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Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper

Hester and the Scarlet Letter: Unobtainable Simplicity

The achievement of simplicity in life never occurs because things are not simple, but manifold, being viewed differently, and speaking more than one purpose. Nathaniel Hawthorne journeys to seventeenth century Boston and introduces Hester Prynne as he makes his awareness of this idea evident. Through The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne presents the complexity of life’s components whether they appear as simple as an embroidered letter or as intricate as a life changing circumstance. The focus on sin and the consequences and atonement that follow exemplify Hawthorne’s tragic moral vision. A moral vision dealing directly with human nature through Hawthorne’s own creation of Hester Prynne provokes this idea, this problematic truth. A woman publicly acknowledged for what her society held as a grave sin stands before them. She begins her journey, a journey that will forever change the views of not only her fellow characters, but also those to whom Hawthorne tries to reach through his writing. In this journey, meet a woman who’s weakness became her strength, who was looked upon in ways as changing as the seasons. Hester Prynne and the scarlet letter, standing not only as character and prop, but also as universal defendants of the idea of multiple views, are tools for the exploration of this truth. Through just three different perspectives, Hester and her scarlet letter can sustain the ideology presented by Hawthorne and contribute to its acceptance. They do so as regarded by the townspeople, Hawthorne, and Hester herself.

The citizens of Boston deem two manifest opinions of Hester and the letter: that notion from the opening scene, which differs greatly that by mid-novel. As Hester walks out into the marketplace for the satisfaction of the townspeople, they immediately evince their cold and unsparing attitude toward this woman. The letter A was to be worn as a punishment, to be worn in shame, to be worn as “adulteress.” The Puritan community was a dark, strict society, feeling indifferent to the humanness of the woman standing before them on the scaffold, with her infant daughter against her chest. The beautifully sewn letter does not glow in the eyes of the people. The letter shapes the way they look at Hester and the way they treat her. They isolate Hester socially and geographically, which ultimately causes her own emotional isolation. However, that attitude does change. The very townspeople who once condemned her now believed her scarlet A to stand for her ability to create her beautiful needlework and for her unselfish assistance to the poor and sick. They now saw it as a “symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her- so much power to do and power to sympathize-that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification,” (Hawthorne 156) and now believed it to represent the concept of “able.” At this point, many the townspeople realized what a high quality character Hester possessed. They would call to each other, “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester-the town’s Hester…” (157). The changing attitudes in her society did eventually see the brave, strong woman Hester always had been. However, they never would know what it was like to be the person who bore that scarlet letter.

Hester knew the A’s significance in her own life to be much different from what was viewed by others. Only Hester herself felt the letter on her chest. Only Hester felt the change that came over her in those seven years. Walking out to the scaffold that first day, Hester behaved as the brave, integrity-filled woman that she knew she was all along. She did not attempt to conceal the symbol that she wore, for she knew there was nothing to hide. Although Hester is clearly not a Puritan, she does show respect for the Puritan code. She fully acknowledges her sin and she boldly displays it to the world. This face of the A is a model of “acceptance,” a symbol of Hester’s respect for herself, and for her life. Hester did not plan to commit the sin of adultery, because it was not a sin of lust in her eyes; it was an act of love. Her salvation lies in the truth, the truth of love and passion. Hester’s pride sustains her from the opening scene until she dies, still bearing the scarlet A. Hester’s acceptance transformed the scarlet letter to being much more than a symbol, it was a guide, “…her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers-stern and wild ones-they had made her strong…” (183).

In addition to the convictions of his characters, Hawthorne also expresses his own opinions in regards to his central character, and one might refer to it as a biased opinion. Hawthorne does not condone Hester’s adultery, but he does find it less serious a sin than the sins of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Clearly, Hawthorne sees Hester as a victim, emphasizing that she is a victim of her society and her passion, which ultimately stands as her biggest downfall as well as her largest asset. When referring to Hester in the opening scaffold scene, Hawthorne remarks that “never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as he issued from the prison” (50). The way Hawthorne chose to illustrate his character enables the reader to acquire the author’s attitude toward his subject. To Hawthorne, the A is a symbol used to develop his character. He never takes a firm stance in the ever-changing meanings of the scarlet letter, yet merely casts it to his moral vision with the idea of “atonement.”

Hester and her scarlet letter never achieved simplicity. Perhaps because austerity is not obtainable through the human character. When dealing with human nature, the intricacy of life is accented and the variety of interpretation is strengthened. Beautifully illustrating that statement, Hawthorne challenges his readers to gain this truth through his work and development of Hester and the intricacy of the A. Hawthorne does not see things as black and white, yet encourages all to live in the gray area. He realizes that everyone is vulnerable, and everyone wears his or her own scarlet letter. Each person’s letter is unique, different from all others; different because of what their own letter has originated from, and different because of the way it is viewed by various subjects. Hester and her scarlet letter are a perfect example; a result of passion looked upon from three perspectives. Hawthorne’s tragic moral vision is illuminated in his beloved character and the letter she bore. The universal idea that there is more than one way to view things is not only a truth, but also a complexity in itself.


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