The Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper
Essay: The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne s The Scarlet Letter explores the conflict between private truth and public appearances, and the choice between sin and salvation. Although written in the 19th century, the long and gruesome story of Hester Prynne, branded with a large, red A because of her unforgivable sin her adulterous relationship with a young idolized minister, explores questions still asked today: What is moral? And what is good? The main focus of my essay is to prove that Hawthorne s The Scarlet Letter is one of many Romantic beliefs, through analyzing the most important aspects throughout the book, from its theme and symbolism to the main characters. I will show how this directly ties in with the Dark Romantics, who through their work, show that guilty secrets serve to isolate people from the world and from their relationship with others. The saddest of all prisons is a person s own heart Restrictive and very conservative environments bring about severe penalties on fallen souls. Because of the vox populi, a sinner may be scorned for life and pushed to take drastic measures that may lead them into greater peril. The judgmental voices about them ensure their eternal misery. The Scarlet Letter elaborates this idea to near perfection. Thus, the outcome of the plot is inevitable and poor Hester is condemned for bearing a child out of wedlock. It s obvious that because of the epoch in which the story takes place, such a sin is looked upon as the sin of all sins. The consequences are undoubtedly eternal. It s only in the presence of the Puritan society that the weight of the sin pulls Hester down. The Scarlet Letter was a literal soapbox for Hawthorne to convey to the world that the majority of Puritans were strict and unfeeling. For example, before Hester emerges from the prison she is being scorned by a group of women who feel that she deserves a larger punishment that she actually receives. Instead of only being made to stand on the scaffold and wear the scarlet letter on her chest, they suggest that she have it branded on her forehead or even be put to death (p. 47) Perhaps the most important influence on the story is the author s interest in the Dark side ( Introduction VIII). Hawthorne confronted reality, rather than evading it (VII). Writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe acknowledged the natural tendency in human life to commit sin, feel or inflict pain, and in times face or even practice evil, many times in the form of revenge. The Dark Romantics view of existence derived from both the mystical and the melancholy aspects of the Puritan belief. In their works, they explored the conflict between good and evil, the psychological effects of guilt and sin, and even madness and derangement in human psyche. The Dark Romantics saw the blackness and the horror of evil. From this imaginative, unflinching vision they shaped a uniquely American literature. Many of the important symbols in the novel lie either in the setting or in the characters. The scaffold appears in the beginning, middle, and end of the novel. Hawthorne uses this symbol to divide his novel into three parts. Just as it rises above the market place, it rises above the regular structure of the novel. All the three incidents on the scaffold are the high points in novel. Symbolicly the scaffold represents the strict moral code of the Puritans. It displays Hester’s act and her punishment. It also represents acknowledgement of sin. It is here that both Hester and Dimmesdale acknowledge their sin. The scaffold scenes are the most substantial situations in the story because they unify the book in two influential ways. First of all, every scaffold scene reunites the main characters of the novel. In the first scene, everyone in the town is gathered in the market place because Hester is being questioned about the identity of the father of her child. In her arms is the product of her sin, Pearl, a three month old baby who is experiencing life outside the prison for the first time. Dimmesdale is standing beside the scaffold because he s Hester s pastor and it s his job to convince her to repent and reveal the father s name. A short time later, Chillingworth unexpectedly shows up within the crowd of people who are watching Hester after he is released from his two year captivity by the Indians. In the second scene, Dimmesdale is standing on top of the scaffold alone in the middle of the night. He sees Hester and Pearl walk through the market place on their way back from Governor Winthrop s bedside. When Dimmesdale recognizes them and tells them to join him, they walk up the steps to stand by his side. Chillingworth appears later, also, standing beside the scaffold, staring at Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl. In the final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale walks to the steps of the scaffold in the front of the whole town after his Election Day sermon. He tells Hester and Pearl to join him yet again on the scaffold. Chillingworth then runs through the crowd and tries to stop Dimmesdale from reaching the top of the scaffold, the one place where he can t reach him. Another way in which the scenes are united is how each illustrates the immediate, delayed, and prolonged effects that the sin of adultery has on the main characters. The first scene shows Hester being publicly punished on the scaffold. She is being forced to stand on it for three hours straight and listen to the people talk about her as a disgrace and a shame to the community. Dimmesdale s instantaneous response to the sin is to lie. He stands before Hester and the rest of the town and proceeds to give a moving speech about how it would be in her and the father s best interest for her to reveal the father s name. Though he never actually says that he is not the other parent, he implies it by talking of the father in the third person. Such as, 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 (p.62). Chillingworth s first reaction is one of shock, but he quickly suppresses it. Since his first sight of his wife in two years is of her being punished for being unfaithful to him, he is naturally surprised. It doesn t last for long though, because it is his nature to control his emotions. Pearl s very existence in this scene is the largest immediate effect of her parents crime. She obviously would never had been there had her parents resisted their love for each other. The second scene occurs ever years later and shows the effect after time has had a chance to play its part. It begins with Dimmesdale climbing the stairs of the scaffold in the middle of the night because it is the closest that he can come to confessing his sin. This scene is especially important because it shows how pitiful he has become. Dimmesdale shows just how irrational he is when he screams aloud because he fears that the universe is staring at a scarlet token on his breast. It also shows how much guilt he is carrying by the way he perceives the light from a meteor as the letter A . He believes it stands for adulteress while other people think it stands for angel since the governor just passed away. This scene also shows how Hester is managing her new situation. When Dimmesdale tells her to come up the scaffold and asks her where she has been, she replies that she has been measuring the robe that the governor is to be buried in. This statement implies that Hester s reputation as a talented seamstress has spread. Ironically, her first well known piece of work was the scarlet letter that she wore on her chest. As a result, she owes her own success to her infamy. Besides growing older, Pearl s most significant change is in her perceptibility. In this scene, she constantly asks Dimmesdale if he will be joining Hester and herself on the scaffold tomorrow at noon and accuses him of not being true. Neither Hester nor Dimmesdale ever told Pearl who her father was, but she figures it out by the way he always holds his hand over his heart.. Chillingworth s derangement is evident in this scene also. His contempt for Dimmesdale is so acute that he risks his cover when he gives him a look so vivid as to remain painted on the darkness after the bright meteor that just passed, vanishes. The third scene is very critical because it s the last glimpse into every characters mind and the last time that everyone is alive. At this point in time, Dimmesdale s fixation on his sin is utterly corroded him to the point of death. Dimmesdale turned towards the scaffold and stretched out his arms, saying, Hester, come hither! Come my little Pearl! (p.249) He finally exposes the truth and tells his followers of how he deceived them. The only good that comes out of conceding his guilt is that he passed away without any secrets, for he was already too far gone to be able to be saved. This scene is important to the chracterization of Hester because it s the first time that she s not in complete control over her emotions. Her dream of escaping to England with Dimmesdale is lost when he decides to confess. The unanticipated arrival of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale s feeble appearance distresses her, and for the first time, she can t control the outcome. The greatest transformation in Pearl s life occurs in this scene. While she used to be perceived as elfish, she now shows the first signs of normal human emotion. After Dimmesdale confesses his sin, he asked Pearl wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt? (p.252) Pearl, then kisses his lips voluntarily. The great scene of grief 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 (p.252). Ultimately Chillingworth takes a severe turn for the worse when Dimmesdale reveals his sin. Since Chillingworth based the rest his life on playing games on Dimmesdale s mind, he was left without any goals, and his life became meaningless. On that account, it s clear that Hawthorne uses the scaffold scenes, not only a s unifying device, but a means to keep the reader interested in the novel by providing plenty of reaction.In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the pivotal characters brought forth hidden thoughts and emotions. The forest track lead away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all the signs of civilization vanished. This is precisely the escape route from strict mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up and be themselves. It was there that Dimmesdale openly acknowledged Hester and his undying love for her. It was also there that Hester did the same for Dimmesdale. Finally, it is there that the two of them openly engaged in a conversation without being preoccupied with the constraints that the Puritan society placed on them. The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody watched in the woods to report misbehavior, thus it was there that people could do what they wanted. To independent spirits such as Hester Prynne s, the wilderness beckoned her: Throw off the shackles of law and religion. What good have they done you anyway? Look at you, a young vibrant woman, grown old before your time. And no wonder, hemmed in, as you are, on every side by prohibitions. Why, you can hardly walk without tripping over one commandment or another (p.186). Truly, Hester takes advantage of this, when Arthur Dimmesdale appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdcale about subjects which would never be mentioned in any place other than the forest. What we did she reminded him had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said to each other (p.193). This statement shocked Dimmesdale and as he rose from the ground he replied, Hush, Hester no I have not forgotten not realizing that he was in an environment where he could openly express his emotions (p.193). The thought of Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate conversation in the confines of society in which they lived was incomprehensible. Yet there, in the forest, they could throw away all reluctance and finally be themselves under the umbrella of security which existed.
In Puritan society, self reliance is stressed among many other things. However, self reliance is more than stressed it is assumed. It s assumed that you need only yourself, and therefore should have no emotional necessity for a shoulder to cry on . Once again, for people in the stations of life which Hester and Dimmesdale held, it was unthinkable for them to comfort each other. Yet, in the forest, these cares were tossed away. Be though strong for me, Dimmesdale pleaded. Advise me what to do (p.194). This was a cry for help from Dimmesdale, he finally admitted that he couldn t go through this ordeal by himself. With this plead came an interest sort of role-reversal. When Dimmesdale asked for help, he is no longer sustaining the belief that he is above Hester. He finally admits that she is an equal, or even that she is above him. This is possibly one of the reasons that Puritans didn t accept these emotional displays because the society was so socially oriented. Hester, assuming a new position of power, gave a very heartfelt speech. The eloquence of her words can t be overemphasized, and a more powerful statement had yet to be made in the book. Hester s speech turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale s sermons. Begin all anew! Preach! Write! Act! Do anything, save to lie down and die! (p.195) The question she asked was also like the articulate questions Dimmesdale would pose during his sermons. The answer is obvious, yet upon closer examination they seem to give unexpected results. White leads yonder forest-track? Backwards to the settlement, thou sayest! Yea; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man s tread (p.194). If one looks at the title of this chapter, the meaning becomes much clearer. The Pastor and his Parishioner reveals that the roles are now reversed. Where else could an incongruity such as this occur, but in an accepting environment? What other platform is there for a man of high regard in the community to pour his soul to a woman who is shunned by the public for a grave sin? Nowhere else but in the forest, could such an event occur. Puritan society can be harsh and crippling to one s inner self. Hawthorne created the forest to give the characters a place to escape and express their true thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. It was here that thoughts and ideas flowed as endlessly as the babbling brook, and emotions were as wild as the forest itself. There are no restraints in the natural world, because it is just that, natural. No intrusion from people means no disturbance in the natural order, and therefore serves to bring its inhabitants away from their world, and into this older one. The Dark Romantics therefore believed people should Let us permit nature to have her way: she understands her business better than we do. The overpowering vengeance and hatred felt by Chillingworth caused his life to be centered on demeaning Dimmesdale and tormenting him till the end of time. From the beginning, Chillingworth showed no signs of guilt and let his life be consumed by sin. Roger Chillingworth committed the greatest sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter by being ruled by hatred and the feeling of vengeance. Unknowingly Hester Prynne sailed from Europe to the America’s betrayed and tricked. Waiting for the arrival of her husband, Roger Chillingworth, she lost hope in him ever arriving or even still being alive. After enduring two years of tortured loneliness and lost love, Hester wished to feel the warmth of that love again and filled this void by making love with Reverend Dimmesdale. When her child Pearl was born Hester’s adulterous sin was discovered and she was cast out from their society and required to wear an embroidered A on her bosom in punishment. Hester felt guilt for her sin the rest of her life and sought repentance and requital till the time she died. Hester never had true love for Chillingworth, but was tricked into marriage and she later told him this while speaking in her jail cell saying to him “… thou knowest that I was frank with thee, I felt no love, nor feigned any.” (p.69) Hester was betrayed, tricked and caught up in the desires of another, and trapped by sin, causing great remorse in her life; making her sin the lesser of the three committed in novel. Reverand Dimmesdale was a renowned, prideful man stricken with sin and extreme guilt. From the time Hester and Dimmesdale made love, he was grievous of his sin, but felt a great love towards her. Dimmesdale’s was full of pride, and he was also very stubborn. Although he tried many times, he could not confess his sin to his religious followers. Dimmesdale felt guilt so strongly that he scourged himself on his breast and patterned an A into his own self, yet he could not confess his sin until his grief grew so great it caused him to perish. Reverend Dimmesdale’s sin was greater than Hester’s because he let his pride conflict with his repentance and let his life be ruined by his anguish. Physically deformed and mysterious, Roger Chillingworth met his wife, after being separated from her for almost two years. He showed no great anger towards her and took upon himself some of the accountability saying it was “…my folly and thy weakness,” (p.69) which was the cause of Hester’s sin. Chillingworth’s only feeling was one of revenge towards the man who had been Hester’s lover. He said to Hester “… he must needs be mine” (p.70) after her refusal to let his name be known. Chillingworth was obsessed by hate and revenge so much that when Dimmesdale died “… the life seemed to have departed…” (p.257) from him and he died within a year of Dimmesdale’s death. Chillingworth never felt guilt or attempted repentance and he “… violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart.” He sought to destroy Dimmesdale’s mind, and neither Hester nor Dimmesdale ever did this. The sin committed by Roger Chillingworth was greater than Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s, because his life was a continuous sin and he never regretted his actions, which both of the others did. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth sought to demean and destroy the life of another. He never felt forgiveness towards Dimmesdale or ever sought repentance for his own sins. Chillingworth’s life revolved around vengeance towards Dimmesdale so when Dimmesdale died he no longer had a reason to live and he died within that same year. Roger Chillingworth’s sin was the greatest committed because it ruled his life even until his death. Hawthorne describes Pearl as beautiful child with big eyes and luxurious hair that will one day be black like her mother. She is extremely intelligent, always asking questions of her mother such as where she “came from.” Her mood swings are peculiar. One moment she is laughing for no apparent reason and the next she is filled with silence. This odd behavior is why she is sometimes referred to as the “elf-child” or “imp.” The townspeople refer to her as “demon offspring.” Hawthorne uses Pearl as a symbol of the sin committed between Hester and Dimmesdale. In chapter 2, we see Hester refusing to hold Pearl next to her breast with the scarlett “A.” She feels that one symbol of shame would be inadequate to hide another. By acknowledging the letter on her mother’s chest, she plays an active role in Hester’s punishment rather than a passive one. In Chapter 15, we see Pearl try to emulate her mother by placing seaweed in the shape of an “A” on her own chest, once again suggesting her active role in Hester’s punishment. To Dimmesdale, Pearl is a symbol of a living conscience. Pearl is continously seeking public recognition from Dimmesdale as her father. She represents the driving force behind his tormented soul to be released from anguish. In the second scaffold scene, she asks Dimmesdale to stand on the scaffold with her and her mother, but when he refuses she eagerly pulls her hand away, saying he is “not bold” and “not true.” In chapter 19, we again see Dimmesdale deny public recognition of his daughter. After being denied her request, Pearl wipes away the kiss that Dimmesdale had earlier given here. In the final scaffold scene, Pearl’s role as symbol has been completed. Dimmesdale publicly acknowledges his daughter and Hester then dies. Pearl kisses her father signifying the end her father’s anguish. This background, together with a believable plot, convincing characterization, and important literary devices enables Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to develop the theme of the heart as a prison. Hawthorne describes the purpose of the novel when he says, Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not to your worse, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred! (p.257) The theme is beneficial because it can be put into terms in today s world. The Scarlet Letter is one of the few books that will be timeless, because it deals with alienation, sin, punishment, guilt, and emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation to come.