The Scarlet Letter
The Influence of British Literature on the Birth of American Artistry
The idea that our American literary culture has been influenced since its inception by Britain’s is not a new one; after all, the two countries are rather like two branches of the same tree. Even though the mindsets are of distinctly different beliefs, they still share centuries of history that is not easy to overwrite. At the same time, however, America has been pushing to create its own breed of auteur distinct from their overseas contemporaries. The first real push to create an ‘American flavor’ of literature began after the Revolutionary War. Demand for something to show off the nation’s independence reached a fervor, and James Fenimore Cooper answered the call. Furthering the cause was the poet William Cullet Bryant, who romanticized the American wilderness much like Wordsworth and Coleridge had done of their own countryside. With the addition of Hawthorne’s international success with The Scarlet Letter and Herman Melville’s popularity for his nautical narratives, America could at last claim to have some sort of presence in the literary market, no matter how feeble the quantitative representation was. But it would still be an uphill battle for quite some time. Thanks to the lack of any international copyright laws, stateside publishers found it much cheaper and profitable to pirate editions of British works by the likes of Byron, Scott, and Carlyle than to take a risk on untested properties coming from Cooper, Hawthorne, and the like. This proliferation of foreign material managed neatly to set up a singular force of influence upon the American readers. Part of this trend was also due to a general interest in Britain itself, with several thousand Americans going abroad every year. After all, if the only thing to be read involves the history and manners of another country, then what else is there to think about but to travel and find out the truth first hand? This is not to say that England had a monopoly over American libraries; they may have had more books being published (and thus, pirated), but the newborn nation still nursed a lasting desire for something to show the world markets as worthwhile. For a while, though, the only thing emerging stateside was a series of American imitations of British literature. Several poems from Nathaniel Evans’s Poems on Small Occasions were direct rip-offs of Milton’s work, and nearly every entry in Boston Prize Poems was heavily influenced by Pope. Byronic heroes were a recurring element in early works by Richard Dana and Edgar Allen Poe. It wouldn’t be until 1835 that Poe himself took up the charge of exposing this blatant plagiarism, calling attention to Robert Bird, Mattson, Disraeli, and Longfellow (Peach). Whether this “epidemic” was the result of a nation-wide lack of imagination or a fear of not being profitable is irrelevant; either way, it was more than a step back for the nation’s literary development. At the same time, one would be remiss to write this episode off entirely as a loss. As Stephen King once wrote, “Imitation preceded creation.” With time, American authors began to take the ideas presented to them by their contemporaries and mold them into something distinctly American. They no longer stringently followed the British ideals for “modeling” after the historic greats. There was still an undeniable overseas influence, to be sure, but it was now being seen through glasses of a different, American tint. A good example of this development comes from Wordsworth’s many admirers. William Cullen Bryant strived for many years to achieve the sort of oneness with nature that the great romantic had. He first read a copy of Lyrical Ballads at age 16 and professed its influence on his works on several occasions. Despite his studious efforts at imitating Wordsworth’s stylistic offerings, however, he could never quite find himself truly intimate with the natural world. Instead, Bryant’s writings settled for a decidedly more panoramic view of his subjects. For example, Bryant’s “Lines on Revisiting the Country” – which is clearly inspired by Wordsworth’s “Lines: Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798” – opens with the following stanza: I stand upon my native hills again, Broad, round, and green, that in the summer sky With garniture of waving grass and grain, Orchards, and beechen forests, basking lie, While deep the sunless glens are scooped between, Where brawl o’er shallow beds the streams unseen.Wordsworth’s, in comparison, begins: Five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a soft inland murmur. -Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect The landscape with the quiet of the sky. (Norton)The similarities between these two pieces are immediately obvious; although Bryant lacks the specificity that comes with Wordsworth’s intimacy with nature, he is still taking the same general emotion and placing it in the context of the American wilderness which is, by and far, a much more open and vast place than the Lake District of England. In fact, it is this distinction that perhaps justifies his generality in describing the natural world. In England, such an openness would be a rare and delightful treat in comparison to the industrialized cities that enveloped the people like a whirling fog. America, on the other hand, was almost entirely wide open plains and gorgeous vistas due to its short existence as a ‘colonized’ land and its massive size. It may have been difficult for anyone to pick a particular landscape and see it as more ‘special’ than any of the infinitely many others. This may also explain why several of his poems dealt with the darker sides of nature – of death, as in “The Murdered Traveller,” and of sexuality, as in “The West Wind” – subjects which Wordsworth avoided (Peach). Still, though, it can be seen as a definite failing that Bryant failed to fully adapt Wordsworth’s style and beliefs to his own climate, thus condemning himself to being labeled a cheap knock-off. Wordsworth also served as an influence to a promising artist by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had long dreamed of meeting him as well as Coleridge, Landor, Carlyle, and De Quincey. Emerson got his chance in 1833, when he met all five of his heroes and found all but Carlyle to be older and less exuberant than he had imagined them to be. He saw Wordsworth as a man who could only be a genius in his own element; once removed, he was just another tame conformist. Despite his trampled expectations, he still admired the man’s work, but unlike Bryant, he never attempted to model himself after Wordsworth, nor did he attempt an intimacy with nature that had eluded his contemporary’s grasp. He did, however, find in Wordsworth an inspiring enlargement of man’s sense of nature; it led him toward a basic idea of what the poet should be, ‘one who understands and articulates the relationship between man and the cosmos; a relationship of which all men have at least a vague appreciation” (Peach). So, instead of trying to follow directly in the master’s footsteps, Emerson opted to borrow certain ideas from him and rediscover them as his own. Like Wordsworth, he deplored man’s disconnection with the natural world. In “Self-Reliance,” he wrote “. . . man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present . . . He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature, in the present, above time.” Like Bryant, however, his perceptions were colored by the vast size of America, and through this he developed an advanced sense of transcendental mysticism that further distanced himself from nature because he saw that mere physical contact could not sate his spiritual hunger to be one with the natural world. In the end, despite their great efforts, neither Bryant nor Emerson could rightfully be considered Wordsworth’s American equivalent. It would be more accurate to suggest that the British romantic’s sensibilities sent them off on their own little tangents to carve a new path that would help give rise to the American Literary Revolution. Another major contributor to the scene was Sir Walter Scott, who was for a time the most popular British author in America. So, it should come as no surprise that he was a major source of inspiration among the state’s developing sense of literary brilliance. In particular, Nathaniel Hawthorne took a fancy to Scott’s offerings. Fanshawe, his first novel (of four completed), continuously confessed the Waverley novels as his inspirations, although its obvious imitative nature should have decried the necessity of any admittances. Scott’s own immense popularity in America saw many authors attempting to duplicate his success with historical novels. These efforts were by definition doomed to failure; what America wanted was something to call its own, not another Old World European entry. The sad fact was that America simply didn’t have a history comparable to its overseas brethren. (Peach) Hawthorne, as stated previously, had taken quite an affection for Scott. He had read all but The Abbot by age 16, and his infatuation would continue till much later in life. Hawthorne even considered him to be a soul-mate of sorts because of the many similarities the two shared, especially in their Puritan ancestors who had all engaged in witch hunts. The severity of their morality disgusted Hawthorne. He latched onto Scott’s similar distaste for this inflexibility, and it is this bond which would encourage him to decry those “outdated” ways that arose from a belief in the innate depravity of man (as seen in the “guilty until proven innocent” Salem Trials). The fight for redemption against this set of laws forms the central theme of Hawthorne’s most prominent novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which an adulterous woman tries to resume a normal life whilst keeping her lover’s identity a secret from the unsympathetic authorities. This novel was particularly inspired by Scott’s The Heart of Mid-Lothian which, aside from some minor differences, was basically used as a carbon copy blueprint for The Scarlet Letter. Both novels use the exploits of an adulterous woman as the means of reminding us that, as Scott’s character Middlesburgh dictates: “We are ourselves all sinners; and the errors of our offspring, as they ought not to surprise us, being the portion which they derive of a common portion of corruption inherited through us, so they do not entitle us to cast them off because they have lost themselves.” Still, Hawthorne had created something for the American literary world to hoist upon its shoulders as a true example of American ingenuity. (Peach) As was the case with Emerson, it would be a mistake to label Hawthorne as one of Scott’s disciples. As Emerson molded the romantic ideal into an American sensibility, so too did Hawthorne utilize Scott’s search for the basic human nature. And, though these are but a few examples of the effects of British literature upon American works, the effects should be more than obvious. The two nations evolved from the same heritage, and despite a war and an ocean dividing them, the ideals remained largely interchangeable. So long as it was done subjectively, with the American experience held close to the heart and soul of the words being laid down on the page.Works CitedKing, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, New York, NY. 2000. p. 27 The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed., Vol. 2 Ed. M. H. Abrams. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 2000 Peach, Linden. British Influence on the Birth of American Literature. Macmillan Press, London. 1982. Scott, Sir Walter. The Heart of the Mid-Lothian (Penguin Classics). Ed. Tony Inglis. Penguin USA, 1994. ch. 18
Rosebush and Black Weeds: Botanical Metaphors in The Scarlet Letter
Nature. It is a word that seems so expansive and all-inclusive. Within a novel, elements of nature and setting often become so expected and mundane that they are easily glossed over in order to get to the “more important” elements of a story-the plot, characters, and events. Occasionally, however, an author makes calculating and blatant references to the setting, thus thrusting the background into the foreground. Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, several plants serve to symbolize characters in their actions as well as in their attachment to the community-a representation nearly unfeasible were they described in mere words. In likening Hester in the first chapter to the rosebush that grows just beyond the prison door, Hawthorne implies that Hester possesses all qualities that are commonly associated with the flower without ever having to reveal her personality through conventional forms of exposition. Furthermore, Hawthorne proceeds to compare Dimmesdale to black weeds growing from a grave just outside his window. Subtly different than the comparisons for Hester and Dimmesdale, the author chooses a unique flower to exemplify the enigmatic Pearl-the aquatic eelgrass. In using this symbolism, Hawthorne creates a parallel dimension between the plants and the charactersA rose, perhaps the most basic and simplistic image, embodies a wealth of connotations. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne continually and indirectly relates Hester to this very distinct flower through his juxtaposition of its description followed closely by hers. The wild rosebush exists as a “hearty plant,” often able to “withstand even the most severe frosts” (Audubon Society). Although this plant grows wild in nature, many people seek to cultivate it because of its resilience against environmental opposition such as drought and frost. Like the rosebush, Hester displays a strength that withstands the pressures of her environment, namely the citizens of Puritan Boston. Despite the ministers’ threats against her “soul’s peace” and “salvation,” Hester attests that she will never reveal the identity of her fellow adulterer, resolutely accepting to “endure his agony as well as [her own]” (53, 54). Although its blooms can survive a frost, rose petals are both vibrant color and delicately intricate in their arrangement. Like these petals, Hester possesses many beautiful qualities ranging from her delicate embroidery talent to the “generosity and charity of her heart” among her community (Ringe 90). She is a woman of many layers-at times feminist, servant, punished, liberated. Her beauty, both inward and outward, enables her to be the rose amongst the “burdock, pig-weed…and such unsightly vegetation” surrounding her (Hawthorne 41). Coupled with this inarguable beauty, however, lies a necessary outgrowth that is far less appealing that the blossom, and once touched breeds painful repercussions: the thorns. Although Hester strives to serve her community and become a good citizen, deep within her lies a passion and willfulness that may be considered her tragic flaw. This “passionate nature inevitably leads her to sin” with Dimmesdale, initiating punishments that shall haunt her for her entire life (Ringe 90). Through both positive and negative attributes, Hawthorne adequately compares Hester to a rosebush-physically enduring, aesthetically appealing, but dangerously thorny.Throughout Chillingworth’s stay with the ailing Reverend Dimmesdale, the doctor frequently collects various specimens of weeds and herbs from the nearby forest, possessing impressive botanical knowledge. By again employing the subtle method of indirect comparison, Hawthorne links Dimmesdale with one of these leafy discoveries. Upon the minister’s inquiry regarding the original location of the “unsightly plant,” Chillingworth replies that topically it arose from a grave without a tombstone, but that its roots stem from deep in the heart of a man with a “hideous secret that was buried with him” (94). Presenting both the physical heart and the concept of dying with a guilty conscience strikes a profound cord within Dimmesdale. Throughout the stressful times in the novel, the young minister “keeps his hand over his heart,” thus further emphasizing that connection (126). Furthermore, like the plant itself, all of Dimmesdale’s actions (and inactions) are founded and take root in a guilty heart because of his unwillingness to confess. Even the appearance of the “dark and flabby leaf” hearkens back to the sickly minister (94). Evidently this weed suffers from poor health, perhaps even near death, due to its environment-lack of water, nutrients, sunlight, etc. Likewise, Dimmesdale’s “form grew emaciated,” his sonorous voice possesses a tinge of “decay,” and his countenance often grows “flush” with a “paleness, indicative of pain” (87). Beyond these somewhat concrete qualities of the plant lies an interesting acknowledgement: despite Chillingworth’s expansive knowledge and interest of botany, this grave-sprung weed is “new to [him]” (94). In that same vein, Chillingworth looks continually for Hester’s fellow sinner, but that sinner’s identity (Dimmesdale) is yet unconfirmed to Chillingworth at this point in the novel. Through the subtle links such as the foundation in the heart, sickly appearance and unknown origin, Hawthorne creates an unmistakable comparison between the black weed and Dimmesdale.As Hester comes upon Pearl playing in the tide pool, she discovers that Pearl has created a “freshly green” letter A out of eelgrass to fashion upon her dress. Here, Hawthorne only makes a brief reference, though a lasting impression, with this organic representation. Eelgrass, a pure water aquatic grass, grows from the sand beneath the water level but its flowers actually float on the water’s surface (Audubon). Somewhat unique in nature, this plant survives in both worlds: the aquatic and the earthen, belonging no more to one than the other, but rather drifting somewhere in between the two. Similarly, Pearl never quite takes on black and white characteristics of being either angelic or demonic, “treasure” or “emblem of sin” (67, 70). The female flower reaches the surface of the water upon a twisted and jagged stem. This twisted stem results from the undulating current of the water while the plant is still forming. Like this winding stem that exists as a product of its environment, so too does Pearl reveal the stresses and confusion of her childhood in her behavior. Because “Pearl was born an outcast…she had no right among christened infants,” she developed a strange and pronounced animosity towards them (70). Her impish and evil tendencies strayed far from the straight and moral path she is expected to follow. Beyond its actual growth, the eelgrass is an incredibly “vigorous grower and not suitable for the average water garden” but is much more suited for “natural growth, uninhibited by artificial environments” (www.botany.com). Pearl develops with remarkable abilities to assess and comprehend; in fact, the age at which she was capable for social interaction came soon, and with “strange rapidity” (70). Also because of its excessively strict codes and close-mindedness, the Puritan environment suffocates Pearl. Eelgrass embodies much of the essence of little Pearl, despite being mentioned briefly-it represents her state of limbo between moral rights and wrongs, her abnormal upbringing and her need for greater freedom.Because these characters mold somewhat too seamlessly into the plants used to describe them, there still remains some aspect of the puzzle that calls to be articulated. Each separate plant is but a small portion of the whole. In chapter seventeen, Hester and Dimmesdale plot to board a ship and set sail for Europe where they will be free to live with Pearl as a complete family. While he had been sickly and frail heretofore, Dimmesdale’s face glows with a new-found sense of hope and joy for their promising future (139). While Hester had remained reserved and resolute to bear her punishment, she suddenly and carelessly casts of her public shame and embraces a new life of freedom from the stigma, albeit momentarily. The fulfillment of this dream, however, is not in the stars for the lovers because “they cannot escape from time or society” (Swann 86). Because both the rose bush and the weed growing from the grave (symbols of Hester and Dimmesdale respectively) are firmly rooted in the Puritan and New England soil, neither is destined to permanently leave. Hester’s wild rosebush, while resilient to the environment, is not highly receptive to transplanting. Although Hester momentarily disappears after the final scaffold scene, she inevitably returns to the land where her roots are so firmly planted in its soil. When Dimmesdale reveals his secret before the entire community, he symbolically purges the sin from the guilty heart, thereby extracting the weak plant from its foundation. Evidently unable to survive the long journey to be “replanted,” Dimmesdale and his black weed wither and die without ever having left the town. Pearl, however, remains as the ray of hope. Unlike her parents, she can “go to Europe because she has no historical ties [roots] with New England” (Swann 89). Unlike the rosebush and black weed, the eelgrass does not have a firm root structure embedded in soil. As mentioned previously, the eelgrass grows from the sand/silt in ponds and rivers. Therefore, because of this difference in growing environment (soil versus water) of the respective characters, their ability to leave New England for Europe is predetermined. Throughout this novel, innumerable references to the setting and nature add a whole other dimensions and levels of interpretation for the text. From the very onset of the novel, this symbolism takes root and proceeds to blossom into an essential aspect of the Scarlet Letter.
The Destruction of an Unconfessed Soul
In the first chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a solitary rosebush stands in front of a gloomy prison to symbolize “some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne 56). Serving as a symbol of beauty and solitude, this rosebush foreshadows the dismal tone that will preside over the remainder of the novel and illustrates the beauty of confession and growth in contrast to the suppression and decay apparent within the prison. Hester can be compared to the rosebush due to her growth and inner beauty following her confession of having committed adultery and because she shows passionate and brazen countenance in the face of stern rigidity. On the contrary, Dimmesdale is the prison, confining his guilt of having committed adultery within himself and thus allowing the decay of his soul. It is through immense symbolism, contrasting imagery, and Biblical allusion that Hawthorne creates both a critical and gloomy tone while speaking to the ubiquitous theme that unconfessed sin destroys the soul.Hawthorne employs Hester’s scarlet letter, her punishment for committing adultery, as a powerful symbol that juxtaposes the concealed letter that Dimmesdale must face due to his hidden guilt. In the first scaffold scene, before the crowd has even witnessed Hester or the affliction that is affixed to her breast, some of the women of the town gossip over her punishment. One young woman tells her neighbors, “Let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart,” (60) illustrating the fact that Hester feels shame whether or not she is forced to wear the mark. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, does not confess his sin and thus has no letter to shame his figure. On the contrary, adding to the gloom of the tone, Dimmesdale is tormented by his concealed scarlet letter, which gives him “an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look” (76). He is compared to “a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own” (76). Hawthorne also uses this symbol of sin and the guilt it generates to speak to his pervasive theme that unconfessed sin deteriorates the human soul. Hester, who is honest with both God and her neighbors from the onset, is forced to wear the scarlet letter, which forces her into reclusion within her Puritanical community. However, the letter “gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts” and allowed her to realize that, “if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom” besides her own (101). This realization, this awakening of her sense of reality, allows Hester to grow as an individual and to become more exquisite than anyone within the ordinary constraints of the otherwise stagnant Puritanical society. Personifying this stagnation, which arises from unconfessed sin, Dimmesdale does not grow as a person, and he does not gain any new senses of morality until his confession. However, by this point, he is entirely dilapidated from his guilt and dies in Hester’s arms because it is Hester’s growth and newfound strength that allows for Dimmesdale’s confession.Also within the novel, vivid imagery serves to illustrate the paradox within Puritanical society while creating a critical and gloomy tone. The dark and drab society in which Hester lives is most accurately illustrated by Hawthorne’s depiction of their prison. And, although Hester and her sinful nature are considered to be a defilement of the Puritanical society, her growth, sympathy, and compassion for others seems to be incompatible with the state of purity her society strives to achieve. And, when society is paralleled to its prison in the fact that it is dull, dreary, and breeds stagnation, Hester serves as the rosebush, standing out and providing hope to those condemned by the paradoxical morals of society. Furthermore, society is comprised of little more than “a throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded” (55). There are no individuals among the crowd, and every member of society seems to conform to the dreary existence that accompanies Puritanical piety. The prison is also described as being “already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front” (56). Here again the prison reflects the gloom associated with the society as a whole, describing its dark and decrepit state. In contrast, the rosebush, which is “rooted almost at the threshold,” is described to be “covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems” (56). This parallels Hester’s metaphorical blossoming due to her realizations of the guilt present in all human souls and allows for Hester to become the only individual in the society who stands out in beauty and vigor, yet she is reattributed. And, by the end of the novel, Hester confirms “that the deep heart of Nature [can] pity and be kind” to all sinners (56). It is this idea of forgiveness that radiates from both Hester’s and the rose’s beauty, while dampening the tones associated with both the prison and the Puritan society.In addition to symbolism and imagery, Hawthorne creates a Biblical allusion to further the gloom of both his tone and theme. Hester, for instance, is continually compared to Jesus through paralleled struggles. Hester is forced to march from the prison to the scaffold wearing her scarlet letter just as Jesus was forced to walk to Calvary at the top of the hill with his crucifix. And, Hester maintains her sense of dignity under brutal conditions by stepping “into the open air, as if by her own free will” just as Jesus marched to his death (61). Also, Hawthorne describes Pearl as being “worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there to be the plaything of the angels after the world’s first parents were driven out” (104). Pearl, representing innocence in its purity, is worthy to live in Utopia and perfect enough to reside among angels, yet is given the attributes of an impish demon to illustrate her sinful conception. Pearl also provides the only bright and hopeful tone in the novel by personifying the purity associated with confession. It is Hester’s confession and freedom from guilt that provides for Pearl’s innocence and purity.Through pervasive symbolism, contrasting imagery, and Biblical allusion, Hawthorne creates a critical and gloomy tone and speaks to the omnipresent theme that unconfessed sin destroys the soul. Through the novel, Hester is a symbol of growth due to her freedom from the torment of unconfessed guilt while Dimmesdale represents the decay of the human spirit that results from unconfessed sin. It is Hawthorne’s dark and gloomy tone regarding Dimmesdale in contrast to the hopeful and accepting tone regarding Hester and Pearl that clearly personifies his belief that confession of sin revives the soul and allows for personal growth and empathy.
The Fear of Miscegenation in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
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. Works Cited Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.
A Scarlet I: The Use of Irony Within The Scarlet Letter
“Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom.” Through this statement, Anatole France, a 1921 Nobel Prize recipient, states his belief that irony is only lighthearted reflection. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne employs irony to reveal the distinctly morose themes of The Scarlet Letter. Within the novel, Hester Prynne, a young and vibrant woman, succumbs to the temptation of adultery in her small Puritan town of Boston. As punishment for her transgression, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet “A” to symbolize her sin. Although Hester’s wrongdoing is publicly recognized, the similar misdeed of her partner, Arthur Dimmesdale, the town’s young minister, is unknown. When her husband, Roger Chillingworth, reappears and discovers Hester’s actions, he vows to seek revenge on Hester’s lover. As Pearl, the result of Hester’s adultery, grows from childhood, Hester’s, Chillingworth’s, Dimmesdale’s, and Pearl’s lives become inescapably entangled. The effectual use of situational, verbal, and dramatic irony allows Hawthorne to convey complex themes of sin and repentance in The Scarlet Letter. When dealing with prevalent themes of the novel, Hawthorne often uses situational irony to emphasize his concepts and meaning. Situational irony, the difference between what the reader expects to happen and what actually happens is evidenced throughout the novel. Dimmesdale’s dual role of adulterer and minister creates the most dramatic example of situational irony. “Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it…and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!” (175)Dimmesdale is guilty of a grievous sin even though he is greatly renowned as a minister within his community. It is unexpected that a church official as outwardly pure and innocent as Dimmesdale would commit adultery. Moreover, his actions have consequences that are startling. The people knew not the power that moved them thus. They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouthpiece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. (131)Instead of diminishing his effectiveness as a preacher of God’s word, Dimmesdale’s unconfessed sin allows him to reach his congregation better. The high regard given to Dimmesdale by those under his spiritual guidance serves to demonstrate the hypocrisy within Puritan communities. This use of irony is mirrored in the transformation of the meaning of Hester’s scarlet letter.Such helpfulness was found in her…that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. (148)Hester’s scarlet “A” comes to stand for her good heartedness and skill of needlework, rather than a symbol to be shunned. The original meaning of the letter is drastically altered in the minds of the community, an ironic event which is unexpected by the reader. Hawthorne uses situational irony when dealing with main ideas of the novel. Unlike situational irony, Hawthorne utilizes verbal irony to represent the motives and desires of various characters. Verbal irony, when a character’s message is interpreted one way, but means something else, is found in the dialogue of the main characters.”If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace…I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-suffer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, thou he were to step down from a high place…yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.” (63)Although Dimmesdale is begging Hester to reveal that he is her partner in sin, his actions clearly show otherwise. The intense verbal irony of this scene can only be understood in retrospect, once the reader is aware of Dimmesdale’s link to Hester. Likewise, the irony of Chillingworth’s response to Hester in prison can only be fully realized once the plot develops. “Why dost thy smile so at me?” inquired Hester, troubled at the expression of his eyes. “Art thou like the black man that haunts the forest round us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?” “Not thy soul,” he answered, with another smile. “No, not thine!”(71-72)Chillingworth’s ambiguous statement implies that he will cause Dimmesdale’s downfall. Although he accomplishes his stated mission, Chillingworth’s quest for revenge ironically leads to his own downfall. Hawthorne continues to use verbal irony when Hester is discussing her scarlet letter with Pearl. “As for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its gold-thread” (166). Until this time, Hester has never lied about the meaning of the scarlet letter she wears. Because Hester says one thing but clearly means another, her dialogue stands as an example of verbal irony within Hawthorne’s piece. While Hawthorne utilizes verbal irony in the dialogue of the characters, he employs dramatic irony to create and prevent suffering for the characters. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows something critical that one or more of the characters do not. Because other characters are unaware of certain details, their decisions often lead to unintended consequences. The elders, the deacons, the motherly dames, and the young and fair maidens, of Mr. Dimmesdale’s flock, were alike importunate that he should make trial of the physician’s frankly offered skill. (111-112)Had the inhabitants of Boston known Chillingworth’s true motive, revenge, it is certain they would not have sanctioned a close relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Their ignorance led to the eventual decline of their beloved Dimmesdale, a powerful example of dramatic irony. The Puritans in Boston are also oblivious to Dimmesdale’s relationship with Hester. Because of this, he effectually argues in her favor without seeming to be partisan.”There is truth in what she says…God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements, both seemingly so peculiar, which no other mortal can possess.” (104-105)Unbeknownst to the other characters, Dimmesdale sincerely desires for Hester to be allowed to keep Pearl. His position of apparent neutrality assures that his opinion will be highly regarded on an issue where it should be disregarded as biased. Although Dimmesdale does benefit in one instance of dramatic irony, he is gravely hurt when he proceeds through life unaware that an enemy is continually with him. “Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!”The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. (176)Dimmesdale’s ignorance of Chillingworth’s evil intentions allows Chillingworth to infiltrate Dimmesdale’s life and cause wreck havoc upon his health and happiness. A supreme example of dramatic irony and its effect upon unknowing characters is Dimmesdale’s lack of insight concerning Chillingworth’s purpose. This blindness directly causes Dimmesdale’s downfall and eventual death. Hawthorne effectually employs dramatic irony to portray the relationships between the main characters of the novel. Hawthorne’s application of situational, verbal, and dramatic irony throughout The Scarlet Letter adds layers of meaning to this otherwise simple novel about sin and redemption. By using situational irony to emphasize concepts and meaning, verbal irony to comment upon the character’s desires and motives, and dramatic irony to create and prevent suffering for the characters, Hawthorne immensely enriches his novel. Although Anatole France believes irony to be only the “gaiety of reflection,” Hawthorne masterfully utilizes it to develop his theme of sin and repentance.
Law of Nature Versus Man in The Scarlet Letter
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates the need for humans to abide by the laws of nature and conscience, rather than the laws of man, to achieve happiness. The laws of nature, enforced only by the human conscience, govern every individual. Humans learn these laws by experiencing and interacting directly with nature. When left alone on the beach, Pearl pelts small birds with pebbles for amusement. However, when she injures one “she [grieves] to have done harm to a little being that was as wild as the sea breeze” (160). Pearl learns an important lesson about right and wrong by using nature and her own conscience. The remorse she feels leaves a lasting impression far more powerful than punishment from authority. Nature provides clear examples for children to learn from and on which to base their morals. By learning from nature children can use their conscience instead of the rules of authority to learn the difference between right and wrong. Left alone in the forest, Pearl interacts with various animals which accept her because they “all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child” (185). This ‘wildness’ refers to Pearl’s natural childhood environment free from the pollution of civilization. Unlike most people, Pearl has grown up under the ideal circumstances where only her conscience shapes her decisions and actions. Ostracized by the Puritan community, the rules of civilization do not apply to her and she can live by the laws of nature. This accounts for her constant “vivacity of spirits” and lack of the disease of sadness, which almost all children… inherit” (166). Pearl’s ability to live by the laws of nature ensures a strong moral foundation as well as happiness, without the unnecessary involvement of authority. Pearl’s healthy development as a result of her interaction with nature exemplifies the importance of the laws of nature in molding human beings. The laws of nature provide children with an environment in which to grow and develop freely. This freedom of choice allows children to form beliefs they will follow throughout their lives by avoiding the disparity between their natural instincts and society’s standards, which results in feelings of inadequacy and self hatred. The laws of man, enforced by authority, govern all people existing within civilization. Civilization encompasses the cultural, religious, and social systems of a group of people. Humans learn these laws by growing up in a community which enforces rules and punishes those who disobey authority. Dimmesdale suffers from a tormented conscience as a result of remaining in the Puritan community after he has transgressed its laws. He ironically interrogates Hester about the identity of her fellow adulterer during her public mortification on the scaffold. This leaves him with a perpetual feeling of hypocrisy that consumes him and eventually ends his life. After his talk with Hester in the forest, Dimmesdale has the urge to commit various sins. These animalistic impulses “[grew] out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulses,” revealing Dimmesdale’s true nature. His encounter with nature has awakened the dormant troublemaker in the minister. Like Pearl, Dimmesdale needs to run freely and have only Nature and his conscience to guide him. However, due to a childhood under the influence of the laws of man, Dimmesdale has lost his true self. He tries to conform to the ideal of a pious minister, a god-fearing and worshipping man. However, his affair with Hester and his reaction to his encounter with Nature show the fiery and uncontrollable side of his character. Dimmesdale suffers from chronic mental unrest because he mistakes himself for a rule-abiding man. This failure to live up to the community’s expectations of a minister causes his “positive and vivacious suffering.” Although he has won the admiration of his parishioners as a gifted orator and model Puritan, he focuses on his flaw. Humans obsess over their imperfections but take for granted their positive attributes. Humans follow the laws of nature by removing themselves from civilization and the corrupt laws of man. This requires both self-reliance and independence, which scares many people. The Puritan community forces Hester and Pearl to live by the laws of nature by ostracizing them for Hester’s sin. Although “mother and daughter stood together in the same circle of seclusion from human society,” this isolation has drastically different effects on Hester and Pearl. Hester, a part of civilization since childhood, is physically separate but emotionally and mentally attached to the laws of man, causing her lifelong suffering and anguish. Hester endures constant torture because “man had marked [her] sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her.” The laws of man, not the laws of nature, punish her continuously. The laws of man instilled distorted values in Hester at a young age, just as they do to all humans. These principles include valuing the opinions of others and the emphasis on conforming to standards outlined by the community in which a person lives. Even when cast out of the Puritan community, Hester still lives by these laws because humans follow the values inculcated in them in childhood. This accounts for her suffering and Pearl’s mirth in the same natural setting. The isolation from the laws of man allows Pearl to develop and thrive because she has never been a part of civilization. Nature and her intuition have shaped her values. Pearl “could not be made amenable to rules” and this unruly nature reflects the free environment in which she grew up. The values children learn during childhood remain with them throughout their lives. The morals civilization imparts in children contradict human intuition, and therefore guarantee unhappiness. Happiness comes with self-acceptance, and unhappiness accompanies self-hatred. Humans achieve happiness by following the laws of nature, not the laws of man. The laws of man ensure unhappiness because they force people to idealize an unattainable model of perfection. The community holds their preacher Dimmesdale up on a pedestal and tries to emulate his pious behavior. Although revered by his community, Dimmesdale, the supposed embodiment of spiritual perfection, has committed adultery. The individuals whom society admires are no closer to achieving perfection than their followers. This hypocrisy reveals the unrealistic value system of society. Human nature resists conformity, as seen through the lives of Hester and Dimmesdale. Only in the forest do Hester and Dimmesdale experience happiness since committing their sin. The environment of the forest had “the exhilarating effect- upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart- of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region.” The forest represents a sanctuary ruled by the laws of nature. While in the forest Dimmesdale experiences happiness because he accepts himself and his sin. In the Puritan community this flaw, his adulterous sin, consumes him and he can not accept his inadequacies as a community role model. Hester “heave[s] a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish depart[s] from her spirit” after removing her scarlet letter. The lawless atmosphere prompts Hester to revoke the brand of ignominy placed on her by the Puritan community. She too accepts herself for the first time since the day on the scaffold. This feeling of self-acceptance relieves the suffering Hester has endured for the past seven years. In the presence of only the forest and her fellow sinner, Dimmesdale, she feels freed of the shame the Puritan community has placed on her. Hester and Dimmesdale experience “the sympathy of Nature- that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illuminated by higher truth.” The natural law of the forest supercedes human law, accounting for Hester and Dimmesdale’s miraculous recovery from the torment of guilt and shame. The laws of the forest even overpower the laws of religion, implying that Hester and Dimmesdale’s affair, although an act of adultery by religious standards, does not constitute a truly evil deed. Human nature tends to defy rules, ensuring unhappiness and self-doubt as long as humans live within the confines of civilization. Human nature opposes the structured laws of man. All human beings need to accept themselves as unique individuals, not compare themselves to a standard set by the community in which they live. Comparison guarantees failure in some ways, as no human can attain perfection. Everyone has imperfections or unconventional characteristics that make them ‘human.’ Everyone knows that human nature has flaws, yet that knowledge still fails to prevent them from trying to achieve perfection.
Threads are rather insignificant by themselves. It is when a weaver connects them together that they form a beautiful tapestry. Each thread now contributes to the quality of the tapestry and are bound together by the common picture that form. In a work of literature, each thread is an idea and the common picture is a theme. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, each thread is an ironic element of setting, and together, they demonstrate people’s tendency to seek shelter from, instead of in, society. Vivid yet ironic descriptions are used by Hawthorne as a weaver uses bright threads to draw more attention to the finer points of the work. Firstly, a melancholy feeling is associated with the cottage in which Hester Prynne chooses to make her home. The cottage is “on the outskirts of town” (p.84), and was abandoned by the early settlers of the New World “because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation” (p.84). Also, the cottage is similar to a witch’s cottage in that “a mystic shadow of suspicion immediately [attaches] itself to the spot” (p.84), and young children lurk about it trying to find out more about the mysterious woman who lives there. The cottage is “shut out from the sphere of human charities” and was so depressing that it “would fain have been, or at least ought to be, concealed” from society (p.84). Interestingly, the place that society isolates serves to conceal Hester from society’s condemnation. It is within the “small thatched cottage” that Hester is free to “[ply] her needle at the cottage window” and create garments for the society which scorns her (p.84). Also, it is within the safety of the cottage walls that Hester tries to cultivate Pearl’s mind without the strict traditions of society. The cottage allows Hester to become a law to herself and not be bound by man. The “darksome cottage” offers protection from society’s criticism (p. 84). Likewise, the “primeval forest” serves as a refuge from the judgmental society (p.191). At first, the forest is presented as dark and formidable. The Black Man “haunts this forest” trying to persuade Salem’s citizens “to write their names with their own blood” in “a big, heavy book, with iron clasps” (p.193). Additionally, little light is able to penetrate the thick branches of the trees, and people and their actions are kept “from the observation of any casual passenger along the forest track” (p.194). Hawthorne similarly presents the forest in Young Goodman Brown as evil because it is where respectable people are led astray by the devil. As a result, the lawless forest comes to represent evil and temptation. On the contrary, the actions which take place in the forest reveal peace and freedom. The forest shields people from the eyes of the judgmental society. In the forest Pearl laughs and catches the sunshine. The shelter that the forest provides also allows for Hester and Dimmesdale to openly express their passion. Reverend Dimmesdale is bound by society’s laws of righteousness, and it is in the forest that “Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be, for one moment, true” (p.204). Although Hawthorne has the forest serve as the home of evil in Young Goodman Brown, it is a haven in which people are free in The Scarlet Letter. Likewise, the prison, which serves a different role in today’s society, offers shelter and tolerance instead of confinement and punishment. The prison “looked more antique than anything else in the New World” (p. 50) which indicates that the laws of this society are very traditional. Similarly, the image of “a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes” gives an impression of firmness and reveals the strict enforcement of those laws (p.49). The prison is meant to seclude the criminals and nonconformists from the rest of society. Yet, as Prince Prospero’s cold and formidable abbey is supposed to protect the jubilant people from the Red Death in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, the prison protects its inhabitants from the traditional society. Within the prison’s strong wooden walls, Hester and Chillingworth can freely discuss their past without exposing themselves to society. Also, it is from the strong tradition that new ideas grow. Anne Hutchinson, a heretic among the Puritans, passed through the prison door and spread her new concepts through the tradition. The rose growing outside the prison despite the weeds is also symbolic of salutary growth out of restraints. The prison, though usually considered as confining, is where new ideas emerge. The prison, the forest, and the cottage are presented as havens to convey society’s rigidity. Because those places are expected or described as dreary and confining, they stand out more to the reader. As a result, Hawthorne makes it easier for his audience to relate them together. The mind notices these oddities as the eyes are drawn to bright colored threads. Hawthorne weaves words as Hester Prynne weaves scarlet and gold threads and brings out recognition and brilliance. Without this intentional setting, the audience cannot differentiate the novel from other works as Pearl cannot recognize Hester without her scarlet letter.
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.
Pearl Prynne – A Blessing And A Curse
“This child hath come from the hand of the almighty, to work in many ways upon her heart. It was meant for a blessing, for the one blessing of her life! It was meant, doubtless, for a retribution too, a torture to be felt at many an unthought of moment; a pang, as sting, an ever-recurring agony in the midst of a troubled joy” (Hawthorne 105). This, as Arthur Dimmesdale poignantly and almost prophetically expresses in the preliminary scenes of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, was the role of the strikingly beautiful yet fatally elfish Pearl, the child borne of his and Hester Prynne’s forbidden passion. In the midst of the already troubled and sinful life of her mother, Peal is the cause of her further pain, agony and yet also of Hester’s happiness and sense of worth. While forever a tormentor to her mother, Pearl was also her savior; while a reminder of her guilt, she proved to be a promoter of honesty and true virtue, and while an embodiment of her parents’ worst qualities, she was the true reflection of a troubled heart.Pearl was at times a literal thorn in the flesh, bringing trouble, heartache, and frustration to her mother, yet while at the same time serving a constructive purpose lying far beyond the daily provocations of her childish impishness. Besides being Hester’s savior, so to speak, from temptation and the wild passion her nature tended toward, Pearl was a perpetual reminder of her mother’s ignominious sin. However, despite the guilt and shame that this invoked, it was a kind of blessing to Hester, for it strengthened her character by forcing her to confront her sin and be true to herself and others about it. Pearl reminded Hester of her sin in many ways, most powerfully by her fascination with the scarlet letter. Hawthorne notes that instead of some comforting aspect about her mother, “the first thing the infant was conscious of was the infamous letter, and when she noticed it, she reached out her infant fist and touched it with a disturbing smile and gaze” which to her mother was like “the stroke of sudden death” (Hawthorne 89). As Pearl grew, this fascination only increased, for when she began to make connections between different aspects of her world, she began to persistently ask Hester why she wore the scarlet letter and why Reverend Dimmesdale held his hand over his heart. She even makes a letter out of seaweed and places it on her bosom, which greatly disturbs her parents. In the recesses of the forest, the impish child again seemingly displays a cold and malicious heart. When Hester frees herself for a brief moment from the letter that had stained her being, the child cannot accept her mother and wails until the scarlet letter is restored to its place. In the closing moments of the episode, Pearl embraces her mother and specifically kisses the scarlet letter, prompting her mother to exclaim “That was not kind! When thou hast shown me a little love, thou hast mockest me” (Hawthorne 200). Thus does the child once again mercilessly force on her mother the sin that she has committed, while also portraying a hollow duty partnered with a youthful innocence.While from the outset of the novel, Hester is shamed by having a baby as tangible evidence of her sin and shame, the responsibility of caring for Pearl and raising her with love and wisdom serves to calm the defiant, destructive passion of Hester’s nature and save her from its wild, desperate promptings. This sentiment is poignantly portrayed in Hester’s visit to the governor’s mansion, in which she is forced to plea for the right to keep her child. “She is my happiness! — She is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved!” (Hawthorne 104). As Hester retreats from the mansion having been given the right to keep her child, she encounters the dark persona of Mistress Hibbins, who tempts the sinful woman to join her in making a pact with the “black man,” the devil. Hester contrarily replies, “I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the black man’s book too, and that with mine own blood” (Hawthorne 107). Thus, one can see that Hester’s motherly sense of duty and love toward Pearl saved her from succumbing to the temptation that her natural desires would otherwise have driven her to give in to. Later, we also see this effect on Hester’s motherly responsibilities toward Pearl as Hawthorne reflects upon how Hester might have turned out had her child never “come to her from the spiritual world ” (Hawthorne 151). He remarks that without Pearl, she would have been a “radical or a dissenter, driven by her unquieted passionate nature” (Hawthorne 154), undermining Puritan beliefs, and eventually being put to death for her actions. However, Hester did not face a dissenter’s death, for she conformed humbly and quietly to her religious society, as was best for her daughter. Accordingly, as these feelings of loving duty spread beyond her daughter, Hester began to show her motherly love and service to the poor and needy — sewing garments for others without pay, nursing the ill and infirm, and bestowing comfort when it was needed most. Pearl’s presence in her life stirred up sentiments and resolve within Hester that saved her from death and temptation and led her to show love toward others.Pearl was also a blessing to Hester by serving as a reflection — as a mirror, so to speak — of her character. This often troubled Hester because Pearl embodied many of her worst qualities — those that had led to her ignominious downfall. 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” (Hawthorne 83). Thus Hester could interpret her own feelings through her daughter and accordingly act in the paramount will of both.Despite being a true “thorn in the flesh,” Pearl was a blessing to her mother and effected a positive change in her character. It was her errand, her purpose, to “soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother’s heart…and to help her to overcome the passion, once so wild that had brought her to ruin and shame.” (Hawthorne 165). It was Hester’s motherly sentiments to nurture and love her child that saved her from temptation and from death and opened her heart to the poor and needy around her. It was the torturous fixation of her child upon her shame that tempered and refined her character and led her toward the precious virtue of being true to herself and others. And it was the reflection of her own character, even at its worst, in her child that brought Hester to a greater understanding of herself and a desire to build a better life for Pearl. Pearl was more than merely her mother’s tormentor, she was her blessing, her life, and the giver of the freedom to live a life true to herself and to her faith.
Religious Oppression in The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has committed adultery, and her subsequent bearing of an illegitimate child has cast her beyond the pale of polite society. It is difficult for us, in the late twentieth century, to comprehend exactly what this means. She is permitted to remain in Salem, and to work among the townspeople and interact with them. But she is never to be allowed to forget for a minute the enormity of her sin. To reinforce this, she is obligated to wear on her chest a huge embroidered “A” at all times. This may, on the surface, seem like a peculiar punishment; everyone in town already knows Hester’s story, and with Pearl in tow it would be difficult for Hester to act as if the thing never happened. But the wearing of the “A”, and more generally the way Hester is required to live, shows the extent of the religious oppression under which the Puritans lived.Initially it would help to understand something about the background of the Puritan movement. The separation of the Puritans from the mainline Anglican church began in England in the late sixteenth century. Although England was nominally a Protestant country, the Anglican church had been created for political reasons, not religious ones, and the church established by the English monarchy was very similar to the Roman Catholic one they had just left. Carroll and Noble point out that many fundamentalist minded Protestants felt that Henry and Elizabeth’s reforms had not gone nearly far enough: “The Protestant dissenters objected to the ‘popish’ practices in the established church and hoped to further the reformation by eliminating such ‘impurities’. In particular, they wished to simplify the religious service by curtailing certain ceremonies, and they advocated the removal of higher church officials such as bishops and archbishops” (Carroll and Noble, 30).All of these dissenters wished to purify the church, although not all wanted to separate from it. Carroll and Noble continue: “The Puritans, more moderate and more numerous than the Separatists, believed that the Church of England was a true church even though it desperately needed reformation. The Separatists, on the other hand, insisted that the established church was beyond salvation and felt that a believer who worshipped in that church would be contaminated by its sins” (Carroll and Noble, 30).Both groups, which in America soon became virtually indistinguishable, were strongly influenced by the teachings of sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, who believed that God selected a few saints as His chosen people and condemned the remainder of humanity to eternal damnation. “Whether one was saved or damned depended not on human action or the quality of one’s life but rather on the inscrutable will of God. The Lord, according to the adherents of Puritanism, imputed His grace into the souls of otherwise corrupt people, thereby confirming their eternal salvation. This act of conversion became the central aspect of Puritanism, the single event that separated the saint from the sinner for eternity. Although in theory, a belief in these principles of predestination freed the saints from specific moral obligations in this world, Puritans expected believers to live godly lives on earth as a way of preparing for the comforts of heaven” (Carroll & Noble 30-31). And Edmund S. Morgan in his Visible Saints: A History of the Puritan Idea, observes that “A church, the Separatists insisted, must be composed entirely of persons who understood and accepted the doctrines of Christianity, submitted voluntarily to the church, and led lives free of apparent sin” (Morgan, 53).Officially, Puritans were willing to acknowledge that occasionally even godly people fell from grace, possibly not as dramatically as Hester, but at least a little bit. They felt, however, that in order to return to communion with God’s saints, a public confession, not only of sin but also of repentance and abject subjugation to the will of God and the church community, was required. Edmund S. Morgan notes that among the Separatist churches, “in cases of adultery, the church refused to forgive unless the offender publicly expressed his repentance before the church. So attentive were the Separatists in their exercise of discipline that they finally found themselves maintaining that the failure to punish a single known offense was sufficient to destroy a church” (Morgan, 52). Looking at this in the context of Hawthorne’s novel, we can see that this is what the elders were seeking from Hester in Chapter 3, when Governor Bellingham says to Dimmesdale, “It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof” (Hawthorne, 64).What they claimed to want was the name of the child’s father. What would this have accomplished? Certainly it would have ended Dimmesdale’s career, and subjected him to the same type of treatment given Hester. On this point, the Puritans were no supporters of the double standard. And, except for allowing Hester to remove the letter “A” from her chest, identifying the father would not have helped her at all if in fact she does not believe that confession will save her immortal soul.Craig Milliman has written an entire article for the magazine The Explicator on Hester and Dimmesdale’s veiled meanings when they address each other in this scene. Dimmesdale is caught between a rock and a hard place; the Governor has ordered him to try to get Hester to identify the father of her child, who, of course, is Dimmesdale himself. To have Hester confess this would ruin him; therefore he phrases his words in such a way that they sound good for the general public, but contain an entirely separate level of meaning for Hester alone (Milliman, 83). He speaks, Hawthorne tells us, in a voice “tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken” (Hawthorne, 65). The audience perceives this as reflecting the depth of his pastoral feeling for the young sinner. It certainly reflects his depth of feeling for Hester, he loves her, but it reflects just as much his terror at the situation in which he finds himself, and his fear at what she might say.Consider his words: “If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne, 65). What he is hoping is that she will decide that ruining his reputation would in no way add to her soul’s peace. He twists the knife by pointing out that not only is he a fellow sinner with her, but he is a fellow sufferer as well. He concludes his speech with: “Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!” (Hawthorne, 65). Again he is speaking on two levels, trying to say what a caring pastor would say on the one hand and trying to get her sympathy on the other. He is saying, “Your part in this is out in the open, manifested in the presence of the child. What good would it do you to involve me, who has not the courage to involve myself? Can’t you see I’m suffering with you as it is?” She apparently buys this argument, because she refuses to tell the crowd his name, and keeps her letter “A” with pride. In Mara Dukats’ words, “Hester transforms the sign into a complex and ambiguous symbol, one that signifies both Puritan control and domination, and the refusal and delegitimation of this control” (Dukats, 51).John K. Roth notes that “The Puritan intention of bringing the sinner into submission has the opposite effect upon Hester, who, with a pride akin to humility, tenaciously makes a way for herself in the community. As an angel of mercy to the suffering, the sick, and the heavy of heart, she becomes a living model of charity that the townspeople, rigidly enmeshed in their Puritan theology, are unable to emulate. Hester’s banishment hardens her pride until, as she says to Dimmesdale in the forest, their act has ‘a consecration of its own.’ The adultery, in short, achieves a validation quite outside the letter of the Puritan law” (Roth, 78). As Roth points out, in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne presents Puritanism as an extreme form of legalism: a reduction of moral values down to a list of do’s and don’ts. Hester, on the other hand, finds her own moral guide in the witness of her heart.We could ask why she does not move out of town to a place where she is not known, somewhere she could simply set herself up as a widow with a small child and continue living the virtuous life she would have led under normal circumstances anyway. Admittedly, there are several important strikes against her making such a move. To begin with, she is a woman, and it was unheard of and probably suicidal for a woman to travel alone unaccompanied; in addition, it is unlikely that there would have been any settlements nearby where her reputation would not follow her in very short order. Nonetheless, she shows herself to be a woman of great ingenuity and recourse, and it would seem that with some assistance she certainly has an ally in Dimmesdale; a covert relocation to another colony could have been managed.However, Hester gives no indication that she wants to leave. On the contrary, she seems to feel that her presence there makes some sort of moral statement to the townspeople. She has found a method of making a stable living, doing fancy needlework for ceremonial and ritual use, which allows her to support herself in a respectable fashion. As busy as her clients keep Hester, however, Hawthorne tells us that she still has time to put her needle working to personal use as well. The two things she chooses to ornament with such intricate embroidery are significant: the letter “A” she is forced to wear on her chest, and Pearl’s little clothes.On the surface, it may seem odd that Hester should embroider with costly gold thread the scarlet letter she is forced to wear as a badge of her shame. That she does so shows that in fact, she does not wear this letter as a badge of shame at all, but as a badge of pride. The adulterous act gave her Pearl, the being she loves most in all the world and, it should be noted, she also dresses flamboyantly. By adorning her “badge of shame” with the type of embroidery normally reserved for magistrates and proscribed for plebeians, she is quite deliberately setting herself apart from her society, just as she reminds the community of her presence there.And why is it so important for Hester’s presence to be obvious? Because by her virtuous behavior she casts shame on the society that cast shame on her. She will not accept Salem’s religious oppression, but she will not allow herself to be chased out of town, either. Just because she has borne a child out of wedlock does not make her bad, or even fallen; she is, on the other hand, imbued with a very special grace. But it is a grace she has forged herself, rather than a grace extended to her by Puritanism. Hester lives within, and yet “beyond the pale” of, the oppression of Puritan society because by her very presence there she is setting an example of self-actualization, and that is the loudest statement she can make.Works CitedCarroll, Peter N. and Noble, David W. The Restless Centuries, Burgess Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1973.Dukats, Mara L., The Hybrid Terrain of Literary Imagination: Maryse Conde’s Black Witch of Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, and Aime Cesaire’s heroic poetic voice. (Third World Women’s Inscriptions)., Vol. 22, College Literature, 02-01-1995.Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, Aerie Press edition.Milliman, Craig A., “Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter.'” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)., Vol. 53, The Explicator, 01-01-1995.Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1963.Roth, John K. American Diversity, American Identity. Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1995.