The Scarlet Letter

Introduction The Scarlet Letter

This historical novel of American Romanticism was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1850. It created a lot of controversy in literary circles. It showed the settings of the Puritan region of Massachusetts Colony of the 1650s, narrating a storyline of a woman, Hester Prynne, who suffers after having an affair with a church minister. However, she alone has to suffer for that affair with her daughter for having none of her crime. Her struggle to go through this repentance won her readers’ hearts. Despite comprising strong strictures against the hypocrisy of the religious bureaucracy, this novel is still considered Hawthorne’s tour de force.

Summary The Scarlet Letter

The story begins with a crowd preparing to punish a woman, Hester Prynne, for giving birth to a baby girl without revealing the husband’s identity. The crowd punishes her by making her wear a scarlet letter “A” on her dress to show the public that she is ashamed of her action. She is also forced to stand three hours on the scaffold to demonstrate that she feels ashamed at her sin. Women, mostly jealous of her beauty and dignified manner, taunt her and ask her the name of her husband, receiving only her refusal in response.

During the shaming ceremony, the woman happens to see her lost husband as a misshapen unknown person peering at her from the crowd. He gestures to her to remain quiet to protect his own identity. Choosing the name of Roger Chillingworth, he soon discovers the truth about her from his inquiry from different people. Then, he angrily raises the voice for the punishment of the father of the child, too, but without becoming prominent in the crowd.

Meanwhile, the local church ministers, Arthur Dimmesdale and John Wilson ask her about the likely father of the child, but they also face her staunch refusal. When she reaches the prison cell, she meets her husband, Roger Chillingworth, in the guise of a physician. As a physician he suggests her some herbs and plants, though, both of them talk about their marriage and their mistakes. However, Hester faces his probe about the identity of the father of the girl to which she again refuses to share with him. He does not force her, however, but claims to know it one day and asks her not to reveal his identity.  Hester willingly agrees to his proposal.

After she wins her release, she tries to settle in the town, but ultimately leaves for the outskirts facing staunch public resentment. She takes shelter in a hut on the outskirts of town and earns her bread through her needlework skills. Living a quiet and simple life, she starts playing with her daughter to whom she names, Pearl. However, strangely, Pearl takes her “A” locket to her heart, always playing with it. Finding no other playmates, Pearl soon develops into an impulsive girl about whom the order of the church authorities soon arrives about separating her from her imperfect mother.

Adamant as she is in her refusal about uncovering the identity of her husband, she is adamant in handing over her girl. Therefore, she meets Bellingham, the Governor of the city, who is present with the church authorities, Dimmesdale as well as Wilson. Hester, immediately, sensing the upper-hand of the religious authority, pleas to Dimmesdale who asks Governor to stop this mother-daughter cruel segregation to which he agrees.

It soon transpires in the town that Dimmesdale is witnessing a sharp decline in his health at which Chillingworth arrives at his lodging to treat him. He, however, senses that this decline is due to some psychological guilt and not due to some physical ailment. Soon he sees a symbol of shame on his chest. The more the minister hides his guilt, the more tormenting it becomes for him. At last, he visits the site where Hester got punishment and confesses his guilt in isolation, for having no courage to do it publicly. On the other hand, his deteriorating health also shocks Hester, who decides to break her silence.

Later, Hester meets the minister and narrates her ordeal, telling him about her revengeful husband, Chillingworth. She begs him to leave Boston to start life afresh somewhere else. Gaining strength from this new freedom from his shameful past, the church minister delivers a fiery sermon but suddenly loses his control. He climbs on the same scaffold to confess his guilt and tells everyone about his affair with Hester. Afterward, he dies in the arms of Hester. The controversy of seeing the same letter “A” carved on his chest also faces the same fierce refusal from a few in the crowd. Shortly after this incident, Chillingworth, too, dies, leaving a good amount of inheritance for Pearl. Hester, after left alone, starts living in the same cottage. After her death, her body is buried in the grave near Dimmesdale’s.

Major Themes in The Scarlet Letter

  1. Sin: Sense of sin, its impacts, and its manipulation and exploitation for ulterior motives is the major theme of The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne has committed this sense of having an illicit relationship with a church minister. The church minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, has committed the same offense and equally guilty as Hester. However, he sits on the jury as Hester doesn’t reveal his identity while she is standing in the criminal enclosure. When the court accuses her of adultery, as the punishment for her sin, she is excluded from the social circle and forced to wear scarlet color “A” sown on her dress. Dimmesdale does not show any remorse. However, what impacts the readers most is the way Hester dignifiedly hides this fact and only discloses when it becomes imperative. Chillingworth does not show any mercy on her.
  2. Conformity to Religion: Religion must need confirmation, or else the person may face subjection of censure. One of the novel’s major themes, The Scarlet Letter, confirms the religiosity of those times of puritanism, for Hester, has not confirmed its convention of the religion to stay chaste. Dimmesdale, too, shows the same trait, but he keeps it hiding, while Hester could not hide due to the birth of Pearl, her daughter from Dimmesdale. That is why she has to undergo sufferings for defying a religious convention.
  3. Criticism of Puritanism: The Scarlet Letter is also a critique of puritanism as well as stricture on it. It is a critique that shows how puritanism, a theological concept, has crept into public life, overtaking every social, moral, and financial aspects of life. As a stricture, it shows that it has not done good to the public life, for Hester has to undergo suffering for defying its principles, while Dimmesdale enjoys privileges because of aligning with the religious clergy.
  4. Public and Individual Guilt: The novel also demonstrates that when an individual, such as Hester, is caught for some guilt, he must undergo suffering that they do not deserve. However, when the whole public is involved, there is a deafening silence from the clergy as well as the jury. Dimmesdale represents the public morality and the public as the church minister but has no guts and courage like Hester to stand up for a trial. However, he feels it in his heart as an individual and has displayed the symbol on his chest.
  5. Moral Codes: Moral codes, ethical frameworks, and their social confirmation is another smaller thematic strand in that Hester defies a social value of the ethical framework of the Puritan social fabric. As it happens openly and people see a piece of evidence, she gets punished for violating this code. However, the case of Dimmesdale stays hidden, the reason that he does not face any punishment; rather, he faces only mental stigma.
  6. Gender Suppression: Gender suppression and feministic resilience is another partial theme that The Scarlet Letter demonstrated through Hester’s character. However, it does not seem that Hawthorne has consciously inserted it. Instead, it seems that it is part of the story that whereas Hester is involved, she faces punishment while it comes to a man, Chillingworth as well as Dimmesdale, they hoodwink not only the legality but also the religiosity.
  7. Mockery of Law: The novel shows that when a law does not protect the weaker section of the society, such as Hester Prynne, it ceases to exist as a law. Mr. Dimmesdale shows that some segments can wield law for their own purposes. Therefore, it needs to be changed, as the novel has mocked such a law.
  8. Domination of Patriarchy: The novel also shows that patriarchy always conspires to win when men and women are put against each other. Hester Prynne has no way to win against Dimmesdale, for he is as much responsible for bringing Pearl into this world as Hester is, yet he gets away while she faces imprisonment as well as a stricture.
  9. Redemption: Despite being relegated to the background, the redemption theme comes in the open when Hester has to endure long-sufferings for her sin. However, Dimmesdale wins it through his sermons and isolated confession.

Major Characters in The Scarlet Letter

  1. Hester Prynne: Hester Prynne is not only the primary female character but also the protagonist of the novel on account of her dignified manner, resilience, and patience to suffer the stigma of adultery. When the jury awards her punishment, she does not remonstrate. She chooses to wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ and leaves the town to live the rest of her life in isolation with her daughter Pearl. On the other hand, Dimmesdale, the minister of the city, who had seduced her, stays hidden until the end. Meanwhile, Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, sees her and asks her the name of the child’s real father, Pearl, but she refuses. When the Governor, Bellingham, too, turns against her by ordering the retrieval of Pearl from her custody, she subtly makes Dimmesdale confess his guilt, though it does not happen publicly.
  2. Arthur Dimmesdale: A respected and reverend church minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, hoodwinks Hester into his love, committing adultery followed by the birth of Pearl, his daughter. However, when she faces public shame, he distances himself from her, sitting on the theological bureaucracy’s higher stand. Inwardly though, he is aware of his culpability, which gnaws at him and forces him to accept his guilt by the end, showing the sign on his chest after which he dies on the scaffold.
  3. Pearl: Pearl is Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter and symbol of her parents’ love and passion. She is inquisitive by nature. As she is naughty as a child and fails to recite the Bible, the church plans to put her in foster care. However, the church gives her another chance to Pearl and allows her to stay with her mother with Dimmesdale’s and Governor Bellingham’s approval. Pearl is also a reminder and symbol of the minister’s adulterous affair. Dimmesdale finally dies, confessing his crime. Also, Pearl gets considerable property from her stepfather, Chillingworth.
  4. Roger Chillingworth: A Dutch, Roger Chillingworth is the assumed name of the former husband of Hester Prynne, who is amazed at finding his beloved wife in an adulterous affair and having a child, Pearl. However, he does not disclose his identity and let the clergy decides her fate, though he comes to meet her as a physician to counsel her. He also plans to avenge this from Dimmesdale about whom he comes to know somehow.
  5. Governor Bellingham: He is an authoritative and manipulative person who exploits the helplessness of Hester Prynne and orders to take Pearl away from her. His role seems critical in forcing Hester to seek help from Dimmesdale. However, his role appears to include the other side of the story as he accepts Dimmesdale’s reasoning of letting her stay with her mother.
  6. General Miller: General Miller is the first official of the Custom House. His collecting duty has made him a politically strong person. He protects the employees and workers from being fired. That is why his role seems like a minor character in the novel.
  7. Mistress Hibbins: Hibbins’ character sheds light on the witch-hunting of those times. Despite being Governor Bellingham’s sister, she is killed when it transpires that she meets the “Black Man” in the woods for witchery.
  8. Inspector: He is the inspector at the Custom House and has been a product of nepotism, for his father created that seat to keep his son in the job. Due to his father’s influence, he seems to have harbored the emotion of being a permanent employee.
  9. John Wilson: He is another minister of the church who is involved with Dimmesdale to award punishment to Hester Prynne.

Writing Style of The Scarlet Letter‎

Despite its being written around three centuries back, The Scarlet Letter still shows the beauty of the language used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his masterpiece. Its diction is subtle and ornate, its sentences are long, complex, and intricate, while its terseness and concision resonate in the minds of its readers. However, this style’s major feature is Romanticism, shown through a battle between the forces of good and evil.

Analysis of Literary Devices in The Scarlet Letter

  1. Action: The novel’s main action comprises the sufferings and woes of Hester Prynne when she is tried for adultery, thrown in prison, and subsequently ordered to keep away from the town. The rising action occurs when Dimmesdale and Wilson both award punishment, while the falling action occurs when Dimmesdale confesses his sin and punishes himself, showing his sense of shame carved on his chest.
  2. Allegory: The Scarlet Letter shows the use of allegory not only through its places, symbols, and incidents but also through the characters, which resemble abstract ideas such as sin, sense of sin, hypocrisy, authority, shame, and condemnation.
  3. Antagonist: Although it seems that Dimmesdale is the main antagonist of The Scarlet Letter in the opening chapters, it is Roger Chillingworth, who is the antagonist of the novel on account of his machinations, and stooped physical deformity that is equal to the distortion of his soul.
  4. Allusion: There are various examples of allusions given in the novel The Scarlet Letter. The first allusion is of Hester as she seems Eve thrown out of Paradise. Therefore, it seems a Biblical allusion. The second illusion is to Babylon, an ancient city, and third to Sir Thomas Overbury, the poet Overbury. Some other Biblical allusions include Cain, the Holy Spirit, the Pearl, and Adam and Even.
  5. Conflict: The are two types of conflicts in the novel The Scarlet Letter. The first one is the external conflict that starts between Hester Prynne and the authorities, including the religious church ministers, that ends in the defeat of Hester. The second conflict is the mental conflict going on in the mind of Dimmesdale because of his part in punishing Hester and her innocence.
  6. Characters: The Scarlet Letter presents both static as well as dynamic characters. The church minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Pearl are dynamic characters as they change with the storyline. However, static characters include Mistress Hibbins and Governor Richard Bellingham, as they do not change during the course of the novel.
  7. Climax: The climax in the novel arrives when Dimmesdale and Wilson are on the jury to punish Hester.
  8. Foreshadowing: The novel, The Scarlet Letter, shows various examples of foreshadowing. For example,
    i. A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes. (Chapter-1)
    ii. It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue. (Chapter-2)
    iii. “It is done!” muttered the minister, covering his face with his hands. “The whole town will awake, and hurry forth, and find me here!” (Chapter-XII)
  9. Hyperbole: Hyperbole or exaggeration occurs in the novel at several places. For example,
    i. Her spirit sank with the idea that all must have been a delusion, and that, vividly as she had dreamed it, there could be no real bond betwixt the clergyman and herself.
    ii. The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. (Chapter-XII)
    Both of these statements shows facts overblown and exaggerated even if they are in emotions and not in reality.
  10. Imagery: Imagery means to use of five senses such as in these examples:
    i. When they found voice to speak, it was at first, only to utter remarks and inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. (Chapter-XVII)
    ii. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. (Chapter-XVIII)
    The first example shows the images of sound color as well as sight, while the second, too, demonstrates the presence of these images.
  11. Metaphor: The novel shows good use of various metaphors. For example,
    i. Hester’s first motion had been to cover her bosom with her clasped hands. (Chapter-VI)
    ii. she seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment. (Chapter-VII)
    iii. No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest. (XVII)
    iv. The instillment thereof into her mind would probably have caused this aged sister to drop down dead, at once, as by the effect of an intensely poisonous infusion. (Chapter-XX)
  12. Mood: The novel, The Scarlet Letter, shows a satirical mood, though, at times, it becomes quite somber, serious, ironic as well as jubilant by the end.
  13. Motif: The most important motifs of the novel, The Scarlet Letter, is of light and darkness for Pearl and Hester.
  14. Narrator: The novel is narrated by a third-person narrator, though the writer himself enters the novel to narrate its introduction. Even the third-person narrator is also the writer.
  15. Personification: Personification means to attribute human acts and emotions to non-living objects. For example,
    i. While the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal. (Chapter-VIII)
    ii. The crisis flung back to them their consciousness, and revealed to each heart its history and experience, as life never does, except at such breathless epochs. (Chapter-XVII)
    iii. They needed something slight and casual to run before, and throw open
    the doors of intercourse, so that their real thoughts might be led across the threshold. (Chapter-XVII)
    Both of these examples show sunlight and crisis personified here.
  16. Protagonist: Hester Prynne is the protagonist of the novel. She comes into the novel from the very start and captures the readers’ interest through her extraordinary qualities until the end when Dimmesdale accepts his fault and dies.
  17. Paradox: The Scarlet Letter shows the use of paradox as “Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” (Chapter-XVIII). The narrator means that these have made her strong instead of a weak creature.
  18. Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions in several places. For example,
    i. But Arthur Dimmesdale! Were such a man once more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation of his crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down by long and exquisite suffering (Chapter-XVIII)
    ii. “Do I feel joy again?” cried he, wondering at himself. “Methought the germ of it was dead in me! (Chapter-XVIII)
    iii. But where was his mind? (Chapter-XXII)
    This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed by different characters such as Dimmesdale, himself, and then the narrator.
  19. Theme: A theme is a central idea that the novelist or the writer wants to stress upon. The novel, The Scarlet Letter shows the titular thematic strands of color and gender marginality, patriarchy, hypocrisy, and love.
  20. Setting: The setting of the novel, The Scarlet Letter, is the city of Boston in the 1600s.
  21. Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes. For example,
    i. But yet returned, like the bad half-penny. (Introduction)
    ii. a quality of enchantment like that of the Devil’s wages… (Introduction)
    iii. He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart, like a miner searching for gold; (Chapter-X)
    iv. Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physician’s eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or, let us say, like one of those gleams of ghastly fire that darted from Bunyan’s1 awful door-way in the hill-side, and quivered on the pilgrim’s face. (Chapter-X)