The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is considered to be one of the greatest examples of true American literature. Its excellency of topic, characterization, and description has made it a permanent part of our history. Set in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s, it describes the life of Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman whose existence is marred by sin. The real genius of the book is found in its description. Hawthorne makes allusion, symbolism, and romanticism work toward one effect, making the reader feel as if she was there, watching it all happen, living through Hester’s struggle. The story opens as a woman, Hester Prynne, is leaving a jail and heading toward a large scaffold in the middle of Salem town, where she, along with her newborn child, Pearl, is put on display as an example to all the people, to discourage them from committing such a sin as adultery. The sentence is given by a number of priests who feel compassion for her because her husband had been thought dead for so many years.

She is ordered to wear a scarlet letter, A for adultery, on her breast for the duration of her stay in Salem. She is perversely unwilling to leave the place of her shame and outcast when she could easily have sailed away to England or to anywhere else on earth and been rid of her mark of Cain. At the scaffold, she sees her husband, just arrived from Indian imprisonment, standing in the crowd. He, naturally, is enraged by news of her unfaithfulness to him and to his memory, but carries it too far when he renames himself Roger Chillingworth and begins slowly to dismantle the sanity of her lover, the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale.

Disguised as an apothecary, Chillingworth dwells with Dimmesdale, supposedly to maintain his health, but really to sap his strength and to serve as a reminder of the young reverend’s sin. During the seven-year duration of the book, Hester becomes steadily stronger because of her mark, while Dimmesdale, forced to bear his brand internally, becomes very much incapacitated, both mentally and physically. The face he puts on for public approval and the one he wears while he is alone are so completely different that they nearly drive him insane. He is harder on himself for committing the sin than many a court of the time would have been, and it tears him apart. One day, he meets Hester and Pearl while walking through the woods and, after talking for a short while, they decide to leave Salem, to find a new life in the more cultured, less ridged society of the Old World.

The day before they are to leave, Dimmesdale makes his last speech to his congregation. After the speech, as the people are walking away from the meeting house in a parade, Arthur turns to look at the scaffold, where he sees Hester and Pearl standing. He beckons them toward him and then he asks her to assist him up to the scaffold. She does so and there he announces his sin to all the town, there he rips off his shirt front so they can see imagination’s and emotion’s brand on his chest, there he collapses into Hester’s arms, and there he dies. Hawthorne goes on to tell, in short, the story of the rest of Hester’s life, tough most of it appears to be based on rumor. Chillingworth dies within a year of Dimmesdale, the object of his hatred and his motivation for living being gone, leaving his fortune to Pearl.

She and Hester travel to Europe, where Pearl marries a member of the nobility, but then returns to her old house to live and counsel others in their times of pressing sorrow, and to bear the mark of the scarlet letter until she dies. She is laid to rest in death where she had been kept for the first seven years of Pearl’s life, next to Arthur, yet unable to touch him, kept at a distance so their dusts wouldn’t mingle. One of the best aspects of this book is its lack of superfluous events. Rather than tell the reader about every chance meeting between Hester and Arthur, he chooses only a few, well-spaced events to portray their entire relationship. The most vivid description in the book is one of these chance meetings.

Hester and Pearl chance to meet Arthur at the scaffold late at night. He talks of how it is not possible for them to stand hand in hand in broad daylight, how he cannot claim them as his own until he is claimed by God and they stand trial together. Roger Chillingworth appears briefly, a shadowy, haunting figure on the street, stealing any pleasure they may have found in each other’s company. The description is fantastic mainly because of the way one is able to picture the sky. A huge meteor flashes bright for a split second, leaving a red letter A behind it, lingering in the clouds. The moment is so breathtaking that one can hardly believe that one is reading this picture in words on a page, instead of really seeing it. As they speak, one feels like one is eavesdropping on a private conversation, and experiences pangs of guilt for viewing so private a moment.

This description is the most vivid because of its absolute beauty of wording and of subject matter. It remains in one’s mind long after one turns the page. Feelings such that are unexpected for the modern day reader who expects to sympathize rather than empathize with the characters because of their differences of situation. A teenage Baptist reader in Danbury, Connecticut in 1996 expects to have little in common with a Puritan woman living in Salem, Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, however she finds marked similarities between their situations. These similarities can be explained by one simple thought, that people never change. We all carry a mark of wrongdoing, be it visible like Hester’s A or a convict’s tatoo, or be it internal, like Arthur’s guilt or a schoolgirl’s paranoia when she’s snuck out of her house.

These marks are less severe now, however, because of the impersonal attitude of many of the people around modern day readers. It may be hard for them to understand what it would be like to have an entire community breathing down your neck, watching you to save you from Hell. They also may take for granted the separation of church and state which our founding fathers so generously bestowed upon us two hundred years ago. Readers today cannot understand completely what it is like to have to use the Bible as a rulebook before God as well as before man. The lesson to be learned from this novel is that one should not let the past ruin one’s future.

Our mistakes make us grow, if we deal with them and learn from them, as Hester did, but they can mutilate our souls if we refuse to own up to them to ourselves and to whomever else we ought, be they parents or congregation members. Hester managed to make herself a respected member of the community once more by bearing the letter with grace and dignity, and she became stronger emotionally at the same time, strengthening herself and her little elf-child. Arthur and Roger held their secret shame and bitterness in, forcing themselves to become completely different people. In the end, Hester was the only one who survived the ordeal, physically, socially, and emotionally. She kept her self-respect together, and that proved to be the most valuable asset of all.

Hester was reminded of her sin every day, all of the time, by the blaze of crimson upon her chest, just as the reader is reminded of it every time she hears the title of the book. It is not something one can get away from, but it also isn’t something which cannot be handled in some way. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a classic piece of American literature. A story about a woman who is put through nearly unbearable circumstances, yet is resilient enough to become even more dignified than before, it appeals to the bravest part of everyone. Written by one of the most skillful authors of all time, it is a great example of how a reader can be dragged into the action and live with the characters.

Yet even with all this action, The Scarlet Letter manages to teach its audience a lesson in coping with life’s blows. Its clarity of thought and expression has captivated readers for over a century and probably will continue to do so for many years more.

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