"Reading Journal: The Scarlet Letter" Analyze the major literary aspects of THE SCARLET LETTER.

Essay by BobbybobbobCollege, UndergraduateA+, December 2008

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Author and Purpose:This novel was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Hawthorne had some admiration for his Puritan ancestors, most of whom were motivated by their goal of purifying the Anglican Church, his perspective is balanced by his recognition of their hypocrisy. As John Winthrop described, the Puritan society was to be a “city upon a hill” — a place where the “eyes of all people are upon us”, but, as Hawthorne acknowledges with this novel, this ideology was overshadowed by their tendency to condemn the sinner, rather than forgive and uplift. Accordingly, Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in order to expose the hypocrisy of judgment in general. He uses the Puritan society to illustrate how people often judge others for their sins and use others as scapegoats to direct attention away from their own sins. The five gossips in chapter two exemplify this as they cry, “this woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.”

In reply a man exclaims, “Mercy on us, goodwife, is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows?”Setting:This story is set during the mid-1700s in Puritan settled Boston, Massachusetts. The story can transcend the setting absolutely, as the Puritan society is merely used to exemplify the judgmental nature seen in all mankind, a characteristic that exists in the very nature of man, rather than a particular setting.

Plot Summary:A young woman, Hester Prynne, has been found guilty of adultery and must wear a scarlet “A”, which she sewn beautifully, on her dress as a sign of shame. She is led from the town prison to the scaffold, where she must stand for three hours, exposed to public humiliation. Many of the women in the crowd are enraged by the subtle dignity Hester carries, as well as the seeming lenience of her punishment. Gazing out into the crowd, she notices her small, misshapen, long-lost husband, who had gone missing for two years, supposedly lost at sea. The people in the crowd, the town fathers, and the minister of Hester’s church, Arthur Dimmesdale, interrogate her about lover's identity. She refuses to reveal it, thus she is punished for her transgression with the scarlet letter, along with her public humiliation upon the scaffold.

Hester Prynne’s husband, who had sent Hester to Boston ahead of him, but never contacted her since, later approaches her and reveals his identity to her. He has her swear to secrecy, revealing his identity to no one but her. Chillingworth becomes intent upon finding Hester’s former lover and exacting revenge upon him.

Following her release from prison, Hester settles in a cottage at the edge of town and supports herself and her daughter, Pearl, working in needlework. She lives a tranquil life with her daughter. Her daughter’s unusual behavior troubles Hester. From her infancy, on throughout her childhood, Pearl is enthralled by the scarlet “A”. As she grows, Pearl becomes impulsive and boisterous. Her conduct causes the church members to suggest Pearl be taken away from Hester’s care. With the help of Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester manages to convince the Governor to allow Pearl to remain under Hester’s care.

Suspecting Dimmesdale to be Pearl’s father, Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale, whose health has begun to fail, under the guise that he intends to care for the minister. He uses this opportunity to subtly interrogate Dimmesdale through psychological pressure. One evening, as Dimmesdale is sleeping, Chillingworth pulls away the minister’s upper vestment and reveals a mark upon his chest, confirming his suspicion of Dimmesdale’s guilt.

As his guilt torments him, Dimmesdale heads to the scaffold where Hester was punished years earlier. As he climbs the scaffold, Hester and Pearl are passing by, ironically, and he calls to them to join him. At the story’s climax, the three of them join hands and, though he lacks the courage to do so publicly, he admits his guilt to them. At that moment, a meteor lights up the sky, forming a gigantic “A”. The three of them discover Chillingworth is nearby and has been watching the scaffold scene.

Hester, stunned by the severe deterioration Dimmesdale’s guilt has caused him, decides to approach Chillingworth and ask him to cease his pursuit of revenge, lest he destroy his own soul. He refuses her request.

Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest, where she reveals to him the secret of her husband’s identity and his desire for revenge. He briefly grows angry with Hester, but Hester proposes they flee Boston and resume life in Europe. Enjoying the feeling of freedom this newfound opportunity presents, Hester tosses her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. Dimmesdale also feels reenergized by the prospect. Pearl, who has been playing in the forest, refuses to acknowledge her mother with the scarlet letter. Later, Dimmesdale recognizes his health is failing and loses enthusiasm in the plan. Hester receives word that Roger Chillingworth will be on the same ship she and Dimmesdale planned to board.

On Election Day, the day before the ship is set to sail, as well as a holiday within the Puritan town, Dimmesdale delivers his most inspired sermon yet. On an impulse, Hester mounts the scaffold and confesses his sin to all of the people, ripping his upper vestment off and revealing the scarlet “A” upon his chest. He crumples to the ground and dies in Hester’s arms, as Pearl bestows a kiss upon him. Chillingworth, who has lost the chance for revenge he has pursued for so long, dies shortly thereafter. He leaves an inheritance for Pearl which allows her to travel to Europe and get married.

After returning to Boston from an extended leave, the destination of which is unknown, Hester lives alone in her cottage and resumes her charitable work, offering her solace to other women. The people no longer condemn her for the scarlet “A”, but comprehend it as meaning “able”, for she helps others with such ability. When Hester dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale, both under a simple tombstone marked with a scarlet “A”.

Themes:The effects of sin:An important theme in The Scarlet Letter is the effect sin has depending on how it is dealt with. Dimmesdale trudges throughout the story, bearing the burden of his sin deep inside. Dimmesdale does not confess his sin until it has nearly destroyed him. He rejects the truth of his adultery, or at least struggles in the attempt, and this slowly rots his soul and deteriorates his body. He denies his claim to Pearl as his daughter. In an attempt to compensate for his guilt, he punishes his self, which becomes intensified by Chillingworth’s constant torture. Only when he openly stands with Hester and Pearl, the embodiment of sin, and admits his sin publicly is there any relief for him. He finally frees himself from his guilt and Chillingworth’s torment, allowing him to die peacefully. In complete contrast Hester, whom has dealt with her confessed sin day by day, grows in strength and courage. The scarlet letter, which becomes Hester’s identity, and the judgment of all of her peers let her repair her faults and develop, rather than remain spiritually stagnant as do her impenitent peers. Chillingworth is also affected by the sin and, although he did not partake in it, the sin has affected him the most. He is engulfed by his lust for revenge, slowly transforming him from a benevolent scholar to an embodiment of evil. Although he was not guilty of the sin Hester and Dimmesdale shared, allowing his hate and judgment of the sinner to cultivate within led him to depravity.

Ambiguity:Throughout the story, ambiguity brings into question the nature of evil. The reader is left to decide for his self who is at fault in the story and who has redeemed his self. Hester becomes a stronger character in the end directly because of the trials attributed to her sin. Dimmesdale struggles with his sin, holding it inside. To others, he appears holy, but inside he is torn. He eventually overcomes his sin and confesses it to all which brings him all the more respect, rather than scorn, and he is able to die in peace. Chillingworth depreciates in character throughout the story and is looked badly upon in the end, despite the fact that he was guiltless at the beginning. Pearl shows through her curious perceptiveness and unruly behavior that purity may come in forms that defy the laws of society. These ambiguities throughout the story cause the reader to question the true form of evil; whether it is the condemned or the condemner.

Symbols:The Scarlet A:Among the most evident of the novel’s many symbols is the scarlet “A”. The letter is meant to be a symbol of adultery and shame. Over time, the letter’s meaning changes as Hester’s character casts the symbol aside as insignificant. At the Election Day celebration, the visiting Native Americans even believe it to be a symbol of importance. Unaware of the symbols literal meaning, the Native Americans look at the person behind the symbol and see a woman of importance, whilst the townsfolk look at the symbol alone to determine Hester’s character. The letter becomes a symbol of Hester’s ability to redeem her self in spite of overwhelming judgment.

Pearl:Pearl is the scarlet letter incarnate. She is the symbol of Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin, yet, unlike the scarlet letter, she is a blessing and is not meant to be curse. Hester’s scarlet letter was an identity affixed to her that she managed to overcome. Similarly, Pearl, a free spirited, pure young girl, was the result of the transgression of Hester and Dimmesdale. Through Pearl, the reader sees that something good can come out of sin and the people were wrong to condemn Hester and Dimmesdale.

Names:The names of the characters are concise symbols of their character or role in the story. Hester Prynne’s last name rhymes with “sin”, an act which marks her throughout the story. Arthur Dimmesdale’s last name calls to mind the word “dim”. This can describe how he was dim in tormenting himself for his sin and denying Pearl as his daughter. It can also describe the nature of his spirit as he struggled with his transgression: it was dim as the sputtering flame of a candle, ready to flicker out at the slightest gust. Chillingworth’s name brings to mind the word “chill”, as in cold, which was the exact nature of Chillingworth’s soul. He devoted his life to exacting revenge and thus his soul became cold and dead. He allowed his desperation for revenge to convert him into a cold embodiment of evil. Revenge became his lifeblood and when Dimmesdale redeemed himself and then died, Chillingworth lost his only reason for life. Pearl’s name suggests that she is a treasure. She is the blessing that results from Hester and Dimmesdale’s transgression and redemption. Indeed, she is salvation to the couple as she is a constant reminder of their sin and it is because of her that Hester and Dimmesdale overcome their sin and acknowledge their love once more before Dimmesdale’s death.

Memorable Characters and Motivations:Hester Prynne:The protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is a youthful, beautiful, spirited, and proud woman. She holds her head high and retains her dignity as she endures humiliation at the beginning of the novel. Her spirit is the gold thread she has sowed into her scarlet letter. She is motivated by several factors. Hester's life of seclusion shows her determination to overcome her sin. Through suffering of judgment, she emerges stronger and more capable of charity. Hester's is faithful to Dimmesdale and loves him, as is reflected in her determination to hide his identity. She is concerned with his health enough to confront Chillingworth. When Dimmesdale is about to die, she asks if they will always be together. Hester is full of motherly love for Pearl. She wonders and worries if Hester’s sin has affected Pearl.

Arthur Dimmesdale:The unmarried pastor of Hester Prynne’s congregation, Arthur Dimmesdale is also the father of Hester’s daughter, pearl. He is a sinner in secret, keeping knowledge of his sin away from the ears of the townsfolk. He feels immensely guilty for his sin and often punishes himself for it. He redeems his self late in the book when he finally confronts his sin and announces it to the town, finally publicly sharing the burden with Hester.

Robert Chillingworth:Hester Prynne’s husband, who was presumed lost at sea, arrives in Boston after two years having disappeared. After he learns of Hester’s affair, he vows to seek revenge against her lover, letting his quest for revenge take over his life. He psychologically torments Dimmesdale, whom he suspects is Hester’s secret lover. He is a flat character, more a symbol of the devil’s servant.

Meaningful Quotes:"'Never!' Replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. 'It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!'" Hester 21When Hester is taken by the governor and the Reverend Wilson to be interrogated, she resists fiercely, determined not to betray her lover. This event shows how strong Hester’s character is. She would rather bear her punishment than betray Dimmesdale. This is one of many events that show Hester’s redeeming qualities and nullifies the significance of her scarlet letter.

“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” Narrator 155Here, in chapter eighteen, the narrator describes the influencing factors in Hester’s life due to her scarlet letter. Shame and solitude help to shape Hester into the strong character she is, issues that other women shrink at the sight of. It becomes clear in this passage that the narrator admires Hester.

“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." Narrator 113Having overcome the judgment against her, Hester had redeemed herself as a woman of strength. She was so charitable and kind to others that it became hard for people to think of her as an adulterer, so they interpreted the “A” as meaning “Able”, for being so able to help people. Despite being condemned for her sin, Hester came out of her ordeal stronger and more loved than those who condemned her.

Change One Detail:If I could change one detail in The Scarlet Letter, I would allow Dimmesdale to live after he had redeemed himself and admitted his sin to all of the people. It would be interesting to see what he would do next and if Hester and he would still have run away to Europe. I would like to what Chillingworth would resort to after Dimmesdale had finally freed himself of the torment he was inflicting upon himself, as well as the torment of Chillingworth. This would also give rise to other ambiguities, such as whether or not it would be right for Hester and Dimmesdale to run off together in happiness and leave Chillingworth in his pit of hatred.

Reader’s Response:Overall, I thought this was a decent novel. At some points, the archaic language became confusing and the descriptions (such as the door in chapter one) seemed overly complicated, but at the heart of this novel there is quite an interesting story. The vivid symbolism and ambiguities provoke thought about various subjects such as whether or not Hester’s action should have been considered a sin.

Works cited:THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne