Since its publication in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels, and it is considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings. It may also be the most typical of his work, the strongest statement of his recurrent themes, and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.
The main theme in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne’s work, is that of sin and its effects both on the individual and on society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his knowledge of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from later times to comprehend the grave importance that seventeenth century New Englanders placed on transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters has pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner’s corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years softened somewhat by Hawthorne’s day, and during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, he worked out his own notions about human will and human nature. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne proves to be closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—what existentialists refer to as alienation and what Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other humans, and self. Such alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.
There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s pregnancy forces her sin into public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with “decent” folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her A now stands for “Able.” Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move much more freely in society than she can and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. However, Dimmesdale’s secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellow citizens. For his part, Chillingworth permits vengeance to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a “fiend,” unable to impart forgiveness or to change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.
Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, finally becomes aware of the difference. We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so.
Always more concerned with the consequences than with the cause of sin, Hawthorne to a remarkable extent anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theories of the effects of guilt. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with all of life, including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale’s health fails and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than guilt.
The characters in The Scarlet Letter are reminiscent of a number of Hawthorne’s shorter works. Dimmesdale bears similarities to Young Goodman Brown who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of humankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical. There are also resemblances between Dimmesdale and Parson Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is permanently separated from the company of men by the veil that he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth shows resemblances to Ethan Brand, the limeburner who finds the unpardonable sin in his own heart: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!”
Hawthorne’s craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes—at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the action—taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet A itself is repeatedly entwined into the narrative as a symbol of sin and shame, as a reminder of Hester’s ability with the needle and her capability with people, and in Dimmesdale’s case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Hawthorne often anticipates later developments with hints or forewarnings: There is, for example, the suggestion that Pearl lacks complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow, but at the end of the story when Dimmesdale dies, Hawthorne writes, “as [Pearl’s] 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.”
Hawthorne’s skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol, among them the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester’s shame and Pearl’s selfishness are distorted and magnified. The four main characters themselves serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.
Critical Analysis: The Scarlet Letter
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In the book The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is convicted of adultery and ordered to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. Hester is sentenced to never take off this badge of shame, and doesn't until chapter thirteen. As the novel proceeds, Hawthorne presents several questions that are left unanswered. How does the nature of the letter "A" seem to change? What role of does Hester's own response to her situation play in changing the meaning of the letter "A"? How does the letter "A" come to be seen as a symbol of the mysterious connection between human experiences (sinful in nature) and a kind of wisdom that would be impossible without failure? Why does Hester not tell who Pearl's father is when she is on the scaffold?
Hawthorne does not tell us very much about Hester's life before the book opens. Actually, the passionate moment between Hester and Arthur that the whole book is centered around was left out. Hawthorne relies more on the emotional and psychological drama that surrounds Hester, than action. Hawthorne shows us how remarkable Hester's character is, revealed through her public humiliation, and her isolated life in Puritan society. Her inner strength and compassion may have been there the whole time, as we don't know because we weren't told anything about Hester before the book opens, but the scarlet "A" does bring all these qualities to our attention as we read the book.
Hester is physically described in the first scaffold scene as a tall young woman with a "figure of perfect elegance on a large scale." Her most impressive feature is her "dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam." Her complexion is rich, her eyes are dark and deep, and her regular features give her a beautiful face. Contrast this with her appearance after seven years of punishment for her sin. Her beautiful hair is hidden under her cap; her beauty and warmth are gone, buried under the burden of the elaborate scarlet letter on her bosom. When she removes the letter and takes off her cap in Chapter 13, she once again becomes the radiant beauty of seven years earlier. Symbolically, when Hester removes the letter and takes off the cap, she is, in effect, removing the harsh, stark, unbending Puritan social and moral structure.
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Critical Analysis Scarlet Letter Psychological Drama Young Woman Puritan Society Hester Prynne Wear Warmth Chest
Hester is only to have a brief respite, however, because Pearl angrily demands she resume wearing the scarlet "A". With the scarlet letter and her hair back in place, "her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine; and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her." While her punishment changes her physical appearance, it has a far more profound effect on her character.
What we do know about Hester from the days prior to her punishment is that she came from a "genteel but impoverished English family" of notable lineage. She married the much older Roger Chillingworth, who spent long hours working on his books and experiments; yet she convinced herself that she was happy. When they left Amsterdam for the New World, he sent Hester ahead, but then he was reportedly lost at sea, leaving Hester alone among the Puritans of Boston. Officially, she is a widow. While not a Puritan herself, Hester looked to Arthur Dimmesdale for comfort and spiritual guidance. Somewhere during this period of time, their solace becomes passion and results in the birth of Pearl. Which brings up the question: Why didn't Hester tell who Pearl's father was on the scaffold? The reason she didn't do this is because she was still in love with Dimmesdale. She was still married to Chillingworth, but she was in love with Dimmesdale. The decision shows Hester's determination to stand alone despite the opinion of society. Despite her lonely existence, Hester somehow finds an inner strength to defy both the townspeople and the local government. This defiance becomes stronger and will carry her through later confrontations with both Chillingworth and Governor Bellingham. Her determination and lonely stand is repeated again when she confronts Governor Bellingham over the issue of Pearl's guardianship. When the governor determines to take Pearl away from her, Hester says, "God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else, which he had taken from me Ye shall not take her! I will die first!" When pressed further with assurances of Pearl's good care, Hester defiantly pleads with him, "God gave her into my keeping. I will not give her up!" Here Hester turns to Dimmesdale for help, the one time in the novel where she does not stand alone.
Over the course of the novel the nature of the letter "A" seems to change. Throughout the novel it is mentioned the letter becomes more elegant and glamorous. This is a symbol for what the letter has come to mean to Hester. While it was meant for a punishment, society began to see the letter as something beautiful, because it seems to have set Hester free. The scarlet "A" went from meaning adultery, to Able. The Puritans may see the letter gaining in beauty because they find the separation appealing, an escape from their own secrets and pain. Despite the scarlet letter, Hester proves that she is full of strength, compassion, and honesty. Hester is the opposite of Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is the embodiment of cowardice, envious of Hester's courage. He wishes he too could break away from the conformed ways that have swallowed his life. Yet he will keep all of his guilt and painful emotions inside, all because of his fear of being looked down upon by his society. Whether courageous Hester is analyzed or Dimmesdale's cowardice character, the results are the same. During a time that was filled with strict morals and very conservative ideas, the most important value in self-learning and maturity was the realization of individuality. This time period strongly frowned upon diversity, so the struggle to express oneself was extremely difficult, and that's exactly what Hester was able to do. This novel was very focused on teaching the idea of valuing your own morals and ideas above everyone else's. Even when the battle is you versus everyone, even when a large conformed society is very hard to fight.
By the end of the novel the letter "A" comes to be seen as a symbol of the mysterious connection between human experiences (sinful in nature) and a kind of wisdom that would be impossible without failure. What this means is that are going to sin no matter what. It is impossible to live a human life without sinning. It's human nature to sin. There is a link between sinning and wisdom. Wisdom is gained from human experiences, most notably mistakes. It would be impossible to gain knowledge and wisdom if we didn't have any experiences to learn from. Hester committed the sin of adultery. From that sin we were shown what kind of courage, honesty, and strength she has inside her. All of those attributes won't make her previous sin of adultery go away, but the knowledge she gained from the experience will stay with her throughout her life.
In the end, Hester's strength, honesty, and compassion carry her through a life she had not imagined. While Dimmesdale dies after his public confession and Chillingworth dies consumed by his own hatred and revenge; Hester lives on, quietly, and becomes something of a legend in the colony of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace through her suffering.