The Scarlet Letter — Nathaniel Hawthorne | Teen Ink

The Scarlet Letter — Nathaniel Hawthorne

September 9, 2023
By AR2468 SILVER, Shenzhen, Other
AR2468 SILVER, Shenzhen, Other
7 articles 0 photos 0 comments

With the setting in the harsh Puritan society in 17th century Boston, The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, delves into the complexities of human nature and the moral dilemmas faced by its characters in an unforgiving society, exploring the themes of sin, guilt, redemption, revenge, and the hypocrisy of society. 

The story unravels with the public punishment of Hester Prynne, a young woman who has committed adultery and gave birth to a child. She is forced to permanently wear a scarlet letter "A" on her chest to symbolize her sin. With great strength within herself, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her baby's father, leading to crowd condemnation aimed straight at her. At the same time, Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth, camouflages with the identity of a physician and seeks revenge against the man who dishonored him. To earn a living, Hester uses her own hand. She becomes a skilled seamstress and raises her daughter, Pearl, who is often described as otherworldly and seems to have an innate understanding of her mother's situation. Hester becomes a respected figure in the community due to her charitable work but remains alienated and burdened by her sin. At the same time, Arthur Dimmesdale, being both the well-respected minister of the town and the father of the forsaken child, consumed by guilt and inner torment, punishes himself and becomes increasingly ill. At its climax, Hester and Dimmesdale stand together on the scaffold, confessing their love and shame to the general public. Dimmesdale finally peels off the cover and reveals the scarlet letter carved into his chest. After Dimmesdale’s death, Chillingworth dies shortly after, and Hester vanishes with her daughter from the eyes of the general public. Hester returns to the colony alone some years later, still wearing the scarlet letter and devoted to charity, but holds an alternative view of her sin. When she reaches the end of her life, she is buried next to Dimmesdale, their shared gravestone marked with the scarlet letter A.

The portrayal of Hester’s experience highlights one of the most prominent themes in the novel: sin and guilt. “Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots she had struck into the soil.” The public shaming — wearing the scarlet letter “A” for adultery — constantly reminds herself and society about the crime she committed, forcing her to look straight into her irresistible past action and bear the societal criticism and scrutiny. Pearl, Hester’s beloved daughter, is also a living symbol representing her mother’s sin, causing unfair treatment towards her. She is being referred to as an elf child, a derogatory term highlighting her illegitimate birth. Aside from the visible harsh treatment that illustrates the burden of guilt, Dimmesdale is tormented internally by his hidden guilt throughout the novel. Being the father of Pearl, he cannot confess his sin publicly and suffers in silence. His internal turmoil leads to physical and emotional deterioration, reflected in his worsening health condition. The contrast between different characters' public and private guilt emphasizes how individuals are affected by their transgressions and how they seek to reconcile with their inner turmoil. Hester, on the one hand, is willing to accept her sin but starts to develop her view about this issue outside the restrictions reinforced by the Puritan society, reaching a mental compromise by reconciling with her sin — using her redemption to pay for the guilt — and she is hopeful to go to heaven though she wears the scarlet letter. On the other hand, Dimmesdale refuses to take responsibility for his actions due to cowardice and is gradually torn apart by his self-blame, helplessly falling deeper into the abyss and not getting out, posing detrimental deterioration in both mental and physical aspects. The drastic difference in the characters’ reactions reflects how individuals with different mindsets react to setbacks differently, leaving readers to contemplate which category they may fall into.

Hawthorne also strongly criticizes this Puritan community's strict moral code and hypocrisy. While the Puritans preach holiness and righteousness, they are often shown as judgmental and hypocritical in their actions. Although the scarlet letter “A” stands for ‘adultery,’ it can also mean ‘an angel of mercy.’ “It is our Hester—the town’s own Hester— who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comforting to the afflicted!” Through the significant changes in her demeanor after the public shaming and the initial revelation of her sin, people in the community start to see her in a different light, realizing her inner character filled with kindness. However, “Everything was against her. The world was hostile.” The townspeople still gossip, ostracize her and alienate her. This harsh treatment reveals the hypocrisy of a community that claims to be founded on Christian principles but often lacks compassion and forgiveness. The transformation of Hester — who still spreads kindness to the townspeople despite the acknowledgment of their scorn and contempt — turns her from a symbol of sin into a symbol of strength and resilience. Her ability to endure the community's judgment and her dedication to charitable works scrape off the facade of the town's hypocrisy, revealing the grotesque human nature hidden behind it. When viewing from the other perspective, Dimmesdale is a prime example of hypocrisy. As the revered minister of the town, he preaches powerful sermons on the consequences of sin and the need for repentance, yet he secretly carries the guilt of his sin, refusing to confess it to the public. He lets his lover become the visible target who bears all societal judgment and condemnation that should also fall onto his own shoulders so that he is still the minister with a good reputation. His violation of the societal rule highlights how most people commit sins secretly or hide their true natures behind a facade of piety. This contrast illustrates the hypocrisy of those who publicly condemn Hester while hiding their transgressions, visualizing how the supposed kindness and loving are just an illusion.

Overall, The Scarlet Letter is a profound novel that explores the multifaceted nature of human beings and the moral dilemmas faced by its characters in a strict and unforgiving Puritan society, leaving the reader to contemplate what their own actions will be when placed in such a ruthless, uncaring environment.


This article has 0 comments.