Scarlet letter

Essay by timmcmanis November 2014

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Shame vs. Dignity

In the classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne explores a Puritan society that turns the idea of moral discipline into a hypocritical act of judgment. Through the contrast of Hester Prynne and the townspeople, Hawthorne demonstrates the power of oppression through scapegoating. Though the townspeople initially succeed in dehumanizing Hester through shame, her perseverance proves the conquering power of human dignity.

When Hester is initially released from prison, Hawthorne contrasts the townspeople's hypocrisy with Hester's vulnerability in order to demonstrate the dehumanizing power of shame. The puritans force Hester to wear a scarlet letter "A", dehumanizing her into a symbol for the public by "taking her out of ordinary relations with humanity" (37). The community, fearing for its sacred reputation, considers it just to "condemn" Hester, thus forcing "ignominy" upon her (38). By callously shaming Hester and using her as a scapegoat for their own sins, the townspeople attempt to destroy Hester's identity and engender their own version of the adulteress in order to make a public example of discipline.

This control of Hester's individuality shows the powerful effects of oppression on an individual, especially in the form of social ostracization.

Immediately after Hester's release, Hawthorne further displays the authority of condemnation through the contrast of Hester's pain and suffering and society's willingness to openly censure her. As Hester faces society in the scaffold, she is forced to endure judgment, being subject to her own guilt. Reverend Dimmesdale preaches a denouncing sermon aimed to convict Hester of her sins while she is denied the ability to hide her face. Hester's vulnerable position displays the overwhelming influence of her shame; she is confined, imprisoned by the grasp of her own guilt.

As the story unfolds and reveals Hester's life of solitude, Hawthorne contrasts the lifestyles of...