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
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.