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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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    The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was written in 1850. It was based on the Puritans of the 1600’s, which were revived in Hawthorne’s era. Hawthorne descended from Puritan heritage and harbored a sense of guilt and hatred for their way of life. He used many themes and literary techniques in The Scarlet Letter including symbolism and irony. He emphasized the individual’s role in the community and the role of women in society.

    Hawthorne used romanticism as opposed to the classical correctness of writing. Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in the 18th Century and stressed strong emotion and imagination. Puritanism was the belief that all humans are sinful and that it is only though God and the bible that one can find redemption. Hawthorne did not agree with their philosophy. “The tendency of that Hawthorne had for calling unpleasant things ‘Puritanic’ is an indication that he rejected Puritanism” (Gerber, p.41)He felt they were hypocrites and protrayed them as stuffy and disillusioned. They lived their lives atoning or sins they were born with. Ironically, Hawthorne’s writings seemed just that- atonement for his would-be sin, the puritan heritage that he was born with. Even thought The Scarlet Letter set in 1642 in New England, it was written in 1850 at the revival of Puritanism. It focused the role of women in society. Hawthorne had a strong love for women and never portrayed them weak.His respect for women probably stemmed from his mother who raised his family after his father died from Yellow Fever when Hawthorne was eight. “Hawthorne unearthed the image of a goddess supreme in beauty and power” (Doren, p.133)His image of women influenced his writing and description of Hester. “She was lady-like too; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace” (Hawthorne, p.55)She was beautiful, stubborn and independent. Hester Prynne lived up to the name of Hawthorne women, who are reputed to be stronger than the men they shared their love with. Hawthorne used much symbolism. One of the most complex symbols in the book is Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne. Pearl develops into a dynamic symbol – one that is always changing. Among the most obvious of Pearl’s symbols is her name. Pearl represented its name’s sake, a precious jewel. Pearl was a child of nature. Her fantastic and devilish ways are the main sources for her mother’s joy and pain. “Pearl has for every reader some unreality too, she has something of the supernatural about her. She is the sunshine in her mother’s life, and yet her pouts and scowls, her frenzies and her furies, are not the least of Hester’s desperations.” (Doren, p.135)She could not be contained or controlled as one might imagine a child born under such circumstances would be. Pearl also represented adultery, love and sin.

    Hester, for her sins, received a scarlet letter, “A” which she had to wear upon her chest. This was the Puritan symbol forpunishment, an adulterer. The punishment continued as Hester walked through the streets. She was looked down upon but the fact that Hester committed adultery was soon forgotten to society. What was once an ignoble “adultress” became an “able” woman. The able seamstress settled in a secluded piece of barren land. This represented the situation she was in: shunned and unwanted. The landscaping in The Scarlet Letter is also symbolic. The rosebush by the jail is a major symbol. It represented Hester and freedom. The decrepit jail represents puritanism and its effects on society. Just as dark, Chillingworth depicted the antagonistic side of love. He was intent on getting revenge from Pearl’s father.

    “He is an unreal thing, a villain, stooping as he walkshe is the devil again” (Doren, p.134)”A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them…His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of will that save a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness. After the brielf space, the convulsion grew imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths of his nature” (Hawthorne, p.63)Chillingworth portrayed latent evil. His malevolence sat under the surface just waiting to be unleashed.

    The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was based on the Puritans of the 1600’s. Hawthorne felt a sense of guilt for his Puritan and hated for their way of life. He used romanticism and focused the role of women in society. He had a strong respect for women and this influenced his writing. Hawthorne used a lot of symbolism. Among many symbols were character names, parts of the setting and the scarlet letter itself. Although Hester never really comes to term with her own sin, she suceeds in life and dies a respected woman.

    BibliographyBaym, Nina. The Scarlet Letter A Reading. Boston: Twayne Pub. 1986Gerber, John C. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Scarlet Letter. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1968.

    Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Publications, 1850.

    Van Doren, Mark. “The Scarlet Letter” From Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: William Sloane Associates Inc., 1949.

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