Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper
Stack34 ===================================================================== The Scarlet Letter Introduction The Scarlet Letter is a classic tale of sin, punishment, and revenge. It was written in 1850 by the famous American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It documents the lives of three tragic characters, each of whom suffer greatly because of his or her sins. Shot Plot The story begins with Hester Prynne, a resident of a small Puritan community, being led from the town jailhouse to a public scaffold where she must stand for three hours as punishment for adultery. She must also wear a scarlet A on her dress for the rest of her life as part of her punishment. As she is led to the scaffold, many of the women in the crowd complain that her sentence is too lenient and some even suggest she should be executed. We learn from the narrator that Hester arrived at the colony nearly two years earlier. She had been sent there ahead of her husband, while he remained in Amsterdam to finish up some business. Hester never heard heard from him again, and it was assumed that he had died at sea. Because of this, and the fact that Hester was very beautiful, and thus must have suffered great temptation, the judges decided to be lenient on her sentence. As Hester is standing on the platform with her illegitimate child, Pearl, in her arms, she sees her long lost husband in the crowd. Her husband, now known as Chillingworth, asks one of the townspeople why she is up there on the scaffold. The townsperson tells him of Hester’s adultery and that the identity of her lover is unknown. Chillingworth vows that he will someday find out the unknown lover’s identity. After Hester is returned to the prison, she is found to be in a state of nervous frenzy. The jailer brings in Chillingworth, who is a physician, to administer sedatives to her. While he is talking with Hester, Chillingworth admits that it was wrong of him to marry her, when he knew that she could never love him. When Chillingworth asks Hester the identity of her lover, she refuses to answer. Because of this, Chillingworth makes her promise never to reveal that he is her husband. After Hester is released from prison, she goes to live in a small cottage at the edge of town. After a few years, people begin to notice that her daughter, Pearl, behaves very strangely, and they threaten to take her away from Hester. Hester takes Pearl to Governor Bellingham’s mansion planning to plead for the right to keep her daughter. At the mansion she is met by the governor and his three guests, Reverend Wilson, Reverend Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. Reverend Dimmesdale convinces the governor to allow Hester to keep Pearl. Chillingworth, who has been living with Reverend Dimmesdale since his arrival in town, begins to suspect that Reverend Dimmesdale is the father of Pearl. One evening while Dimmesdale is sleeping, Chillingworth examines Dimmesdale’s chest and finds something which confirms his suspicion. From this moment on, Chillingworth devotes himself to seeking revenge. One night, Dimmesdale is so tormented by his conscience that he goes and stands on the scaffold that Hester had stood on seven years earlier. As he is standing there, he sees Hester and Pearl walk by and he calls them onto the scaffold with him. After he acknowledges his guilt to them, a giant red A forms in the sky and Chillingworth appears. After that night, Dimmesdale’s condition continues to deteriorate and Hester becomes worried. She goes to Chillingworth and tells him that she is going to tell Dimmesdale that he is her husband. Chillingworth says that he cannot forgive Dimmesdale and tells her to do what she will. A few days later Hester and Pearl meet Dimmesdale in the forest. Hester tells him that Chillingworth is her husband and convinces him to sail away to Europe with her. Hester then removes her scarlet A, but is forced to replace it at Pearl’s insistence. On Election Day, Hester and Pearl stand in the town square waiting for a parade to begin. The captain of the ship upon which Hester had arranged passage informs her that Chillingworth will also be riding. After Dimmesdale gives his sermon, he approaches Hester and Pearl at the foot of the scaffold and asks them to help him ascend it. Once he has the attention of the crowd, he confesses his guilt and tears off his ministerial band revealing a scarlet A. He then dies in Hester’s arms. Soon after Dimmesdale’s death, Chillingworth, no longer having an object of revenge, withers away and dies. Hester becomes and important figure in the community, and when she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. Character Analysis Hester Prynne From the very begging of the book, Hester Prynne is presented as a woman with indefatigable pride. When she first leaves the prison to bear her punishment upon the scaffold, it is said that “never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like.” Her sin is that she committed adultery with Reverend Dimmesdale and bore a child by him. Because of this she wears the scarlet A on her dress her entire life, even after it is no longer required of her. This is another example of her pride. Even though Hester’s sin is the most overt of the three main characters, it is actually the least serious. This is because her sin is a sin of passion instead of intellect. Hester also suffers the least, because she publicly acknowledges her sins while the others keep their’s secret. Often, Hawthorne presents Hester as a victim, either of fate or the actions of others. He tells of how she was forced to marry someone she didn’t love, and then left in a foreign land with no word from him. He tells of how Chillingworth refuses to acknowledge that she is his wife once he arrives, and later, how she is continually tormented by her unruly child. But despite all of her suffering, she manages to find salvation in the truth. And because of this, she later becomes a very respected member of the community. Arthur Dimmesdale Dimmesdale is presented as a young quiet Puritan minister with a tragic flaw. His flaw is that he is unable to publicly admit that he committed adultery with Hester. In many of his sermons he preaches about the importance of admitting sin, yet he finds himself unable to. He rationalizes his secrecy by claiming that it would ruin his reputation as a minister and he would no longer be able to carry out the work of God. “It may be that they are kept silent by the very constitution of their nature. Or-can we not suppose it-guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God’s glory and man’s welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them.” At times he realizes his hypocrisy and comes to the verge of confession, only to retreat into vague proclamations of guilt. This inability to confess causes Dimmesdale great anguish and self-hatred. At one point he lashes himself with a whip, and at the end of the book we find that he has inscribed the letter “A” into his own chest. After seven years of suffering in denial of his guilt, he finally triumphs over his weakness. On Election Day, after delivering a moving sermon, he ascends the scaffold and admits that he committed adultery with Hester and that Pearl is his daughter. His confession marks the climax of the novel. After it is done, he dies in Hester’s arms, freed from the debilitating burden of his secret. Roger Chillingworth Like the two other main characters, Chillingworth is both a victim and a sinner. He is a victim, first of all, of his own physical appearance and self-isolation. He is small, thin, and slightly deformed, with one shoulder being higher than the other. This, coupled with the fact that he has devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, serves to cut him off from the rest of humanity. He is also a victim of the events that transpire before his arrival to the colony. First he is captured by Indians. Then, while he is held captive and presumed dead, his wife has a child by another man. Before the end of the book, however, we see that Chillingworth’s sins are far greater than either those of Hester or Dimmesdale. His first sin was when he married Hester. He knew that she would never love him, and yet he made her marry him anyway. He admits this to her while they are talking in the jail cell. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.” His second sin is allowing himself to become obsessed with vengeance against Dimmesdale. Once Chillingworth discovers that Dimmesdale was Hester’s lover, he devotes himself completely to trying to destroy Dimmesdale’s sanity. This obsession turns him from a peaceful scholar into a demon. He tries to blame Dimmesdale for his destruction, but ultimately Chillingworth must take responsibility for his own transgression of sympathy. Theme/Purpose/Idea The main theme of The Scarlet Letter is that hidden guilt causes more suffering than open guilt. This theme is demonstrated through the lives of the three main characters. In the book, Hester experiences open guilt through being publicly punished for her adultery. She is ridiculed and ostracized by the community, but later, is forgiven and even respected by those that punished her. Dimmesdale, however, refuses to admit that he committed adultery and thereby suffers hidden guilt. His guilt is compounded both by the fact that Hester is taking all the blame for him, and that he is acting as a hypocrite by not confessing. His guilt causes him to become paranoid and stressed. He tries to punish himself, but he knows that he can never be free from guilt until he publicly acknowledges his sin. His guilt causes him to mentally and physically deteriorate until he eventually dies giving his confession. Another theme of The Scarlet Letter is don’t let your passions override your intellect. Chillingworth, by subordinating his intellect to his desire for revenge, ultimately destroys himself. Everything about him gradually changes into evil. Even his facial expressions become noticeably different. “A large number-and many of these were person’s of such sober sense and practical observation, that their opinions would have been valuable, in other matters-affirmed that Roger Chillingworth’s aspect had undergone a remarkable change while he had dwelt in town, and especially since his abode with Mr. Dimmesdale. At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon him.” The Scarlet Letter is pervaded with symbolism. The most pervasive symbol is the scarlet A from which the book gets it’s title. It first appears embroidered on Hester’s dress. Here it stands for adultery (and later able) and is a condition of her punishment. When Hester is at the Governor’s mansion, Pearl sees the letter magnified in an armor breastplate and it seems to be the most prominent feature of Hester’s appearance. This is symbolic of how the Scarlet Letter has taken prominence in Hester’s life. The symbol is seen later by Dimmesdale as a sign in the night sky during his vigil on the scaffold. We also find out that the sign seen on Dimmesdale’s chest by Chillingworth was a scarlet A, apparently inscribed there by Dimmesdale himself. The last time that the symbol is used in the book is at the very end, where a reference is made to the scarlet A on Hester and Dimmesdale’s tombstone. The other prominent symbol of the book is Hester’s daughter, Pearl. Pearl serves as a representation of Hester’s relationship with Dimmesdale. Initially Pearl symbolizes the shame of Hester’s public punishment for adultery. Then as Pearl grows older, she symbolizes the punishment itself by continuing to torment Hester about the scarlet A embroidered on her dress. But above all, Pearl represents Hester’s passion. “Hester could only account for the child’s character-and even then the most vaguely and imperfectly-by recalling what she herself had been, during that momentous period while Pearl was imbibing her soul from the spiritual world, and her bodily frame from its material of earth. The mother’s impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep strains of crimson and gold, the fiery luster, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the intervening substance.” Style The style of The Scarlet Letter is precise, descriptive, and formal. In some parts of the book, tedious descriptions of environments or events dominate the text, as when the interior of the Governor’s mansion is described in chapter seven. Other parts consist mainly of dialog, as when Hester talks with Chillingworth by his herb garden in chapter fourteen. Hawthorne uses formal diction and syntax throughout the book, even in the dialog. Each word is carefully chosen for precise meaning. Hawthorne avoids using any ungrammatical or colloquial expressions. The Scarlet Letter is of the romantic genre. This is shown by Hawthorne’s selective use of symbols to perpetuate the desired ideas and emotions. One example of this is the scarlet A that appears in the sky. This is not something that would realistically happen, but has been included to add meaning to the events that had transpired. Another element of Hawthorne’s style is his combing of historical characters with fictional characters. Many of the characters he uses in the book were actual people that lived during that time period. These include Governor Winthrop, Governor Bellingham, and Reverend Mr. Wilson. He also makes references to several other historical figures including Anne Hutchenson and John Eliot.