The Scarlet Letter - Analysis

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne's background influenced him to write the bold 
novel The Scarlet Letter. One important influence on the story is 
money. Hawthorne had never made much money as an author and the birth 
of his first daughter added to the financial burden ("Biographical 
Note" VII). He received a job at the Salem Custom House only to lose 
it three years later and be forced to write again to support his 
family (IX). Consequently, The Scarlet Letter was published a year 
later (IX). It was only intended to be a long short story, but the 
extra money a novel would bring in was needed ("Introduction" XVI). 
Hawthorne then wrote an introduction section titled "The Custom House" 
to extend the length of the book and The Scarlet Letter became a full 
novel (XVI). In addition to financial worries, another influence on 
the story is Hawthorne's rejection of his ancestors. His forefathers 
were strict Puritans, and John Hathorne, his great-great-grandfather, 
was a judge presiding during the S! alem witch trials ("Biographical 
Note" VII). Hawthorne did not condone their acts and actually spent a 
great deal of his life renouncing the Puritans in general (VII). 
Similarly, The Scarlet Letter was a literal "soapbox" for Hawthorne to 
convey to the world that the majority of Puritans were strict and 
unfeeling. For example, before Hester emerges from the prison she is 
being scorned by a group of women who feel that she deserves a larger 
punishment than she actually receives. Instead of only being made to 
stand on the scaffold and wear the scarlet letter on her chest, they 
suggest that she have it branded on her forehead or even be put to 
death (Hawthorne 51). Perhaps the most important influence on the 
story is the author's interest in the "dark side" ("Introduction" 
VIII). Unlike the transcendentalists of the era, Hawthorne "confronted 
reality, rather than evading it" (VII). Likewise, The Scarlet Letter 
deals with adultery, a subject that caused much scandal when it w! as 
first published (XV). The book revolves around sin and punishment, a 
far outcry from writers of the time, such as Emerson and Thoreau, who 
dwelt on optimistic themes (VII). This background, together with a 
believable plot, convincing characterization, and important literary 
devices enables Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to the 
develop the theme of the heart as a prison. The scaffold scenes are 
the most substantial situations in the story because they unify The 
Scarlet Letter in two influential ways. First of all, every scaffold 
scene reunites the main characters of the novel. In the first scene, 
everyone in the town is gathered in the market place because Hester is 
being questioned about the identity of the father of her child ( 
Hawthorne 52). In her arms is the product of her sin, Pearl, a three 
month old baby who is experiencing life outside the prison for the 
first time (53). Dimmesdale is standing beside the scaffold 
because he is Hester's pastor and it is his job to convince her to 
repent and reveal the father's name (65). A short time later, 
Chillingworth unexpectedly shows up within the crowd of people who are 
watching Hester after he is released from his two year captivity by 
the Indians (61). In the second scene, Dimmesdale is standing on top 
of the scaffold alone in the middle of the night (152). He sees Hester 
and Pearl walk through the market place on their way back from 
Governor Winthrop's bedside (157). When Dimmesdale recognizes them and 
tells them to join him, they walk up the steps to stand by his side 
(158). Chillingworth appears later standing beside the scaffold, 
staring at Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl. In the final scaffold scene, 
Dimmesdale walks to the steps of the scaffold in front of the whole 
town after his Election day sermon (263). He tells Hester and Pearl to 
join him yet again on the scaffold (264). Chillingworth then runs 
through the crowd and tries to stop Dimmesdale from reaching the top 
of the scaffold, the one place where he can't reach him (265). Another 
way in which the scenes are united is how each illustrates the 
immediate, delayed, and prolonged effects that the sin of adultery has 
on the main characters. The first scene shows Hester being publicly 
punished on the scaffold (52). She is being forced to stand on it for 
three hours straight and listen to peop! le talk about her as a 
disgrace and a shame to the community (55).

 Dimmesdale's instantaneous response to the sin is to lie. He 
stands before Hester and the rest of the town and proceeds to give a 
moving speech about how it would be in her and the father's best 
interest for her to reveal the father's name (67). Though he never 
actually says that he is not the other parent, he implies it by 
talking of the father in third person (67). Such as, "If thou feelest 
it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment will 
thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak 
out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer" (67). 
Chillingworth's first reaction is one of shock, but he quickly 
suppresses it (61). Since his first sight of his wife in two years is 
of her being punished for being unfaithful to him, he is naturally 
surprised. It does not last for long though, because it is his nature 
to control his emotions (61). Pearl's very existence in this scene is 
the largest immediate effect of her parents' crime (52). She obviously 
would never had been there had her parents resisted their love for 
each other. The second scene occurs several years later and shows the 
effects after time has had a chance to play its part. It begins with 
Dimmesdale climbing the stairs of the scaffold in the middle of the 
night because it is the closest that he can come to confessing his sin 
(152). This scene is especially important because it shows how 
pitiful he has become. Dimmesdale shows just how irrational he is when 
he screams aloud because he fears that the universe is staring at a 
scarlet token on his breast (153). It also shows how much guilt he is 
carrying by the way he perceives the light from a meteor as the letter 
A. He believes it stands for adulteress while other people think it 
stands for angel since the governor just passed away (161). This scene 
also shows how Hester is managing her new situation. When Dimmesdale 
tells her to come up the scaffold and asks her where she has b! een, 
she replies that she has been measuring the robe that the governor is 
to be buried in (158). This statement implies that Hester's reputation 
as a talented seamstress has spread. Ironically, her first well known 
piece of work was the scarlet letter that she wore on her chest. As a 
result, she owes her own success to her infamy. Besides growing older, 
Pearl's most significant change is in her perceptibility (158). In 
this scene, she constantly asks Dimmesdale if he will be joining 
Hester and herself on the scaffold tomorrow at noon and accuses him of 
not being true (162). Neither Hester nor Dimmesdale ever told Pearl 
who her father was, but she figures it out by the way he always holds 
his hand over his heart (159). Chillingworth's derangement is evident 
in this scene also. His contempt for Dimmesdale is so acute that he 
risks his cover when he gives him a look so vivid as to remain painted 
on the darkness after the bright meteor that just passed, vanishes 
(161). The third scene is very critical because it is the last glimpse 
into every characters' mind and the last time that everyone is alive. 
At this point in time, Dimmesdale's fixation on his sin has utterly 
corroded him to the point of death. After he gives his election day 
sermon, he goes to the scaffold and asks Hester and Pearl to join him 
because he is so weak that he can hardly support himself (265). He 
finally exposes the truth and tells his followers of how he deceived 
them (267). The only good that comes out of conceding his guilt is 
that he passed away without any secrets, for he was already too 
far gone to be able to be saved (269). This scene is important to the 
characterization of Hester because it is the first time that
she is not in complete control of her emotions (264). Her dream of 
escaping to England with Dimmesdale is lost when he decides to confess 
(264). The unanticipated arrival of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale's 
feeble appearance distresses her, and for the first time, she can not 
control the outcome (264). The greatest transformation in Pearl's life 
occurs in this scene. While she used to be perceived as elfish, she 
now shows the first signs of normal human emotion. After Dimmesdale 
confesses his sin, she kisses his lips voluntarily (268). "The great 
scene of grief.had developed all her sympathies; and as her 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" (268). Ultimately, Chillingworth takes a severe turn 
for the worse when Dimmesdale reveals his sin. Since Chillingworth 
based the rest of his life on playing games on Dimmesdale's mind, he 
was left without any goals, and his life became meaningless (268). On 
that account, it is clear that Hawthorne uses the scaffold scenes, not 
only as a unifying device, but as a means to keep the reader 
interested in the novel by providing plenty of action. The main 
characters sharply contrast each other in the way they react to Hester 
and Dimmesdale's sin. To begin, Hester becomes stronger, more 
enduring, and even more sympathetic. She becomes stronger because of 
all the weight she has to carry. She is a single mother who suffers 
all of the burdens of parenthood by herself. They live on the edge of 
town, and Pearl has no one to give her food, shelter and emotional 
support besides Hester. Pearl is especially difficult to raise because 
she is anything but normal. Hawthorne gives a pretty accurate 
description of Pearl when he writes: 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 bril- liant, but all in disorder; or with an order 
peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and 
arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered (91). 

 Hester's endurance is proven when the people of the colony 
completely change their opinion of her. While a lesser person would 
run from the hostile colonists, Hester withstands their insolence and 
pursues a normal life. After years of proving her worth with her 
uncommon sewing skills and providing community service, the colonists 
come to think of the scarlet letter as "the cross on a nun's bosom," 
which is no small accomplishment (169). Hester also becomes more 
sensitive to the feelings and needs of other people. She feels that 
her own sin gives her "sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in 
other hearts" (87). So even though the people she tried to help "often 
reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them," she 
continues her services because she actually cares (85). While Hester 
tries to make the best out of her situation, Dimmesdale becomes 
weaker by letting guilt and grief eat away at his conscience. 
Dimmesdale punishes himself by believing that he can never be 
redeemed. He feels that he will never be seen the same in the eyes of 
God, and that no amount of penitence can ever return him to God's good 
graces. He is so touchy on this subject that when Hester says his good 
deeds will count for something in God's view, he exclaims, "There is 
no substance in it! It is cold and dead and can do nothing for me!" 
(202). Dimmesdale also believes that his sin has taken the meaning out 
of his life. His life's work has been dedicated to God, and now his 
sin has tainted it (202). He feels that he is a fraud and is not fit 
to lead the people of the town to salvation. The feeling is so 
oppressive that the chance of escaping his work and leaving with 
Hester and Pearl makes him emotionally (and probably mentally) 
unstable. He walks through the town with twice as much energy as 
normal, and he barely stops himself from swearing to a fellow deacon 
(229). When an old lady approaches him he can not remember any 
scriptures whatsoever to tell her, and the urge to use his power of 
persuasion over a young maiden is so strong that he covers his face 
with his cloak and runs off (230). The largest cause of Dimmesdale's 
breakdown is the fact that he keeps his sin a secret. As God's 
servant, it is his nature to tell the truth, so the years of 
pretending are especially hard on him. His secret guilt is such a 
burden that instead of going with Hester to England and perhaps having 
a chance to live longer, he chose to stand, confess and perish on the 
scaffold (268). Ultimately, Chillingworth responds to his wife's 
betrayal by sacrificing everything in order to seek revenge. After he 
discovers that his wife bore another man's child, Chillingworth gives 
up his independence. He used to be a scholar who dedicated his best 
years "to feed the hungry dream of knowledge," but his new 
allegiance becomes finding and slowly punishing the man who seduced 
his wife (74). He soon becomes obsessed with his new mission in life, 
and when he targeted Reverend Dimmesdale as the possible parent, he 
dedic! ates all of his time to becoming his confidant in order to get 
his retribution (127). Vengeance was also one of the reasons that 
Chillingworth gives up his identity. The only way he can truly corrupt 
Dimmesdale is to live with him and be by his side all day, every day. 
The only possible way to do that is to give up his true identity as 
Roger Prynne, Hester's husband, and become Roger Chillingworth. Since 
the only person who knew his true identity is sworn to silence, he 
succeeds for a long time in tricking Dimmesdale until Hester sees that 
he was going mad and finally revealed Chillingworth's true identity 
(204). His largest sacrifice is by far, his own life. After spending 
so much time dwelling on his revenge, Chillingworth forgets that he 
still has a chance to lead a life of his own. So accordingly, after 
Dimmesdale reveals his secret to the world, Chillingworth dies less 
than a year later because he has nothing left to live for (272). In 
conclusion, Hawthorne's use of characterization gives the book a 
classic feeling by showing Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth's 
feelings indirectly through acts. The novel revolves around two major 
symbols: light and darkness and the scarlet letter. The book is filled 
with light and darkness symbols because it represents the most common 
battle of all time, good versus evil. When Hester and her daughter are 
walking in the forest, Pearl exclaims: Mother, the sunshine does not 
love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of 
something on your bosom. Now see! There it is, playing, a good way 
off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It 
will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet (192). 
Hester tries to stretch her hand into the circle of light, but the 
sunshine vanishes (192). She then suggests that they go into the 
forest and rest (193). This short scene actually represents Hester's 
daily struggle in life. The light represents what Hester wants to be, 
which is pure. The movement of the light represents Hester's constant 
denial of acceptance. Hester's lack of surprise and quick suggestion 
to go into the forest, where it is dark, shows that she never 
expected to be admitted and is resigned to her station in life. 
Another way light and darkness is used in symbolism is by the 
way Hester and Dimmesdale's plan to escape is doomed. Hester and 
Dimmesdale meet in the shadows of the forest with a gloomy sky and a 
threatening storm overhead when they discuss their plans for the 
future (200). The gloomy weather and shadows exemplify the fact that 
they can't get away from the repressive force of their sins. It is 
later proven when Dimmesdale dies on the scaffold! instead of leaving 
with Hester and going to England (269). A final example occurs by the 
way Hester and Dimmesdale can not acknowledge their love in front of 
others. When they meet in the woods, they feel that, "No golden light 
had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest (206). This 
emotion foretells that they will never last together openly because 
their sin has separated them too much from normal life. The scarlet 
letter also takes many different forms in the novel. The first and 
clearest form that the letter A takes is "Adulteress." It is apparent 
that Hester is guilty of cheating on her husband when she surfaces 
from the prison with a three-month-old-child in her arms, and her 
husband has been away for two years (53). Hence, the people look at 
the letter elaborately embroidered with gold thread and see a "hussy" 
who is proud of her sin (54). The second form that it takes is 
"Angel." When Governor Winthrop passes away, a giant A appears in the 
sky. ! People from the church feel that, "For as our good Governor 
Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit 
that there should be some notice thereof!" (16). The final form 
that the scarlet letter take is "Able." Hester helped the people of 
the town so unselfishly that Hawthorne wrote: 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 it s original 
significance. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester 
Prynne, with a woman's strength 
(167).

 In closing, one of the most important reasons that The Scarlet 
Letter is so well known is the way Hawthorne leaves the novel open to 
be interpreted several different ways by his abundant use of 
symbolism. This background, together with a believable plot, 
convincing characterization, and important literary devices enables 
Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to the develop the theme of 
the heart as a prison. Hawthorne describes the purpose of the novel 
when he says, "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if 
not your worse, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!" 
(272). The theme is beneficial because it can be put into terms in 
today's world. The Scarlet Letter is one of the few books that will be 
timeless, because it deals with alienation, sin, punishment, and 
guilt, emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation to 
come.