Since its publication in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels, and it is considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings. It may also be the most typical of his work, the strongest statement of his recurrent themes, and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.
The main theme in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne’s work, is that of sin and its effects both on the individual and on society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his knowledge of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from later times to comprehend the grave importance that seventeenth century New Englanders placed on transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters has pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner’s corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years softened somewhat by Hawthorne’s day, and during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, he worked out his own notions about human will and human nature. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne proves to be closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—what existentialists refer to as alienation and what Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other humans, and self. Such alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.
There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s pregnancy forces her sin into public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with “decent” folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her A now stands for “Able.” Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move much more freely in society than she can and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. However, Dimmesdale’s secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellow citizens. For his part, Chillingworth permits vengeance to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a “fiend,” unable to impart forgiveness or to change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.
Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, finally becomes aware of the difference. We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so.
Always more concerned with the consequences than with the cause of sin, Hawthorne to a remarkable extent anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theories of the effects of guilt. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with all of life, including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale’s health fails and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than guilt.
The characters in The Scarlet Letter are reminiscent of a number of Hawthorne’s shorter works. Dimmesdale bears similarities to Young Goodman Brown who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of humankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical. There are also resemblances between Dimmesdale and Parson Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is permanently separated from the company of men by the veil that he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth shows resemblances to Ethan Brand, the limeburner who finds the unpardonable sin in his own heart: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!”
Hawthorne’s craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes—at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the action—taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet A itself is repeatedly entwined into the narrative as a symbol of sin and shame, as a reminder of Hester’s ability with the needle and her capability with people, and in Dimmesdale’s case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Hawthorne often anticipates later developments with hints or forewarnings: There is, for example, the suggestion that Pearl lacks complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow, but at the end of the story when Dimmesdale dies, Hawthorne writes, “as [Pearl’s] 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.”
Hawthorne’s skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol, among them the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester’s shame and Pearl’s selfishness are distorted and magnified. The four main characters themselves serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.
Critical Analysis: the Scarlet LetterGet Your
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A hero can be interpreted by many things. Many people would say a hero is strong, uptight, truthful or moral. That’s not to say they aren’t allowed to have some faults, but usually a hero is someone who instills reverence and veneration in others for whatever reason. Nathaniel Hawthorne creates interesting thoughts provoking characters in the Scarlet Letter, but none of which give the right distinction that would give them the title hero. The actions and qualities of the characters in the story give no view to morality, strength physically or mentally and most of what they do is to please their own volatile and selfish desires.
Those who believe themselves to be closer to divine powers are most definitively sinful and hypocritical. Therefore, moral superiority, as Hawthorne argues in this story of Puritanical condemnation using the three scaffold scenes is false. Society has its ways of showing vengeance and in return got nothing but guilt. Many people keep silent of the wrong things they have done and have to deal with guilt, but guilt is definitely not a desirable punishment. Arthur Dimmesdale did not show any lack of guilt when he sees of guilt when he sees Hester and Pearl mocked by the community any time they are out.
Dimmesdales guilt gradually got him to bad health physically and mentally. Hawthorne did not cease to ignore the immorality Dimmesdale to confess his sin and Guilt is what leads Dimmesdale to confess his sin and guilt to the whole town. In Hawthorne’s eyes guilt was what kept people from becoming immoral sinners. Without guilt or conscience people would tend to be out of line and impulsive. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tried to expose hypocrisy by showing the Puritan life in a very discrete manner.
Hypocrisy is shown in every character in the book by showing character development to convey his thematic purpose. Hawthorne describes the Puritan society as plain and dark. This is clearly described in the beginning where the setting is introduced. The whole hypocrisy issue is basically their in every sentence Hawthorne has written. The only person to be free of hypocrisy was Chillingworth because the only thing he was looking for was a way to get back at Dimmesdale. Not only was Dimmesdale a hypocrite, he was a coward as well.
The only thing that encouraged him to speak up was Hesters nearly death threat. Being marked for life is a never-ending punishment. Hawthorne shows the reader a vivid way of how anyone can be marked for life by just being born in a contradistinctive household. Although The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, the author effectively describes the environment and setting via the use of a chronically ordered plot and the accurate perception of the world around him. Pearl is used effectively as a symbol of sin and a representation of impurity in the public view at the time of the novel.
The novel is a social commentary in that it disagrees with the concept of impurity and prejudice of the time. The central themes are sin and the direct results of sin. The Scarlet Letter illustrates the consequences of Adultery and the chances for redemption through the development of the two main characters Hester and Dimmesdale. Hester is able to confront her sins and work towards redemption and is thus rewarded with coming to peace with her past. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, weighted with the guilt of what he has done slides deeper into despair without hope of recovery.
As a conclusion, sin is not the focus of this book, but how sin will weigh on the heart and how sin causes a person to act. Throughout the story, sin was portrayed in a lot of ways, starting the adultery and the letter A in the first place. Then, baby Pearl is born and she is such a hassle. Some even believe that she is possessed. Then you see what sin not only does to the Reverend (don’t remember his name? ) and how his health deteriorates, but you also watch as revenge takes over Chillingworth’s personality and makes him look just as sickly.
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The underlying message of it all is that sin is an awful thing, but everyone does it. Hester was judged for committing adultery and the other major characters were punished for their sins slowly. But I think with this sin, came a sense of pride. Yes, Hester committed adultery, but she had the power in her to keep fighting and to embrace who she was, no matter what everyone else thought. In the end, sin claimed its victims, but only when they let it and that is the fate of Chillingworth and the Reverend, but not Hester who persevered and made a life for herself, past her sins.
Author: Royce Ballin
Critical Analysis: the Scarlet Letter
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