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The Scarlet Letter

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Anna Ungar

Albert Castelo

March 1, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

Literature is a powerful tool. A speech can incite a crowd to anger, whip them to a frenzy of passion and cause a riot. A newspaper article can generate outrage; a poem, tears. A writer has the power to mold a person's mind without ever speaking a word. A message can be sent through a novel as well. Sometimes the thoughts and ideas of an author are running through his main characters. Sometimes it's in the setting, or the plot. Nathanial Hawthorne in his The Scarlet Letter manages to both tell a fascinating story that is impossible to put down, as well as voice his views on society's problems during his day. Using his main characters and the setting as symbols, Hawthorne is able to reveal, although somewhat cryptically, controversial issues of that time.

The Scarlet Letter tells of a young married woman, Hester Prynne, who has an affair with the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and is made to bear a scarlet letter A on the bodice of her dress as punishment. Dimmesdale, however, remains unidentified and, as a result, suffers physical ailments stemming from his guilt. Prynne's husband, Roger Chillingworth, seeks revenge throughout the novel hoping to destroy Dimmesdale from the inside out. The book ends with Dimmesdale publicly admitting to committing the sin seven years after the act, and then dying. The entire plot takes place in a strict Puritan community in Boston, Massachusetts. In accordance with gothic custom, the main colors and lighting is dark; greys and blacks. In fact, the story opens with Hawthorne describing the darkest of all places: the jail. The door itself gives a dim and miserable impression with its weather stains that "gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browned and gloomy front" (1358). The men are described as wearing "sad colored garments and grey steeple hats." The overall affect is one of shadows and gloom. This chapter foreshadows the rest of the book, gives us a glimpse of how the community will act towards Hester with her sin. It is a place of rigid rules, self-examination, and public humiliation and penance. The towns, and their public punishments, represent man's word on this Earth; his own-created rules on restrictions on his fellow man. Unbending law, unquestionable faith- this was the Puritan community Hester lived in. This alludes to the society Hawthorne himself lived in. People were used to being told how, what and when to do something. They were used to following orders without a question, whether it was being told how to think, or what to believe in. This was the Puritan community Hawthorne writes of so negatively.

Hester gets exiled from the community, and she moves to a nearby forest to bring up her child, Pearl. This forest, in contrast to the village, is full of light and freedom. Here is a place where Pearl "laughed and danced up and down" (1385). Here Pearl can make friends with "a bunch of rags [and] flowers" (1383) and does not have to be subjected to the cruelty of the Puritan children who were "the most intolerant brood that ever lived" (1383). The forest then represents the complete opposite of the Puritan village. It is a natural world governed by nature's laws as opposed to the artificial man-made laws of the Puritans. Here is a place where Hester can "[undo] the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter and... [throw] it to a distance among the withered leaves" (1441). Here is a place where "the gloom of the earth and sky... vanished with their sorrow" (1442). While the Puritans gave Hester a scarlet letter as punishment for her sin, God gave her Pearl, and allowed her to raise her in His world.

Hawthorne is bringing the extreme examples of the Purists laws so that we can bring down more subtle restrictions in our own societies. While not the entire world was Purists and had such strict punishments required of them, all societies can be stifling in their own ways. In Hawthorne's life, the time of the American Renaissance, religion was a necessity among the accepted members of civilization, and it was narrowly defined. Scientific explanations of life were considered sacrilege and blasphemy. Hawthorne shows how Hester, who is ex-communicated from her own religion, finds her peace with God alone. Perhaps he is telling the people of his own generation to cast off the barriers of the social order and find God in other places than Church on Sunday. He can be in a blade of grass, or shaft of sunlight. He can be in the science of how a body works. He surrounds this world and inhabits every particle of it; why should He be limited to man's rules? But Hawthorne is not only speaking of religion when he writes of Hester refusing to conform. He is talking to the rigid philosophy of that time. Most believed that man is born inherently evil and must swim against the tide to reach any sort of salvation. Many believed that God cursed Noah's son Ham, by darkening his skin color and exiling him to slavery for all eternity. This is how most justified their keeping of slaves. Here, Hawthorne is telling us to cast off these dusty confinements of society's philosophies and create our own natural world to live in. This natural world was, eventually, Hester's redemption.

Each main character in The Scarlet Letter symbolizes a way to live one's life. Hester, after being given the scarlet A to wear as punishment, "fantastically embroiders" it gold trimming and lace. She takes her punishment with grace and pride and uses it as a springboard for personal growth. She uses her own faults to better understand others' and sympathize. She "struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself" (1380), and used the A, which alerted her to others' imperfections, as a reminder to be accepting. She stands for tolerance in this world, be it of religion, thought or action. She is anyone who has ever used love and compassion to conquer evil rather than hatred and punishment. Arthur Dimmesdale is Hester's foil. He has done the exact same sin as Hester, and in fairness should indeed have the same punishment. Being a man, however, his



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