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The Scarlet Letter Before disclosing his notions and beliefs on national morality, Hawthorne begins his story, The Scarlet Letter, with a discussion of the Puritan state of Salem set in the 1600 's. It is often problematic to discern Hawthorne's views about Puritanism due to his ambiguity. He reveres the Puritan conviction and their ability to conform to the controls of their faith. However, he condemns them for the bigotry and utter intolerance they show for opposing viewpoints and perspectives.
This ambiguity causes the reader to question Hawthorne's attitudes and tone throughout the course of the work. No where in The Scarlet Letter does Hawthorne criticize in particular the doctrines of the Puritan religion. Hawthorne only discusses the Puritanical beliefs such as predestination and the Doctrine of the Elect in the context of his narrative. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne chooses a very effective method to show his great distrust and hauteur of the theocratic Puritan state. He creates a major character, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is a highly respected member of the Puritan community who commits adultery, a crime against everything the Puritans believe in. (Bay 120) Arthur Dimmesdale is the leader of the Salem community as minister of the local congregation. He is an ordained minister and highly educated at the best universities of Europe, nevertheless, he is not perfect despite what many of his parishioners may believe.
Dimmesdale has numerous flaws which are illustrated to the audience by his adulterous affair with Hester Prynne. However, fornication is not Dimmesdale's chief crime in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne shows that it is Dimmesdale's concealment of the affair that is the true sin. The shielding of the affair from the town becomes a great burden on Dimmesdale's heart and ultimately leads to his self-inflicted torture.
Hawthorne utilizes dramatic irony when addressing the relationship between community members and Dimmesdale. As the story progresses, the townspeople begin to increasingly view Dimmesdale as the holiest man amongst them. However, Dimmesdale begins to see himself as a corrupt and withered old man far different from the holy man the town perceives him to be. The character of Dimmesdale is used by Nathaniel Hawthorne to demonstrate the insufficiencies and failures of the Puritans lifestyle.
The rigid and stringent controls around Dimmesdale and the entire Puritan society did not result in the formation of a moral consciousness. The governmental controls of their society simply created an air of hypocrisy among the obstinate Puritans. Hawthorne chiefly designs the character of Arthur Dimmesdale to be a point of contrast to the Puritan example of moral virtuosity. Hawthorne also utilizes the character of Dimmesdale to manifest his views and beliefs on where the heart of moral control should rest.
While society was oblivious to Dimmesdale's crime of adultery, he certainly understands the underlying implications of his trespass. The burden of the offense takes a toll on him. He becomes weakened spiritually and even physically as he appears more frail as the narrative progresses. From the first time Nathaniel Hawthorne begins to describe Dr. Prynne (a. k.
a. Roger Chillingworth) he uses Hester to show that he is very normal in some aspects, yet very different in others. He is a mid aged man, whom wears his age well. But a small shoulder misalignment causes slight distinction from the rest of the crowd. His facial features tell of his intelligence, and his clothes are of a mix, some civilized, some savage.
When he came onto the scene, while Hester was on the scaffold with baby Pearl, he hid his identity from the crowd, and merely asked of what the commotion was all about. The news hit him hard, yet, consistent with Chillingworth throughout the story, he does not show it with outward gestures. He asked one of the onlookers if she had told the name of the man who took advantage of Hester, but was told that she would not break the privy. Chillingworth, filled with the bitterness of betrayal, confronted the sinner and asked personally, of whom committed the sin with her, but again, she would not tell. Taking into account all the events that have just happened, Chillingworth, still having it be given that he's a bit strange, is acting quite normal for a husband who just came home to hear such news.
He did not cause more guilt or pain to his wife, but wanted the name of the man who would commit a crime worthy of death while he was absent. Yet, for some reason, Hester, who resented Chillingworth from the day of their marriage, would not tell of the man of irresponsibility. Chillingworth must have been outraged. Anyone in that position would be. For the fact stood that not only was his wife, his pride, was blemished by another man, but that she was willing to stand forth and not call out his name so that he may share the punishment.
At this time in the story, the reader begins to develop what they think of Chillingworth. They begin to either agree with what he is going to do, or they think him mad, and mad already. For this is the development of this character, and from this point, with the information given, the reader will either take the slant of Chillingworth, and agree that he is right in his decision making. Accept the fact that the man who committed such hideous crimes against Hester and against society should ultimately be punished till point of death. Or go against him, and deny all that he does and plans.
A reader who does not agree that Chillingworth is worth of mercy at this point will never understand or allow themselves to accept that he is tormented by this event, by what has come out of this incident. They will not believe that he is just in his head, and that there is a reason behind all the hatred. He is already and will always be a mad man. Hawthorne does not spend anytime or detail on Dr. Prynne's history. All that is presented is that Hester is bitter toward him for robbing her of her childhood, which can be taken as he married while she was yet a babe of youth. (Hawthorne 114) Chillingworth, being a student of alchemy, was nicely fit into the role of the Puritan society as the doctor.
That meant that he was to provide care for the minister Dimmesdale, whom Chillingworth watched only as much as everyone else, to see who Hester was protecting. Chillingworth provided constant care to the ill health of Dimmesdale, so naturally he was there when Hester was brought forth to see if she were fit to care for the child from sin. The men present talked traps to her in order to get Pearl from her mother, yet Dimmesdale was the only one who supported Hester's motherhood with numerous logical points. This is where Chillingworth gets a suspicion. After the minister was finished proving his point, Chillingworth noted that he spoke with a strange earnestness, which answered the question his paranoia had been asking. Chillingworth takes his answer, Dimmesdale, and decides to "befriend" him.
Or that's what seems to be through Dimmesdale's eyes. Truly, Chillingworth plots a plan of torment, of revenge. He is contriving a form of punishment that no man could think of. He is planning the mental destruction of this "man of God. " When this decision is made on Chilling worth's part, I feel that this is the time when he realizes that his lust of revenge called for more than his own power he called upon the dark power. He asked for confidence, composure, wisdom, and skillfulness. Yet, with this help, he also received a more remarkable obsession with Dimmesdale, and for his punishment.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's view of national morality becomes extremely evident through an evaluation of the character of Hester Prynne. Hawthorne's heroine achieves moral greatness in defiance of her human weaknesses. She also overcomes the prejudices she is forced to endure from the Puritan society who condemns her and her child, Pearl. Hester uses her talents and good deeds in an attempt to gain forgiveness. She continuously helped the unfortunate in the Salem community. However, those she helped treated her with haughtiness and disgrace.
Throughout her entire ordeal, Hester embodied the vision and the idea of transcendentalism's positive freedom as she achieved her moral independence and originality. (Bay 160) She is free-spirited in a type of moral wilderness where she can determine her own morality. (Hawthorne 180) The laws of the world did not confine Hester; her only law was that of her mind. Hawthorne and his transcendentalist brethren envisioned a society where individuals determined morality. The transcendentalists believed that the state should have no role in the determination of a national moral code. They believed that government had no place legislating morality to its citizens. The transcendentalist idea of a persons innate goodness led to Hawthorne's individualistic moral integrity ideas. The transcendentalists believed that inside each person was a true morality, that no one was truly evil.
By believing in peoples innate goodness, transcendentalists are able to justify their beliefs. Individuals are capable of determining their own morals if they contain the goodness Hawthorne believe. This is the way to gain a national moral consciousness according to Hawthorne. (Kesterson 142) The Puritan way of rigid religious controls is clearly abhorrent to Hawthorne's belief in the role of the individual and their ability to determine morality for themselves. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter provides two contrasting views of the role of the state and the individual in determining national morality. Hawthorne sees national morality more has a collective morality; therefore he relies on individuals to realize morals for themselves which results in a consensus national morality. The use of Arthur Dimmesdale shows major weaknesses in the Puritan theocratic state, and paves the way for Hawthorne's transcendentalism.
Dimmesdale judges himself and then determines the appropriate punishment just as Hawthorne advocates. Hester follows the same self-judgment and sentences herself with retribution of a life filled with charity. Moreover though, Hester Prynne is the embodiment of the purely American dream of life in the new worlds wilderness, and the self-reliant action that is necessary to attain such an ideal. Words Count: 1, 699. Bibliography Bay, Nina. The Scarlet Letter: A Reading.
Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1996. Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Hawthorne, N. The Scarlet Letter, New York: Harper Perennial, 1986. Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding the Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995. Kesterson, David B. , ed.
Critical Essays on Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.
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