To understand Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter requires an understanding of the setting for the story. The Scarlet Letter was set in the puritan community of 17th century Boston. The Puritans were a group of religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s under the leadership of John Winthrop. The puritans were uncharitable, unforgiving and were known for their intolerance of dissenting ideas and lifestyles.
Religion played an important role in the puritan community, and religious leaders were highly regarded, respected and looked up to for guidance. Adultery was a major sin, and public discipline and punishments were used as a deterrent to prevent others from committing the same sin or other crimes as the offending person. The Scarlet Letter expresses relationships, religion, community, discipline and punishment in the puritan community, and is also a moral and psychological exploration of life. The book shows the consequences of sin on the individual as well as the community.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne relates the tale of Hester Prynne whose husband was lost and presumed dead. Thinking her husband was deceased, Prynne has an affair with a local man in the community and gets pregnant. She has the child and is subjected to public interrogation and humiliation. The local pastor, the Reverend Master Arthur Dimmesdale reluctantly and briefly participates in the interrogation. He asks her a few times to name the man she is romantically involved with – everyone wants to know who the father of the child is but Prynne refuses to disclose the information and instead opts to suffer the consequences.
As punishment for committing adultery, Hester Prynne has to wear a flaming scarlet letter A embroidered on her dress, by her breast – the A standing for adulteress. During the public interrogation and punishment, she has to parade in front of the entire community with 1,000 eyes staring at and condemning her. For hours Prynne has to stand in the sun, with her baby daughter Pearl snuggled close to her chest.
““People say,” said another, “that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.”
“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch, — that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she, — the naughty baggage, — little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may so walk the street as brave as ever!”
“Ah, but,” interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.””
While standing there on her pedestal of shame before everyone, Prynne recognizes her husband in the distance standing beside an “Indian” in his native garb. Unbeknownst to the community, her husband has returned as Roger Chillingworth, the town’s doctor, to witness the public persecution of his wife.
After Prynne returns to her prison cell, she is in a state of nervous excitement, and baby Pearl becomes ill and starts to writhe in convulsions. The jailer brings the physician to check both Prynne and Pearl. Her husband explains that Indians had captured him and makes her swear to keep his secret. They have a very frank discussion, and he too also tries to find out who her lover is, but once again she refuses to disclose the information. Chillingworth is not very compassionate in their meeting in the jail cell and you get the sense that he is also mocking her.
Prynne is now keeping secrets for the two men in her life.
Chillinworth makes a promise to himself that he will discover who the mystery lover is. When Prynne is released from her prison cell she is banished from the community and lives in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts. She survives by doing embroidery for people in the town – Prynne does embroidery on gloves, robes, dresses and so on. The hypocrisy of the people shines through – they despise and shun her for being an adulteress, yet they crave the creative designs of her work.
As the story unfolds you see Pearl growing up and following her mother into town when she has to deliver embroidery work. When Pearl is about three years old, Governor Bellingham suggests to Prynne that her child should be taken away from her care and “clad soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth.” Prynne is having none of this and there is some back and forth between them. All this is done in the presence of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. The governor decides to ask Pearl where she came from, and even though the little girl knows the answer she decides to tell him that her mother plucked her off a bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door.
Prynne observes her husband during the exchange between her and the governor and notices how much uglier his features have become. This could be symbolic for his ugly character. They still want to take away Pearl and Prynne refuses to yield. She turns to Dimmesdale and begs him to intercede on her behalf, and he nervously does so. They relent and Pearl walks to where Dimmesdale is standing and takes his hand in hers and lays her cheek against it. He kisses her brow and she laughs and runs down the hall. The onlookers, except for Prynne and Dimmesdale believe Pearl has witchcraft in her, and Chillingworth remarks that the child is strange and that anyone can see her mother in her. Prynne departs with her child.
Dimmesdale health is failing and is wasting away from heart disease. In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster tells us that it’s very important when a character is ill and we need to take note. Chillingworth becomes Dimmesdale’s medical adviser and they start spending a lot of time together as he tries to diagnose the illness. Chillingate also seeks lodging in the same house as Dimmesdale because as he investigates, he suspects that his patient has secrets. Chillingate is also changing and his features are becoming uglier and more evil. Chillingate suspects that the mystery man is Dimmesdale and finally confirms it. The physician treats the ailments, but tortures his patient emotionally. There is a long intercourse between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, and the reader cannot help but wonder why Prynne would have married the doctor who is obviously evil to the core.
Over the ensuing years, Dimmesdale condition worsens and he is seeking ways to atone for his sin except by publicly admitting what he did. When Pearl is seven years old, while walking with her mother one evening they spot him on a scaffold and the two join him and hold hands. Pearl wants him to publicly acknowledge her but he refuses. But the family decide to flee to Europe. The day before they set sail, Dimmesdale gives the sermon of his life. After the sermon, he sees Hester and Pearl on the scaffold and joins them, and confesses his sin publicly, asking God for forgiveness. Very shortly after, he dies but he bids them farewell first. His features suggest that he is finally at peace.
Chillingate had also learned that Prynne, Pearl and Dimmesdale were going to sail away and also bought passage for himself. After Dimmesdale died, all the life force was sucked out of him and he died within a year – revenge is never a good thing. It’s interesting that this mean man bequeathed a substantial amount of property in Boston and England to little Pearl, the daughter of his wife Hester Prynne. Shortly after the physician died, Prynne and her daughter left Boston, and no one knew where they went.
I recommend that you read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne but skip “The Custom House – Introductory,” it’s a waste of good time, instead begin reading the book at “The Prison Door.” Because I have read The Scarlet Letter before I protected myself and didn’t get caught up in the story. I believe that the way the story ended is less than ideal. After how much shame Prynne suffered, why couldn’t she be allowed to experience happiness with Dimmesdale, even though at first he cared more about how he was perceived in the community?
Like most classic literature, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is not light reading so you have to invest the time. The Scarlet Letter shows us a glimpse of history, and I’m glad it’s history. How can you use this information? What do you have to add to the conversation? Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Many readers read this blog from other sites, so why don’t you pop over to The Invisible Mentor and subscribe (top on the right hand side) by email or RSS Feed.
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