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The Scarlett Letter Essay, Research Paper

Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne, born in Salem, Massachusetts, 1804, published The Scarlet Letter in1850. Since it was first published , The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print,nor out of favor with the literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels. Considered to be the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne s writings, it may also be the most typical. The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne s masterpiece and his most profound exploration of sin, alienation, and spiritual regeneration.(1

Buckner) In form it is a nearly perfect example of the static, pictorial design that Hawthorne s dreamvision of the world demanded, given texture and solidity by the detailed representation of the Puritan-New England world of a hundred years before the

date of its writing that is the scene of the story.(2 Mizener) The novel traces the social, moral, psychological, and spiritual- of Hester Prynne s adulterous relationship with the

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale on four people: the lovers themselves, their daughter, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, Hester s husband.(1) Each of these characters: Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, have different characteristics that help depict the story s plot.

Hester Prynne is a beautiful young woman who has sinned but is forgiven.(5) As the representative of individuality, Hester, rather than subjecting herself to the law, subjects it to her own scrutiny; she takes herself as a law. She is not, by nature, rebellious; and during the seven-year period of The Scarlet Letter s action, she certainly attempts to accept the judgment implicit in the letter. The native strength of her character is certainly

abetted by the fact that, as a young woman in a society dominated by aging men, she has no public importance. In fact, while the outward Hester performs deeds of mercy and kindness throughout the seven years, the inward Hester grows ever more alienated and

over time becomes- what she was not at first-a genuine revolutionary and social radical. Had she spoken her thoughts, she probably would have suffered death from the stern tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations of the Puritan

establishment . (3 Baym)

The world s law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown and rearranged-not actually, but within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode-the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of an ancient

principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter.(3)

Without going beyond the license that Hawthorne allows, one might allegorize Hester as good power, which is, after all, precisely what, in the basic structural scheme of all narrative, one looks for in a hero. The power is remarkable in that its existence seems so

improbable in an outcast woman.(3 Baym) The scarlet letter A soon became known as meaning able . (4 Hawthorne)

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of Divine Maternity, ….. something to remind him , indeed, by contrast, of the sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life working such effect, that the world was only the darker for them.(2 Mizener)

Pearl s name had a symbolic meaning, that meant bought at a great price . (4)She was dressed to mimic the elaborate color and embroidery of the scarlet letter A . (3)Pearl is a double character, she was good and bad. She is also treated as being ugly, evil,

and shamed.(5)The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder.

Pearl was bad tempered, wild, desperate, and defiant. On the other hand she was beautiful, naturalistic, and creative. As the story progresses Pearl becomes attached to the letter, it is the first letter she learns. Thus the connection between the letter and Pearl is

intensified.(3 Baym)

Dimmesdale was Hester s partner in sin, but he was affected by it in a different way. He was unable to think of their sin as good, unlike Hester. Hawthorne portrays Dimmesdale as a rich psychological texture that makes him more interesting.

Dimmesdale is not a person who can easily hold view contrary to society s, even when society s view leads to self-condemnation. He never denies that he is guilty and deserves to be punished, but to confess and receive punishment for his sins would be to lose his

position in society, which he cannot live without.(3 Baym)

The minister well knew-subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!-the light in which his vague confession would be viewed. He had striven to put a cheat upon himself by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but had gained only one other sin, and a self-acknowledged shame, without the momentary relief of being self-deceived. He had spoken truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood. And yet, by the constitution of his nature, he loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore, above

all things else, he loathed his miserable self.(3)

Chillingworth is Hester s husband who is determined to get revenge on the adulterer.(4) His aim throughout the novel is to encourage Dimmesdale to continue lying about his affair, knowing that it will give him his revenge by destroying Dimmesdale s

soul and body.

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. (1)He represented evil and rejoiced in it. Over the time period, throughout the novel, he begins to develop devilish characteristics. (4)

Old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of a man s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil s office. This unhappy person had affected such a transformation by devoting himself, for seven years, to the constant analysis of a heart full of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated over.(3)

Each of these characters; Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, all play a vital role in the outcome of the story. On the plane of psychology, Hester, Chillingworth,and Dimmesdale hardly lead separate lives at all: feeding off each other s mutually

reinforcing weakness and guilt, at times merging telepathically with

each other s thoughts, they seem less like three individual cases than a single, symbioticorganism.(6Bloom) Each of these characters have to make many decisions that will effect their life.

Will Dimmesdale purify his conscience by public confession, or will he fail to do so and be destroyed by his own guilt? Then the question of Dimmesdale s and Hester s escape to try life over again. (2 Miziner) In order to experience the power of Hawthorne s novel,

the reader must subdue his habitual impulse to look for the interest of the novel in the development of the plot.(2)


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