity. In the “Scarlet Letter”, the “A” is represented in numerous amount ways. One way is through, public suffering such as Hester in her every day, life. Another way is the private suffering Arthur Dimmesdale while being greatly tormented by Roger. Dimmesdale was eaten alive by his moral beliefs. Dynamic meanings of physical representations, Pearl along with the constant reminder to Hester that this is the result of her committing adultery. Revenge and decisiveness brought by Roger through torturing Dimmesdale, mentally which causes him to hurt himself physically.
Leitmotif of Public Self Versus Private Self in “The Scarlet Letter”
One of the major themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is the idea of the public self as distinguished from the private self. This leitmotif encompasses much more than the idea of an individual versus society; it also contains the themes of hidden thoughts versus candid speech, staying true to self versus meeting social expectations, and freedom through self-actualization versus restriction through self-denial. The story develops three characters that represent different schools of thought regarding the contrast between the public and private self. Understanding the mindset and the approaches of each of these characters, as well as how they reconcile their two personas, is paramount in discerning Hawthorne’s message.
The first character, Hester Prynne, has the most consistency between her public and private persona. From the opening of the book to the closing, her public image mirrors her private thoughts and actions. Having already failed society’s expectations, she is altruistic, reserved, and free to think about life in unorthodox ways. In the public setting, she does not retaliate against the masses’ derogatory opinions of her nor try to change their feelings; she instead accepts people, ideas, and attitudes at their face value. She conducts herself similarly in private.
This aspect of Hester’s character is seen in her relationships with Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. First, Hester does not place harsh restrictions upon Pearl; she generally lets her daughter do whatever the child wants. Hester only steps in to correct Pearl when Hester believes her daughter is behaving inappropriately. Hester takes Pearl at face value, and acts accordingly in response; she does not try to govern Pearl to produce a desired outcome.
This aspect of Hester reveals that she is not the type of person to dogmatically assert her own beliefs and opinions on others. She is content to accept the world and the people around her for what they are and make the best of them, regardless of her feelings. This approach to life can be seen in her public persona when she readily submits to her punishment of wearing the ignominious scarlet letter: accepting her fate and society’s viewpoint. She does not agree necessarily with them, but she is willing to put her own emotions aside to appease others. This desire to appease others may also be noted in the extensive amounts of time Hester took to take care of the marginalized of society.
Hester’s private behavior with Dimmesdale is different than in public, but she still stays true to herself in both scenarios. Her thinking is the same; however she voices her opinions in private while keeping quiet about them in public. Publicly, she does not try to sway Dimmesdale in either direction as redemption is sought for his transgressions: she leaves him alone. In private, however, she expresses her concerns and suggestions to him. Hester’s approach is governed by her desire to appease Dimmesdale. She sees that Dimmesdale does not want to discuss their affair before the community, so she stays taciturn. However, when she sees his private turmoil, she follows suit by talking to him about it privately. This further demonstrates Hester’s kind, reserved, and accepting nature: both clandestinely and publicly.
Even with her abhorred husband, Roger Chillingworth, Hester shows a degree of submission and altruism. She abides by Chillingworth’s request to not reveal his true identity to the public. The only time she privately confronts him is to demand that he stop torturing Dimmesdale. Even this action had nothing to do with Hester’s prior disgust with Chillingworth; it was simply to ameliorate Dimmesdale’s suffering. This once again shows Hester’s desire to appease people.
Hester’s character is a testament to the good that comes from staying true to self, regardless of setting. In public, she appeases the people by honoring her punishment and helps them by caring for the sick and making garments. In private, she still strives to appease others and assist them. By staying true to self and not vacillating between two separate modi operandi, covertly and openly, she attains the greatest level of enlightenment and redemption out of all Hawthorne’s characters.
Roger Chillingworth’s character demonstrates the atrocities that occur when a person’s public self is completely divergent and illegitimate to his private self. He presents himself as a kindly old man who is there to assist the town with their illnesses, namely Dimmesdale’s illness. However, in private, he is a maleficent angel of death who is there to twist the knife already placed in Dimmesdale’s heart. In public, he puts on the facade of caring about Dimmesdale’s medical condition and wanting to make it better; he appears to be ignorant of the exact cause of Dimmesdale’s suffering. This public display is completely fraudulent. In private, Chillingworth knows that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover, and the vengeful old man’s only reason for assisting the young reverend is to further Dimmesdale’s suffering. Revenge is the poison that pervades all of Chillingworth’s actions. However, he hides these motives from the town. This concealment of his private self from the outside world devolves his initial drive for reconciliation and justified anger into unhealthy, corrupted animosity. Hester confronts Chillingworth about the matter, but Chillingworth denies the opportunity to end the downward spiral, which marks his full transformation into wickedness. Perhaps if Chillingworth had made known his identity and his intentions to the public, then he could have ended his personal rage before it consumed him.
The character of Dimmesdale is defined by his piety; it is his greatest asset, and yet it is his undoing. His affair with Hester, in his mind, forever broke his own sense of piety and righteousness. However, he strays from his new self-assessment of himself and still participates in the religious activities of a reverend. This alone constitutes a discrepancy between private self-esteem and public image. Furthermore, by vaguely claiming to the public he is indeed a sinner, the population further reveres him. This provides an even starker contrast between Dimmesdale’s public image and his own private view of himself, which feeds him the idea that his private self is the truer, more confidable side. Ergo, when he decides that he has to declare and atone for his sins, he opts to do so in a private setting. His own judgment then becomes impaired because he is only exposed to his own view and bias, without any empathy or alternate counsel from anyone else.
Because Dimmesdale has rejected all public opinions of him as false and uneducated, the alternate view that Hester finally does present him with warrants no credibility. While Dimmesdale is somewhat consistent because he acts miserably in both public and private, and says that he is a sinner in both settings, the two are weighted differently in his mind. Dimmesdale’s character exposes that it takes more than just acting the same in private and public; one must also balance and value the two equally. He invested too much time, energy, emotion, and faith into the private, which ultimately sapped him of all the liberation that could have come from a public reckoning.
From the three aforementioned characters, it becomes apparent that Hawthorne wanted to reveal personal peace and growth come through reconciliation and alignment of an individual’s private and public self. Chillingworth, who did not do this, became so depraved that Hester noted the ground where he stood seemed to swell with darkness, and Pearl started calling him “the Black Man”, which was synonymous with the devil’s name. Dimmesdale, who only left a meager amount of his private self open to the public, went into decline because he did not let the meditations of his heart equally permeate and resound through both the private and the public. In juxtaposition to Chillingworth and Dimmesdale is Hester Prynne. She stayed true to herself and let that be the guiding force for all her actions. Subsequently, she matured throughout the story and became a revered figure, despite the initial stigma she inherited with the scarlet letter. Through these three characters, Hawthorne wanted to show the imperative of refraining from deceiving the public about whom one truly is. He wanted to show that humanity’s nature is essentially corrupt and malignant, and the way to overcome this innate malice is not to hide it, but to share it publicly so that one may be liberated through the consistency and accountability that come along with being open with society and with self.
Hawthorne’s “Witch-Baby” in The Scarlet Letter
A few moments before Reverend Dimmsdale professes his sin to the crowd of onlookers, Hester’s hopes of escape are dashed by the knowledge that Roger Chillingworth also booked a passage on the departing ship a ship that she prayed would give her and her beloved freedom from the curse of the Scarlet Letter. Little Pearl, however, relays the message to her mother that her trip has been spoilt by the addition of the evil Chillingworth. A well-meaning sailor tells Pearl, “So let thy mother take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her this, thou witch-baby?” (224), implying that an additional passenger will be aboard the ship come departure. Hester, paling after hearing the news, watches her utopian plans fall to ruins as the minister breathes his last breath and she is once again left alone with Pearl, without escape from her bondage. The term “witch-baby,” though never repeated explicitly in other areas of The Scarlet Letter, demonstrates Hawthorne’s fascination with the language of witchery and its association with a child of the netherworld, Pearl.
Before the sailor’s intriguing comment to the “witch-baby,” Pearl is accosted by the strange Mistress Hibbins who asks, “They say, child, thou art of the lineage of the Prince of the Air! Wilt thou ride with me, some fine night to see thy father?” (222). From this question, Pearl’s witch-like characteristics acquire a negative connotation due to Hibbins’ insinuation that she could be associated with Satan. Pearl, however, rather than repulsed by the supposed witch’s question, repeats her phrase to the sailor after he calls her “witch-baby.” Pearl says, “Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!” “If thou callest me that ill name, I will tell him of thee; and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!” (224). From these few examples, Hawthorne illustrates, through the language associated with Pearl, that otherworldly phrases will always follow the child. Even her own mother, Hester, continually looks upon the child as something associated with fantasy, witchery or ephemera. Hawthorne uses such words as “airy sprite,” “elf,” “fairy” and “imp” to denote Pearl’s actions and attitudes. Moreover, other characters in the novel illustrate the child through their own observations as that of another world inhabited by fairies and witches. Hester’s contemporaries cannot positively explain Pearl’s unusual sensibility and resort to that of her spirit of immortality.
Even the Reverend Dimmsdale shows a certain amount of confusion when describing the tiny child. Again, Hawthorne resorts to the language of mystery when the man says to Hester, “In Pearl’s young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me” (193). Mistress Hibbins, though aged and frightening, is again compared to the young child solely because they both share Hawthorne’s understanding of unknown, inhuman power. The idea of the “witch-baby” lives in almost every description of Pearl, even when Mr. Wilson sees her in the hallway of the Governor’s home and exclaims, “The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess?She needs no old woman’s broomstick to fly withal!” (104). Bellingham comments as well that Pearl appears to be something from his old world in England?something hardly describable in such an environment as Puritan New England. He calls Pearl a “small apparition,” a child of the “Lord of Misrule” (98). Though much of Hawthorne’s description of Pearl revolves around the Prince of Air or the Lord of Misrule, the otherworldliness of Pearl does not have a terribly negative connotation rather, she seems steeped in another reality that is inaccessible by the puritans of Boston. The little girl tends to exist even outside the sphere of her outcast mother; Hawthorne, to prove the point of Pearl’s mysterious identity, associates her with the sprites, elves and imps of a world that no human knows intimately. His constant use of “witchery” language gives Pearl a certain character sense that implies her fate as a unknown resident of another land.
The Scarlet Letter: Literature Review
The author of my book is Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was born in Salem, Massachusetts. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, followed by his other famous book, “The House of Seven Gables” which was published in 1851. Something that is common between the two books is that they both have elements of Gothic and fiction. Even though gothic is not the main genre of Scarlet Letter, it is a Gothic novel because of the forbidden love that the main character has outside of her marriage. An affair was considered a crime in the time period the book is set in. The main genre of this book is historical fiction. It is set in 17th century Boston, where the people believed in the Devil, witches, and a vengeful God. Even though the book is historically accurate, other elements of the writing make it fictional.
The book tells the story of Hester Prynne, who has committed the crime of adultery. She gives birth to a baby girl and refuses to reveal the baby’s father. As a punishment, she is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” which makes her an adulteress. Her cowardly lover, who is a clergyman doesn’t confess to his crime for 7 years. Considering his position as a priest, he is guilt-stricken because he has committed a sin in the eyes of God. Her husband who was thought to be dead begins to live under a new name in order to find Hester’s lover.
“Man had marked this woman’s sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it was sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child, whose place was on that same dishonored bosom, to connect her parent for ever with the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in Heaven!” (Hawthorne 84)
Upon reading this passage for the first time, as a reader, I was able to empathize with Hester. The passage symbolizes two ironies. Firstly, the scarlet letter which was supposed to be a punishment is actually beautiful as it is the place where now Pearl rests. The other irony is Pearl herself as, “God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child” (Hawthorne 84) in return for her actions.
This book has a diverse number of themes, but my focus is the emotions presented in the book, which are also some of the themes. The emotions that I’m going to analyze are alienation, confession, persecution, sin, redemption, and guilt.
Media Creation Analysis
The form that I am focusing on is symbolism in the book. The symbol that I am going to refer to is a scaffold. A scaffold is a raised wooden platform used formerly for the public execution of criminals. There are three scaffold scenes in the book. All of the four main characters were present together in these scenes.
In order to explain my pictures, I’ll tell you what happened in each of the scenes. In the first scaffold scene, Hester walks out of the prison door with her 3 months old daughter. she walks through the public and climbs up the scaffold. As she is walking through the public they are talking about the symbol on her chest. Hester and Pearl are publicly persecuted, while the man whom she committed adultery with stands quietly in the public. She is interrogated by the town’s officials. Hester’s husband is also present at the scene and learns of her crime. He develops an evil impulse to take revenge on her. Throughout her humiliation, she copes with all the emotions alone at the scaffold. In the second scaffold scene, it is Dimmesdale who climbs the scaffold during the night. He hopes that he can confess his sin publicly and be cleansed through confession. Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold on his own accord, unlike Hester who was forced to climb the scaffold. While in Hester’s case, the scaffold symbolized humiliation, in Dimmesdale’s case it is more of a symbol of salvation as he uses the scaffold as an escape to lessen the anguish in his soul. He is later joined by Hester and Pearl. At this moment, the emotions that the scaffold represented in the first scenes are now that of bondage between the family. The family is now away from the society that will punish them for their crime. Hester’s husband is also present at the scene as a representation of evil. The final scene’s atmosphere is similar to that of the first. Again, all of the main characters are present at the scene. At this time, Dimmesdale confesses to his sin publicly while giving a sermon. He frees himself of the guilt and redeems himself. He dies at the scaffold after confessing.
I would recommend this book because the situation can be related to today’s society. A woman would be judged by the society and the law for having an affair without any explanations from her. While a man would still be let off the hook. The book paints a great picture of early America and about their morality and hypocrisy. While reading the book the author’s style was difficult to understand but when reading carefully, it is very interesting to read because of the use of imagery, symbolism, and irony. There are many parallels in this book to what we have read in the semester. I am connecting my book to Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, the creature demonstrates the basic human needs like food, shelter, companionship, and acceptance. However, he is judged based on his appearance and isolated by the society and abandoned by his father. Yet, we see the innocence in his character. He shows his human side to the world and wants to live a normal life, but he isn’t given the option to. While in The Scarlet Letter, Hester is forced to wear the scarlet letter A which represents adultery. Because of that, she is always judged by the public whenever she is in the marketplace. Hester and her daughter are isolated from the society and they have no one in their life except for each other. In both novels, we see how the two characters are treated in a similar way by the society and yet their outcome is so different. The creature goes on to take his revenge while Hester is more accepted by the society. The journey of their suffering is presented in such a way that a reader can feel sympathy for them. Lastly, what makes this book worth reading is that the author highlighted both the religion’s strengths and weaknesses. His knowledge of their beliefs and views on their lifestyles can be seen through the character themselves.
Hester’s Isolation and Alienation in The Scarlet Letter
Hester’s Isolation and Alienation in The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale have committed adultery, an unacceptable sin during the Puritan times. As a result of their sin, a child is born, whom the mother names Pearl. Out of her own free will, Hester has to face major punishments. She has to serve many months in prison, stand on the scaffold for three hours under public scrutiny, and attach a scarlet letter, “A” on her chest every day as long as she remained in the town of Boston. The letter “A” was to identify Hester Prynne as an adulteress and as an immoral human being. “Thus the young and the pure would be taught to look at her, with the letter flaming on her chest”, also “as the figure, the body and the reality of sin”(73). Holding on to sin can lead to alienation and isolation.
One reason Hester was alienated was her refusal to identify the another adulterer. When Hester is released from prison and stood upon the scaffold, she was asked to reveal the name of whom she committed the sin with. Having a heart blinded by love Hester choose to stay in the town and wear the scarlet letter “A” instead of revealing the other adulterer. She faced society only to protect and be close to the man she still loved. The “impulsive and passionate nature” (54), which to Hester seemed pure and natural had to be faced with humiliation alone, without the partner of sin. It seemed as though she was paying not only her own consequence but that of her lovers as well. Saying so herself while standing on the scaffold “I might face his agony as well as mine!” (64). Now taking on all blame she has given “up all her individuality. Now she would become the “general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion” (73). After the sin had been revealed Hester never again felt she was accepted by society. It seemed to her as though “every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished” (78) from the town. Hester was unable to walk through town without a child babbling a rude gesture or strangers eye upon her bosom.
After the crime of adultery was known to all, Hester’s appearance changed completely. Her clothing and the way she wore her hair changed from being beautiful and revealing to plain and common. It seemed Hester tried to blend in as much as possible and to go unnoticed. Her “ornament,- -the scarlet letter,–which was her doom to wear” (79) shown out quite obviously to everyone throughout the town. Assuming the encounters with the scarlet letter would have some kind of effect of immunity was quite the opposite of what truly happened. “From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callus; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive to daily torture”(79).
Hester and Pearl were placed outside of town in an abandoned cottage away from all habitation. Small children would sneak up to catch a glimpse of the scarlet letter. After they had eyed it from the window they would “scamper off with contagious fear” (75) as if the scarlet letter burned like fire. Hester’s great skill in needlework probably saved her from dying of loneliness because she hadn’t “a friend on earth who dared to show himself” (75). And though Hester was most likely the best seamstress in Boston, she was unable to embroider a wedding vale for any bride. The white vale symbolized purity and the hands of Hester were not pure. This was one specific area in which society alienated her.
Holding on to sin can lead to alienation and isolation. Hester’s sin was that she fell in love with another man and committed adultery with him. If Hester could have let the love for Dimmesdale free and named him as the other adulterer she would not have suffered so badly from the isolation and alienation that she did.