Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter

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Sherry E. Adams , University of Rhode Island. It will be necessary to examine Hawthorne's treatment of the beneficial and detrimental aspects of nature in his famous romance.


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In addition, a thorough study of Hawthorne's attitude toward the Puritan society will be made. Although Hawthorne deals exclusively with a community of Puritans in The Scarlet Letter, he appears to draw conclusions which would apply to any society at any time. A close analysis of each major character and his relationship to the community in which he lives and the physical universe around him will be essential to this study. Hawthorne's personal journals and letters add additional valuable information concerning his attitudes toward these subjects.

Hawthorne clearly shows in The Scarlet Letter that nature and society can affect an individual in a beneficial manner. On the other hand, both can be equally harmful to a person. Hawthorne appears to suggest in this work that the answer lies in developing an association with both nature and society. Because man is dependent on both, he must establish a relationship with society and nature which would allow him to enjoy the benefits to be gained from each while avoiding their inherent dangers.

'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Reviewed

A major problem in The Scarlet Letter results from the fact that all the major characters become isolated from their society or from the natural universe. One theme is that sin must be confessed or it will grow and fester like a disease and will eventually consume the sinner from the inside, out. This theme is expanded upon throughout The Scarlet Letter, and especially during the events leading up to the second scaffold scene.

Dimmesdale "kept vigils His visions of an unforgiving god and of what that god will do to him because of his sin drive him to a near-insane state of being. He fails to overcome his overwhelming guilt by confessing to his congregation, driving him even closer to the edge of his sanity and health. His sin eventually kills him.


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  • One must wonder, if he had only stood with Hester on the scaffold at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, would he have died at the final scaffold scene? The theme of confession one that affects all people everywhere. Another theme in The Scarlet Letter is that evil exists in all things. One prime example is the way Pearl behaves.

    Even with Hester's attempts to discipline her daughter, Pearl inevitably disobeys. The townspeople of Salem believe that Pearl has the devil in her because she was conceived in sin and that her misbehavior continues for the seven-year-span of. Read More.

    The Scarlet Letter (1934)

    Now, if Pearl were a woman, this strong external charm of hers would perplex the reader, in much the same way that the allurements of sin bewilder its votaries. The difficulty is to distinguish between what is really and permanently good and what only appears so while the spell lasts. Pearl being a child, however, no such uncertainty can occur. She has not, as yet, what can in strictness be termed a character; she is without experience, and therefore devoid of either good or evil principles; she possesses a nature, and nothing more. The affection which she excites, consequently, is immediately perceived to be due neither to her beauty not to her intellectual acuteness; still less to the evil effluence which exhales from these, and is characteristic of them.

    These things all stand on one side; and the innocent, irresponsible infant soul stands on the other. Each defines and emphasizes the other: so that so far from one being led to confuse them, so far from being in danger of loving evil because we love Pearl, we love her just in proportion to our abhorrence of the evil which empoisons her manifestations.

    The same discrimination could not be so sharply made if, indeed, it could be made at all in the case of a Pearl who, under unchanged conditions, had attained maturity. For her character would then be formed, and the evil which came to her by inheritance would so have tinged and moulded her natural traits that we should inevitably draw in the poison and the perfume at a single breath, — ascribe to evil the charm which derives from good, and pollute good with the lurid hues of evil. The history of the race abundantly demonstrates that a chief cause of moral perversity and false principle has been our assumption of absolute proprietorship in either the good or the evil of our actions.

    Pearl, still in the instinctive stage of development, shows us the way out of this labyrinth. As the pure sunlight vivifies noxious as well as beneficent forms of existence, so the evil proclivities of the child's nature are energized, though not constituted, by the divine source of her being. It would be interesting parenthetically to draw a parallel between Pearl and Beatrice, in Rappaccini's Daughter. Both are studies in the same direction, though from different standpoints. Beatrice is nourished upon poisonous plants, until she becomes herself poisonous. Pearl, in the mysterious prenatal world, imbibes the poison of her parents' guilt.

    But, in either instance, behind this imported evil stands the personal soul: and the question is, Shall the soul become the victim of its involuntary circumstances? Hawthorne, in both cases, inclines to the brighter alternative.

    After she is released from prison, Hester remains in Boston because

    But the problem of Beatrice is more complicated than that of Pearl. She was not born in guilt; but she was brought up to translate the symbolism amidst guilty associations, so that they had come to be the very breath of her life.


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    • But, in truth, Pearl's demon was summoned into existence, not by her own acts, but by the act of others; and, unless with her own conscious consent, it cannot pollute her. Meanwhile, with that profound instinct of self-justification which antedates both reason and conscience in the human soul, the child is impelled on all occasions to assert and vindicate her cause, — the cause of the scarlet letter.

      She will not consent to have it hidden or disavowed. She mocks and persecutes her mother, so long as the latter would disguise from her the true significance of the badge. When Hester casts it away, she stamps and cries with passion and will not be pacified till it is replaced.

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      She distrusts the minister, save when, as in his plea for Hester in the governor's hall and his midnight vigil on the scaffold, he approaches an acknowledgment of his true position. In a word, she will have truth in all things: without truth nothing is good; nor, with truth, can anything be evil.

      In the deepest sense, this is not only true, but it is the truth of the book. The perfectibility of man being infinite, the best man and the worst man alike must fall infinitely short of perfection: but every one can account honestly for such talents as he has; and it is always the motive, never the achievement, the sincerity, not the sound, that Divine Justice regards.

      Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter Essays - Words | Bartleby

      A Thug, who should devoutly believe in the holiness of his mission, would fare better than an evangelist, who should lead a thousand souls to salvation, not for God's glory, but for his own. So when little Pearl would frankly unfold the banner of the scarlet letter, and openly fight beneath it, we feel that God will give her victory, not over her apparent enemies, but over herself.

      She is so much alive as to live independently of her actual appearances in the story. The imagination which there bodies her forth has done its work so well as to have imparted somewhat of its own power to the reader; and we can picture Pearl in other scenes and at other epochs in her career, and can even argue of her fate, had the conditions been different for her. Suppose, for example, that Hester and the minister had made good their escape from Boston, or that the latter's confession had been delayed until Pearl had passed the age of puberty.

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      In either of these or a dozen other possible alternatives, the progress of her growth would have had a new and important interest, conducting to fresh regions of speculation. But Hawthorne never allows the claims of a part to override the whole; the artist in him would permit nothing out of its due proportion; and Pearl, for all her untamable vitality, is kept strictly to her place and function in the story.

      Where she speaks one word for her personal, she speaks two for her representative, character. There seems to be no partiality on the author's part; nor, on the other hand, is there any indifference. The same quiet light of charity irradiates each figure in the tale; and he neither makes a pet of Pearl, nor a scapegoat of Roger Chillingworth. Dramatically, the last-named personage plays perhaps the most important part of the four; he communicates to the plot whatever movement it exhibits.

      But what renders him chiefly remarkable is the fact that, although he stands as the injured husband, and therefore with the first claim to our sympathy and kindness, he in reality obtains neither, but appears more devoid of attraction than any other character in the tale. This would seem an unconventional and rather venturesome proceeding; for the average mind, in modern English fiction, finds itself under moral obligations to use every precaution, lest the reader fall into some mistake as to the legitimate objects of favor and of reprobation.

      Continental novelists, to be sure, have a sort of perverse pleasure in defying Anglo-Saxon taste in this particular, and do not shrink from making the lawful partner of the erring wife either odious or ridiculous. But it will be profitable to inquire in what respect the American romancer follows or diverges from these two methods of treatment. It is evident, of course, that the fact that a man has suffered injury has nothing to say, one way or the other, as to his personal character; and the only reason why a novelist should represent him as amiable rather than the reverse is in an instance like the present that the reader might otherwise, in disliking him, be led to regard too leniently the crime of which he is the victim.

      Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale, however, are not so presented as to invite such misplaced tenderness on the reader's part; while Chillingworth, on the other hand, though certainly not a lovable, is very far from being an absurd or contemptible, figure. The force, reserve, and dignity of his demeanor win our respect at the outset, and the touches of quiet pathos in his first interview with Hester prepare us to feel a more cordial sentiment.

      But the purpose of the author is more profound and radical than could be fulfilled by this obvious and superficial way of dealing with the situation. His attitude is not that of a sentimental advocate, but of an impartial investigator; he is studying the nature and effect of sinful passions, and is only incidentally concerned with the particular persons who are the exponents thereof. He therefore declines, as we are not long in finding out, to allow the course of events to be influenced by the supposed moral rights or wrongs of either party.

      He simply penetrates to the heart of each, and discloses the secrets hidden there, — secrets whose general and permanent vastly outweighs their personal and particular significance.

      The Scarlet Letter

      The relation of Chillingworth to the lovers has been pronounced, by an able critic, the most original feature of the book. But it did not so appear to the author's mind. It was a necessary outcome of his plan, and seems more original than the rest only because the pervading originality of the whole happens to be more strikingly visible in Chillingworth than elsewhere.

      But given Hester and the minister, and the punishment inflicted upon the former, and Chillingworth becomes inevitable. For the controlling purpose of the story, underlying all other purposes, is to exhibit the various ways in which guilt is punished in this world, — whether by society, by the guilty persons themselves, or by interested individuals who take the law into their own hands.

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