The Scarlet Letter Reading Response
Journal Entry 1: “The Custom House”
Romanticism was a movement that was increasingly popular during Hawthorne’s time. The romantic style, when applied to literature, implies a focus on beauty, emotion, and imagination. Right away, we can see how Hawthorne was inspired by Romanticism when writing “The Custom House.” The core purpose of this section of Hawthorne’s story was to share, in a romantic fashion, how the narrator discovered, and was emotionally moved by, Hester Prynne’s story. Prior to the narrator’s discovery, he describes in great detail the atmosphere and people of Salem and the Custom House. There is an underlying sense of death and repetition surrounding the town, even in life. This continues into the Custom House. The narrator noticed that the employees, old men had been doing the same thing for years and years. He was both appreciative of them for sticking around for so long and annoyed at their laziness and lack of care. I think this translated into his general feelings of the town as well. When he discovered Hester’s story and the scarlet letter itself, the mood instantly becomes more intense and interesting. I feel that by addressing the reader directly, Hawthorne creates a sense of reality and curiosity that is more difficult to achieve from other perspectives. The details used to describe the letter imply that the letter will be an important symbol later in the story. Also, the description of how the letter seemed to “burn” at the touch, makes sympathizing with Hester easier.
Journal Entry 2: Chapters 1-2
The narrator portrays the townspeople as somewhat cruel and severe. He seems to be critical of the Puritans’ harsh punishments and treatment towards Hester. The narrator is sympathetic towards Hester; he feels both pity and respect for her despite her shameful actions. Nonetheless, he also acknowledges that her infidelity was sinful and wrong. In the first two chapters, Hester mostly exudes confidence, but she feels guilty inside. The scarlet letter “A,” which stands for adulterer, usually represents the shame and guilt Hester feels about her actions. She embroiders the scarlet letter in order for her to be able to identify with it better. The contrast of the purpose behind the letter and the beauty Hester added to it shows how she wanted to make the best of her situation. Other contrasts within the first two chapters include the darkness and light as Hester transitions from the prison out into the open. This transition symbolizes Hester’s inability to hide from her sin, she must face it in front of everyone.
Journal Entry 3: Chapters 3-4
In this section we see more clearly the effects of the shame Hester feels. The narrator repeats throughout these next chapters that the letter felt like it was burning her. Although Hester usually keeps her feelings and pain inside, her guilt is more visible and she has frequent breakdowns under the scrutiny of the public. This reflects the theme of guilt destroying the soul. When the stranger, Chillingworth, is introduced, it is clear he is the opposite of Hester. Hester is a “romantic” character who follows impulses and emotion. Chillingworth is basically the “anti-romantic.” He seems to be inspired by Enlightenment, rather than Romantic ideals. Chillingworth, an older man, appears to be very well educated, pragmatic, and rational. Even his name Chillingworth is a symbol for his cold, calculating personality. We see soon that Chillingworth is actually Hester’s “lost” husband. This makes Hester’s infidelity more understanding because she and her husband were so different.
Journal Entry 4: Chapters 5-6
The major themes in chapter five are how guilt affects Hester and how, despite her punishment, she is able to persevere and make enough to take care of herself and Pearl. The letter on Hester’s clothes cause everyone to reject her. Hester is viewed as an outcast, and she feels the pang of guilt every time someone averts their eyes from her, or refuses to speak with her. I find it very honorable that she chooses to stay in her area instead of trying to run away from her shame. Hester feels that she must accept the punishment and live with her decisions. Hester provides for Pearl and herself by sewing and embroidering for special events(but never weddings). It is ironic that the same people who refuse to associate with Hester, will readily purchase the product of her sinful hands. Pearl’s character is extremely confusing; her name as it self is symbolic because she is her mother’s only treasure. Pearl is everything valuable to Hester. Pearl is fiesty and strong willed. The townsfolk believe she is demonic due to her mother’s sin. Pearl, was obviously born into innocence and not sin, but because of what the townspeople would say to her, she rejects God and does display some worrisome traits.
Journal Entry 5: Chapters 7-8
When Hester is accused of raising a “demon-child,” the council threatens to take Pearl away. Hester argues to the local government that she is really the best option for Pearl because she can teach the troubled girl to not make the same mistakes as her mother. The council in not convinced this is a strong enough argument, so Hester gets Dimmesdale to convince the other council to let Hester keep Pearl. Dimmesdale, Pearl’s secret father, argued that having the child was necessary for God’s plan. Pearl would be yet another reminder… A symbol of Hester’s infidelity.
Journal Entry 6: Chapters 9-12
At this point, jealousy and the need for revenge has corrupted the rational Chillingworth. Guilt and shame has eaten away at Dimmesdale and made him emotionally and physically weak. When Chillingworth discovers Dimmesdale is the other adulturer, he basically tortures the man emotionally until he is past the breaking point. This shows how revenge and guilt both can destroy people. The name Dimmesdale is a symbol for himself because it represents the dimming of his vitality and fate.
Journal Entry 7: Chapters 13-15
I think this is one of my favorite questions because it really depends on the outlook of Hester herself. The theme is that a person can become stronger by working through their weaknesses. By now, Hester has worn the scarlet letter for several years. The letter “A” shifted from symbolizing and representing “adulturer” to “able.” Though she is never fully accepted into Puritan culture again, she no longer is forced to be a complete stranger. She has made great self-progress and she finally accepts who she is. Not as an adulturer unworthy of any love, but as a woman who has made many mistakes but fought through them. Hester becomes more thoughtful of others and
Journal Entry 8: Chapters 16-19
This is an interesting question because explaining love in general is a hard thing to do. When adultery and Puritan culture are added to the mix, it can quickly become a slippery slope. I think the most I could say for Hester and Dimmesdale is that they think they love each other. It likely isn’t true love. I feel like you can’t find true love by sinful means, because you could never be truly happy. The guilt will always be carried. Especially in their case, Dimmesdale was too scared/selfish to share the burden Hester carried, and Hester didn’t tell Dimmesdale she knew why Chillingworth was abusing him. I think the theme here is even well intended deceptions and secrets can lead to destruction, because even though they both were not telling the whole truth for good reason, they hurt each other a lot doing so.
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