Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter was well received and became very popular. The first edition of 2500 copies was sold out within three days, and was followed by the second and a third edition during the following six months. Since then the book has never been out of print. It has always been a favourite book both with readers and critics. Man of the early readers and critics find the book too gloomy and sombre but they were pleased that here finally was a work by an American author that could stand with the best thing produced in England. The neatness of its organized structure has attracted the attention of a large number of readers and critics. The book has been found useful in a study of Romantic Movement and more especially, of the Gothic, the historical and sentimental novel. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a very unique and distinct style of romantic writing. He uses various techniques to develop his stories, characters, and situations. He also incorporates his own life experiences into his novels and shows aspects of himself through characters. One specific novel that Hawthorne portrays himself into a character is The Scarlet Letter.It is a stunning success of American fiction. The story is based on an ‘entry’ (F. Randy Nelson’s The Almanac of American Letters) in Hawthorne’s notebook:
“The life of a woman, who, by an old colony law, was condemned to wear the letter ‘A’, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery.” (“The Almanac of American Letters”)
The story, laid in the New England of 1642-1649, is about Hester Prynne and her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, whose father is Arthur Dimmesdale, the Minister; and about Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s elderly and selfish husband in England, who has come to the colony in the guise of a doctor to torture Dimmesdale into the shamming confession of his fatherhood. Only by public acknowledgement and declaration of guilt can Dimmesdale can find the peace of his mind. Hester herself, never privately admitting that her act was a sin, can find no such peace; yet for her, as in some degree for Dimmesdale, their sin brings a somber maturing of their souls, and they find a modern equivalent of the more god-like future, foretold by the Archangel Michael in Milton’s Paradise Lost, for man after the fall. It has the beauty and harmony of all original and complete conceptions and its weaker spots are not of its essence, but mere light flaws and inequalities of surface. The novel has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art. It has a high style of polish as well as a charming freshness. Hawthorne has cultivated with great industry his natural sense of language, his turn for saying things lightly in touchy mood, picturesquely yet simply, and for infusing a gently colloquial tone into matter of the most unfamiliar import. The Scarlet Letter deals with different aspects, which are portrayed in the novel directly or indirectly. It is a psychological romance with the tragic incidents of crime and punishment. Hawthorne also made symbolic approaches using ambiguous language and irony. The Puritan society of this novel is a matter of consideration also. This novel is capable of being interpreted in various ways.
Sin, Punishment, and Redemption in The Scarlet Letter:
Sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the “Garden of Eden” for eating from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. As a result of their knowledge, Adam and Eve are made aware of their disobedience, that which separates them from the divine and from other creatures. Once expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are forced to toil and to procreate – two “labors” that seem to define the human condition. The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge – specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as her passport into regions where other women dared not tread leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself more “boldly” than anyone else in New England. As for Dimmesdale, the “cheating minister” of his sin gives him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his chest vibrates in unison with theirs.
His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy. The narrative of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is quite in keeping with the oldest and most fully authorized principles in Christian thought. His “Fall” is a descent from apparent grace to his own damnation; he appears to begin in purity. He ends in corruption. The subtlety is that the minister is his own deceiver, convincing himself at every stage of his spiritual pilgrimage that he is saved. The rosebush, its beauty a striking contrast to all that surrounds it – as later the beautifully embroidered scarlet A will be – is held out in part as an invitation to find some sweet moral blossom” in the ensuing, tragic tale and in part as an image that “the deep heart of nature (perhaps God) may look more kindly on the errant Hester and her child (the roses among the weeds) than her Puritan neighbors do. Throughout the work, the nature images contrast with the stark darkness of the Puritans and their systems.
Chillingworth’s misshapen body reflects (or symbolizes) the evil in his soul, which builds as the novel progresses, similar to the way Dimmesdale’s illness reveals his inner turmoil. The outward man reflects the condition of the heart. Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is as a symbol. Pearl herself is the embodiment of the scarlet letter, and Hester rightly clothes her in a beautiful dress of scarlet, embroidered with gold thread, just like the scarlet letter upon Hester’s bosom. Parallels can be drawn between Pearl and the character Beatrice in Rappaccini’s Daughter. Both are studies in the same direction, though from different standpoints. Beatrice is nourished upon poisonous plants, until she herself becomes poisonous. Pearl, in the mysterious prenatal world, imbibes the poison of her parents’ guilt.
Crime and penalty are dealt here both on personal and social level. The act of adultery is a crime against the individual, that individual being the wrong husband or wife. But adultery is also a crime against society. Hester Prynne has by her adulterous action, wronged her husband Chillingworth and that is what she tells him in so many words. The wrong that she has done to her husband is a crime to a personal level. But as a member so society she is also a sinner. Hester herself does not consider her adulterous action to be a serious crime or sin. For the reason, she does not experience any deep sense of guilt even after society has pronounced his judgment upon her. Hester believes in the sanctity of love relationship between her and Dimmesdale. The scarlet letter ‘A’ is the stigma that Hester has to carry always for her misdeed. Children follow her and shout at her. She is cruelly treated by the society. But the inherent goodness of Hester and her maternal solitude to Pearl keep her from further evil. Her crime is the serious one and her punishment is great. But it must be pointed out that the punishment comes from the society and is unaccompanied by any pangs of the society.
Dimmesdale produces an impression of weakness and timidity. He aggravates his sin of adultery by his prolonged concealment of it and he further aggravates it by trying to keep up an appearance of piety. As the novel is primarily a story of fall of a great priest, we can easily defy Dimmesdale as the tragic hero. His life is also one long misery. He succumbs to temptation once again when in the course of his forest interview with Hester; he agrees to flee from Boston with her, though he could not stick to it. This action also leads him to collapse and makes him a tragic hero. His weakness magnifies rather than lessens the power of story. His fight is internal. His confession to the public is in of the noblest climaxes in stories to tragedy. Dimmesdale’s castigation comes purely from within. Society does not punish him because it does not know that he is a greater sinner of adultery and also of hypocrisy. He is all the time haunted by the sense of guilt. The fact of concealment serves only to intensify his misery. He undergoes various kinds of penance including vigils, fasts and flagellation. Society does not play the least part in the mental torture, though the role played by Chillingworth cannot be ignored. However, the crime that Dimmesdale done is severe and the more bitter crime is his being hypocrite. But he receives his punishment and through it Hawthorne shows us his noble characteristics.
Transgression, in a sense, creates Hester; it nearly damns Dimmesdale. And Chillingworth the wronged husband turns into a fiend when he dedicates his life to a hideous event. Hester goes through the punishment but she does not need the purification because she does not commit any crime. Love cannot be called a crime, though society tortured her. Dimmesdale is the real sinner and we see him going through hid mental purification for seven years. He understands his sin and he confesses his crime before his death. We can call Chillingworth a great sinner here because he is not a good husband and he also chooses a way to torture Dimmesdale which is also a kind of hypocrisy from social point of view. But this character does not go through any significant regeneration of mind. He shows the effect of sin in many characters and seems to imply that it will be sin when a person is conscious in doing it. The writer here is considering his own point of view and he is not supporting the view of the society. So when he makes the characters to purify themselves, the readers takes them as positive approaches and agree with the writer.
The romanticists believe in complete freedom for the individual. According to the romantic way o thinking, it is the consent of the two parties in a sexual relationship that is important. If the two parties themselves agree to a sexual relationship, nothing else should matter, and noting should come between them. But such a view, if accepted by a majority of people, would lead to complete chaos and disorder in social relations. Such a view shows no respect for any kind of decency or regulated social conduct which is essential for the maintenance of social stability and for the holiness of conjugal relationships. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale infringe the “Seventh Commandment” which says:
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (“The Scarlet Letter”)
Infidelity is illegal and immoral in all civilized communities and countries and it is, therefore, perverse on the part of anyone to defend in the name of individual freedom. Having committed this crime, Hester and Dimmesdale must pay for it, and they do certainly pay for it. The fact that we feel a deep sympathy for both the sinners does not show either that Hawthorne protects adultery or that we consider the conduct of the two characters to be pardonable.
Hester Prynne has victimized her husband, Roger Chillingworth, by her adulterous action, and that is what she tells him in so many words. The wrong that she has done to her husband is a crime on a personal level. But she has also mistreated society of which she is a member. This society looks upon adultery as a severe kind of sin that should be punished with death. Hester herself does not mull over her adulterous action to be a serious crime or sin. For this reason she does not experience any deep sense of guilt even after society has pronounced its judgment upon her. On her contrary, Hester believes in the sanctity of the love relationship between her and Dimmesdale. “What we did”, she says to Dimmesdale in the forest,
“Had a consecration of its own. We felt it so; we said so; we said so to each other.” (“The Scarlet Letter”)
For this reason, her conscience does not trouble Hester. Hester’s punishment is purely social. She has to stand on the platform of the pillory, with the people gazing curiously at the scarlet letter on her breast. Society has decreed that she shall wear throughout her life a scarlet letter on the boson of her gown. This is the stigma that Hester has to carry always. She becomes a social outcast. Children follow her and shout at her. Strangers gaze at the scarlet on her bosom and make no secret of their contempt for her. She is cruelly treated by society. Her numerous acts of service as a Sister of Mercy do soften the world to some extent, but do not secure her its pardon. Society continues to be firm and harsh. Any other woman in place of Hester would have been won over to the side of the Devil or the Black Man. But the inherent goodness of Hester and her maternal solicitude for Pearl keep her away from any further evil. In the forest interview with Dimmesdale, he suggest that they escape from Boston so that they can lead a new life, but she does not do so because, as has been said above, she does not consider her relationship with Dimmesdale to be immoral or sinful. In her view on morality, she is a romantic of the extreme type. Eventually, when her dreams of happiness with Dimmesdale have come to nothing and her responsibilities as a mother has come to an end, she resumes her life of general helpfulness to the Boston community, and resumes also the scarlet letter on her bosom. Her felony was a serious one, and her punishment is great. But it must be pointed out again that the penalty comes from society and is introverted by any paroxysm of the conscience.
As for Dimmesdale the reverse is the case. His punishment comes purely from within. Society does not penalize him because the social order does not know of the sin that he has committed. He is a greater offender than Hester because, to the offense of adultery, he adds the sin of concealment or hypocrisy. His double standard saves him from social censure or social ostracism or any other form of societal action. Had society come to know his crime, it would have sentenced him to death. As it is, he is the victim of his conscience only. Dimmesdale’s conscience not only allows him no peace but is a source of constant torment to him. He is all the time haunted by a sense of guilt. The fact of concealment serves only to intensify his misery. He undergoes various kinds of penance, including vigils, fasts, and flagellation. But, as he tells Hester in the forest, it is all reparation and no penitence. One night he even mounts the scaffold as an act of expiation. But, as the author remarks, it is a mockery of penance and not true amend. Soon after this forest interview, he hardens himself and determines to make a public confession of his sin. He carries out his resolves to unburden his heart, and in a few minutes, meets his end on the scaffold. This incident is the climax of his spiritual development. He confesses his guilt and gives away his life, but he has established his right to a place in heaven by virtue of his act of genuine repentance and confession. As Hawthorne points out, a man like Dimmesdale should not commit a crime like adultery. Crime is for the hardened individual who is strong enough to crush the voice of his conscience. Society does not play the least part in the mental torture which Dimmesdale undergoes, though the role played by Roger Chillingworth in this connection can not be ignored. Chillingworth persecutes Dimmesdale and does so in a subtle manner. He greatly aggravates the suffering of the poor minister. In a sense, Roger Chillingworth may be regarded as an agent of society, because he is an aggrieved husband avenging himself on the man who has dishonored him. As the wronged companion, Roger Chillingworth may signify all husbands of his category. However, it would be more appropriate to look upon Chillingworth’s revenge as a personal, rather than social settling of scores.
In the end, Hawthorne has mainly dealt with the idea of ‘Sin, Punishment, and Redemption’ and he believed in sin and pre-destination like a true puritan. He inherited his Puritanism from his ancestors. Hawthorne again and again asks the question:
“What is the purpose of evil in the world? Is sin an element of human education through which we struggle to a higher state than we could have otherwise attained?” (“Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England”)
Hawthorne was deeply read in the works of the early New England divines, as also The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Bible. Under the influence of his reading, he felt evil to be a reality that could not be explained away. His temperament, his reading, his family tradition were all responsible for his tales having strongly moral themes. In all his tales written before 1850, the one over-riding consideration is the wages of sin. It was but natural that Hawthorne should have dealt with a moral theme in The Scarlet Letter which appeared in 1850. Hawthorne is not so concerned with the cause of sin as with the consequences of sin. According to him, sin is relative, not absolute. Hence, the consequences of guilt in The Scarlet Letter are mainly psychological in nature.
Bell, Michael Davitt. Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 173.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Viking Penguin Inc., 1983:18, 34.
Nelson, Randy F.). The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981.