The Scarlett Letter - Part 2
The Scarlett Letter
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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter has always been among the most interesting objects of literary analysis - The Scarlett Letter introduction. The themes of adultery and revenge in the puritan society attract critics and readers and turn The Scarlett Letter into a wonderful source of knowledge about puritan norms and standards of living. Hawthorne’s novel is both aesthetic and complex. It exemplifies a mixture of numerous themes and underlying meanings, which reveal the ugliest traits of human society and turn people into the victims of their own lifestyles. It would be fair to say that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter is a story of how people who have violated the basic rules of the social contract struggle to break their socially created identities and seek to re-assert themselves with their society.
The Scarlett Letter is a story of love, adultery, endurance and revenge. The story of a young Puritan woman punished for adultery and destined to forever carry the scarlet letter “A” on her breast, The Scarlett Letter is an excellent representation of the puritan ideas and their effects on the lives of the people. The protagonist of the story, Hester comprises numerous roles and identities: those of the biological female, the faithful mate and the obedient daughter, the believing Christian and the responsible mother (Egan 27). These identities must live in harmony with the puritan ideals and with one another (Egan 27). However, unhappy marriage brings these roles into a conflict and turns adultery into the only way for the woman to harmonize her female roles with the surrounding reality. As a result, Hester breaks the social contract with her community and becomes the victim of the social condemnation, rejection, and loneliness.
It should be noted, that the concept of social contract is critical to the understanding of The Scarlet Letter in general and the struggles of Hester and Dimmesdale, in particular. Egan is correct in that adultery is the direct violation of the social contract between an individual and the society, because adultery “portends the possible breakdown of all mediations on which society itself depends, and demonstrates the latent impossibility of participating in the interrelated patterns that comprise its structure” (27). Social contract is particularly important for the puritan society. Strong traditional bonds and the lack of tolerance toward possible violations of the society’s norms are the characteristic features of the Puritan community, in which Hester and Dimmesdale live. Hester’s walking across the market-place with a scarlet letter on her breast is just a small part of the larger penal machine, “which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France” (Hawthorne Ch. 2). This penal machine does not necessarily employ the pain of physical punishment but condemns those who disagree and makes them live in shame and rejection. Those who violate the norms of the Puritan society are given a new, socially created identity. This identity they are fated to carry on their shoulders for the rest of their lives.
Hester is the first victim of the socially created identity in Hawthorne’s novel. The Scarlet letter on her breast is actually the mark of an outcast. This letter cuts Hester from the rest of her society and pushes her to search happiness elsewhere. The sin of adultery changes the image of Hester in the eyes of other society members. She will never have another chance to repay the debt of her sins. There is no other choice for Hester but to spend the rest of her life in the atmosphere of abandonment and social rejection. “On the outskirts of the town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation, there was a small thatched cottage. It had been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned, because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation, while its comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the emigrants” (Hawthorne Ch. 5). After being released from prison, Hester moves to a lonely place in on the outskirts of her town (Hawthorne Ch. 2). For Hester herself and for her society in general, these abandonment and loneliness are equally anticipated and acceptable, for they stress the seriousness of Hester’s sin and cut her from the rest of the Puritan community. Not a woman but merely a sinner for her community, Hester does not deserve to be its part and must live in the atmosphere which will never let her forget the seriousness of her moral failure.
The case of Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale is similar to that of Hester in that he, like Hester, is another victim of the socially created identity. The puritan society considers Dimmesdale as a person of brilliant popularity and the victim of the deep sorrows (Hawthorne Ch. 11). “His intellectual gifts, his moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and communicating emotion, were kept in a state of preternatural activity by the prick and anguish of his daily life” (Hawthorne, Ch. 11). Like Hester, Dimmesdale does not have the right to violate the social contract with his society and is bound to follow its norms and standards of living. A person of serious fame and strong religious reputation, Mr. Dimmesdale is believed to be the last in the long line of people, who are likely to breach the social contract. Dimmesdale’s socially created identity turns him into a person who cannot sin, and the purer and diviner Reverend looks the more painful and unexpected his confession will be. Both Dimmesdale and Hester realize the pressure of the socially created identities on them and choose their own ways of struggling with the norms of their society.
Hester and Dimmesdale choose loneliness and self-sacrifice to deny the relevance of their socially created identities and to re-assert themselves with their society. Hester chooses a difficult path: she is neither willing to leave her town, nor does she want to reveal the name of her lover. She knows that even if she escapes her town, she will not be able to escape herself.
“Here, she said to herself had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.” (Hawthorne Ch. 4)
Self-sacrifice and the ability to reconcile with the surrounding reality drive Hester’s struggle against her socially created identity. She cannot find a way of fighting against her social image better than to stay in her town and to bring up her small daughter. In the same way, self-sacrifice is the definitive feature of Dimmesdale’s struggle against his socially created identity. This identity is constantly in conflict with his soul and mind. His inward trouble is the basic source of his nervous health complications. Dimmesdale views his bodily pains and sufferings as the only possible way to repay the debt of his sin to God. “His inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge (Hawthorne Ch. 11). Unfortunately, neither Hester nor Dimmesdale have a single chance to win the apology and recognition of their society. Dimmesdale ends his life tragically. Hester has but to flee the town, so that no one should ever know anything about her life. Hester and Dimmesdale prove that the burden of the socially created identity is impossible to escape, and only death can bring some relief to those, who spend their lives trying to re-assert themselves with the rest of their society.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter is the story of love, adultery, and revenge. It is the story of how people who have violated the social contract struggle against their socially created identities and seek to re-assert themselves with their society. Hester is the first victim of the socially created identities, who, due to her sin, is destined to spend her life as an outcast. Dimmesdale is another victim of the norms and standards of the puritan community – as a person of fame and serious religious reputation, Reverend spends his life in the conflict with his inner reality. Both use self-sacrifice to deny their socially created identities; however, the puritan society does not forgive sins and only death can bring some relief to those who spent years trying to re-assert themselves with their society.
Egan, K. “The Adulteress in the Market-Place: Hawthorne and The Scarlett Letter.” Studies
in the Novel, vol. 27, no. 1 (1995): p. 26.
Hawthorne, N. “The Scarlett Letter”, The Literature Network. The Literature Network, n.d.
Web. 27 July 2010.