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The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne A gloomy and energetic religious sect, pioneers in a virgin land, with wolfs and Indians at their doors, but with memories of England in their hearts and English traditions and prejudices in their minds. They were not great in number, but great in spirit. They were victims of their own superstitions and rules, which they thought were given to them by God, but in reality, created by humans. One woman, however, stood out of them. She had a large A letter on her chest. She was brave and stood for her ideas.
Readers imagine growing up in a typical English home of those times, with a bearded father and a loving and caring mother. When she was young and beautiful, she probably met an older physician, who seemed to know how to take care of her. She married him and they first went to live in Amsterdam, and later to the New World, where she became known as the one, who had an A letter on her chest. Nathaniel Hawthorne described an already known story of the Scarlet Letter, which happened in reality during the early times of America. He, however, added a new meaning to the story and created a bridge of understanding between the people from the old times to, even, the readers in the 21 st century. The book opens up with the section named The Custom House.
The narration in this section is done in the first person. Hawthorne, as a person, who worked at this customs house is a reliable speaker. The rest of the novel is narrated in the third person. The voice of the narrator is reliable, and at the same time prominent and intrusive.
The tone of the book is generally serious, and even dramatic, at times. Such a structure of the novel enhances the meaning of the major issues of the book. It is also interesting that the author gave each chapter a name. These names are just names in some cases, and are used with great deal of irony in others. There exists a close relation between the meaning of the introductory chapter and the rest of the book. Many interpretations can be given to the Custom House section.
The first, and the most obvious one, is that the author attempted to make the book larger, because he felt that the overall size of The Scarlet Letter was too small to print by itself. The other explanation to the Custom House section is that Hawthorne wanted to set the stage for the events described further on. It is possible, given the fact that the people and places are not described much in the book, except for the introductory chapter. Hawthorne has managed to create a very realistic image of the house, which literally stands before the eyes of those who read about it. The description also gives a very clear idea about the times and the regime of that epoch. All of prepares the readers well enough to understand the culture of the place and time that are portrayed in the course of the book.
The other explanation to the existence of the introduction is that the author, who was suspended from his duties at the customs house, tries to avenge for it. Although Hawthorne denies using The Custom House section of the books as a means of revenge for his removal as a Custom House official, he quite obviously does so. The focus of his long description of the Custom House, the object of Hawthorne's revenge, is to reveal the inefficient and apathetic management of the Government, which removed him from this position. Hawthorne describes in detail how his co-workers sleep on the job and even describes his own government work day as... the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life... This reveals that government workers enjoy three hours of work rather than the usual eight.
Referring to the Custom House Inspector as an animal and comparing him to a dog is another way of Hawthorne's demonstration of his revenge. This arises one of the most dominant issues of the book the issue of revenge. It even seems that the author states that the human soul is saturated with revenge. The theme of adultery is another extremely important topic of the book. Adultery causes the characters to feel guilt or desire of revenge. Both revenge and hypocrisy are significant in The Scarlet Letter, because they encompass peoples attempts to survive in their community.
The word adultery is never spelled out in the novel. Thus, the letter A could represent avenger as well as adulterer. The novel is about a mans search for truth and the consequences of sin. The three main characters can be viewed as avengers, and Pearl, as a contraposition to this revenge, as something clean and pure. Though Chillingworth is the most obvious symbol of revenge, Dimmesdale and Prynne are vengeful in different degrees as well. In this Puritan society no one was completely able to let his or her most secret thoughts and wishes out.
Every human being needs this opportunity to express how he or she truly feels. The emotions, otherwise, are bottled up, and, as time goes on, they completely disappear and the person becomes a robot. This was frequently the case during the Puritan times, as Nathaniel Hawthorne described. His characters had to seek alternate means to relieve their personal anguishes and desires.
Similarly to many other writers, Hawthorne provides this distraction for the four main characters Hester, Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl and Roger Chillingworth. All of them could truly reveal their nature in the forest Luckily. Forest in the book is portrayed as a kind of shelter for those who are in refuge from the daily life of the Puritan society. It is in the forest that Dimmesdale openly acknowledges Hester and his strong love for her. It is also here that Hester can do the same for Dimmesdale. Finally, it is here that the two of them can openly engage in conversation without being preoccupied with the constraints their society places on them.
The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody watches others in the woods, which makes it the very place, where people may behave as they wish. The wilderness calls Hester Prynne: Throw off the shackles of law and religion. What good have they done you anyway? Look at you, a young and vibrant woman, grown old before your time.
And no wonder, hemmed in, as you are, on every side by prohibitions. Why, you can hardly walk without tripping over one commandment or another. Come to me, and be masterclass. Hester takes the advantage of the freedom that the forest gives to her. She can openly talk to Dimmesdale about subjects, which would never be mentioned in any place other than the forest.
What we did... she reminds him, had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said to each other!
This statement shocks Dimmesdale and he tells Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an environment where he can openly express his emotions. The Puritan society required from its members to rely and believe only themselves. It was assumed that one only needed himself, and did not have any emotional necessity for a shoulder to cry on. In a situation like that of Hester and Dimmesdale, it was not very common that people could comfort each other.
However, in the forest it all becomes possible for them. Be thou strong for me, Dimmesdale pleads. Advise me what to do. This is a cry for help from Dimmesdale, who finally admits that he cannot go through this by himself. When Dimmesdale makes his help plea, the reader feels that there happened an interesting role-reversal. Dimmesdale is no longer above Hester - she becomes equal, if not above him.
The speech that follows, made by Hester, is a remarkable resemblance to one of Dimmesdale's sermons: Begin all anew! ... Preach! Write! Act! If one looks at the title of this chapter, the meaning becomes much clearer.
The Pastor and His Parishioner reveals that the roles are now reversed and that could only happen in the forest. The forest also brings out the natural appearance and natural personality of the people. When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, readers see a new person. The real Hester, who has been hidden this whole time under a shield of shame, comes back again. Her eyes grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek. One recognizes her, the Hester from Chapter 1 - that beautiful person who is not afraid to show her hair and not afraid to display her natural attractiveness.
Dimmesdale also changes he is now hopeful and energetic. The forest theme also creates an opposition in the novel. Hawthorne describes the Puritan civilization inferior, in certain aspects, to the Indian standing, which is considered the wilderness. The stark Puritan world is wilder in its laws (punishing a woman for following her heart) than the Indians, who were not educated and civilized.
The Indian standing at the edge of the crowd in Chapter 3 introduces the division between the Puritan world and the wilderness beyond. Inside the city of Boston, the laws are upheld and morals are kept intact. Once in the forest the laws no longer pertain, and the Indian represents the savage and wild nature of the area outside of Boston. The Indian also foreshadows the dilemma facing Hester, who must find a way to simultaneously live with her immorality while also existing as part of the moral utopia within Boston. Many more oppositions are skillfully created in the book. The Scarlet Letter starts with the description of the prison door, which is old and rusted and gray, and has iron-clamped oaken door.
This points to the severity of law and authority of regime that existed in the Puritan community. The opposition that arises here is the one of the free land that the Puritans were seeking versus the severe state that they have actually created. The other opposition is also within this small episode the one of the blossoming rosebush near the doors of the prison. The rosebush is a symbol of passion, which is again contrasted with the strict and inhumane behavior of Puritans. As it later become obvious, Hester Prynne's sin is one of passion, which links her crime to the image of the rosebush. Hawthorne also indirectly compares Hester with Ann Hutchinson, using the rosebush, and again makes the same parallel in Chapter 13, Another View of Hester.
The next striking opposition is described in Chapter 2, where women want death sentence for Hester. Puritans came to America because of their Christian religion, which is supposed to make people loving, forgiving, and sympathetic to those, who are less fortunate then they are. It is also interesting that these are women, who are assumed to be the weak and tender creatures behave and talk in a manner that most of men probably would not. Generally, Hawthorne's idea seems to be that living in isolation can sometimes be better than living in an unworthy community.
Hester and Pearl are pariahs of their society, and, nevertheless, they are more pure than the people who live by the laws of that community. There come another opposing issues of sin and purity. Those who are viewed as sinful turn out to be most pure, and visa versa. The reader comes to a conclusion that sin is a very relative term.
For Puritans, what Hester and Arthur did was sinful. People with the other views, however, admire their brave expression of love for each other. Hawthorne uses some elements of foreshadowing throughout his novel. For example, at the end of Chapter 3, Dimmesdale puts his hand over his heart. This gesture reappears several times and grows in significance during the course of the novel. In that chapter, Hawthorne probably wanted to show his distress in failing to make Hester tell him who the father of Pearl is.
However, this is also the gesture that Hester makes when remembering the scarlet letter. The author brilliantly connects Hester's openly display of her shame with Dimmesdale's secret shame by having both characters touch the spot where the scarlet letter is displayed. The other examples of the foreshadowing occur in The Interview section. The first is when Chillingworth says, Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less is he mine.
He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart. The reader can infer that his heart will somehow reveal Dimmesdale's secret. This does in fact occur, as a result of Chillingworth feeling Dimmesdale's heart while the reverend is sleeping. The second moment of foreshadowing occurs in the last few sentences of Chapter 4. Hester is afraid she has made a bond that will prove the ruin of [her] soul. Chillingworth replies with, Not thy soul...
No, not thine! Obviously the reference is to Dimmesdale's soul. This prediction also appears later in the novel, with the death of Dimmesdale. Imagery and symbolism play a big role in The Scarlet Letter. The very title of the book implies that there is a hidden meaning beneath the visible story of the Puritan community.
Another symbol in the novel is the choice of Hester's daughters name. Hawthorne himself discusses the choice of the name Pearl in the novel. He indicates that Hester chose the name to represent something of great value - namely the cost of her virtue. Hester is afraid that nothing good can come from her sin, and thus she fears that Pearl will in some way be retribution for her sinful passion. Hester spends hours clothing Pearl in the richest garments she can find, even though Hawthorne comments that Pearl would appear just as beautiful in any garment. The description of Pearl is intended to manifest Pearl as the living embodiment of her mothers sin.
The name Pearl, therefore, itself is misleading. A pearl is a beautiful object found inside an ugly oyster, and at the same time contains a hard kernel of sand within it. In this way, Hawthorne is trying to point out that appearances are deceiving, and that Pearl is anything but a beautiful person. As it was mentioned earlier in the essay, numerous switches of roles take place in the book. Chillingworth, from being a doctor, turns to a leech who is compared to the devil.
Dimmesdale is not that strong person, who everybody thinks he is. In fact, the author shows that he is a masochist. This is interesting, because the practice of an excessive self-criticism is usually considered a Roman Catholic phenomenon. It also shows the insanity, which is taking over Dimmesdale's life.
He is unable to cope with his sin, and since he is so religious he feels he must do something in order to be forgiven by God. Nathaniel Hawthorne has created a beautiful piece of literature, The Scarlet Letter. This book, seemingly a story of an adulteress and her daughter, is much more than just that. The author managed to saturate it with symbols, foreshadowing, historical references and irony.
The plot of the book is not simply interesting, it also teaches the readers to follow their hearts and to show their emotions. The Puritan community in the book is very similar to many modern societies of the world, which makes the book even more valuable to the contemporary readers. One of the prominent themes in the novel is the theme of private versus public morals. The main message of the book seems to be that the society will try to impose its values on an individual. The individual, however, should not break under this pressure and always stay true to himself.
References: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Bantam Books, Bantam Classic Edition, November 1986 All subsequent references to this novel are taken from this edition.
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