The Scarlett letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is undoubtedly an apt text to be included in the syllabus of a literature aspirant - The Scarlett letter introduction. Several are the reasons that substantiate the above statement. Hawthorne’s characterization, structural perfection and the usage of several symbols add to the effect of the book and at the same time shows forth what a true craftsmanship is. To add to this effect, the traces of a psychological romance, allegorical nature of the story presented, the portrait of the artist drawn and the theme of alienation renders modernity to the novel. Hence in terms of time and effect, The Scarlet Letter is a most wanted book when we think about the syllabus of aspiring literature-lovers.
Hawthorne’s genius found its finest expression in The Scarlet Letter, his first and the greatest long story. We notice his complete command over detail and subject in the book. We can divide the superbness of his artistry into two main sections; the architectonics or the symmetry of his plot, and the symbolism and the language of the book. Its structural beauty is also highly commendable as it unfolds as a play live before the reader’s eyes. If we consider chapter I as the prologue and XXIV as the epilogue of this play it has five acts divided into twenty two chapters. This can be done in the following manner;
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Act I – Chapters II to VII. Hester’s punishment, the growth of Pearl and Hester’s social order,
Act II – Chapters IX to XI. Chillingworth’s friendship with Dimmesedale and the Minister’s secret suffering. Hester and Pearl have secondary roles in these chapters,
Act III – Chapters IX to XV. The central act in the play in which Dimmesdale’s secret and Hester’s knowledge of his great suffering is unfolded and she decides to break her promise to Chilling worth and to tell the truth about the leech to Dimmesdale,
Act IV – Chapters XVI to XX. Hester’s meeting with Arthur Dimmesdale and their new hopes, Dimmesdale’s return as a new born man to the settlement and Pearl’s close relationship with nature.
Act V – Chapter XXI to XXIII. The public occasion of the election sermon and Arthur Dimmesdale’s public acceptance, once of guilt and his subsequent death.
The beginning, middle and the final chapter of action constitute the three major climaxes of the plot and they are all staged in the same setting –the scaffold of the pillory, where Hester or Arthur or both confront their fellow townsmen. The prologue chapter gives the Puritan village its symbolic setting of church, pillory, prison, and graveyard.
The Scarlet Letter is one of the most artistically constructed romances in literature. Its principle, technical virtue and stylistic qualities such as its unity and perfection of tone, the coherence of its symbolism and imagery, all hence reviewed full attention. Generally speaking a symbol is something which is used to stand for something else. In Hawthorne’s use of symbols in The Scarlet Letter, we observe the author making one of his most distinctive and significant contributions to the growth of American fiction. Indeed this novel is usually regarded as first symbolic novel to be published in the United States.
One of the most important symbols in the story is the scarlet letter itself. The letter “A” changes its meaning with the growth in Hester’s character. It is apparently the symbol of her sin. To the vulgar people of Boston “the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth tinged in an earthly dye-pot but with red hot with infernal fire.” (Hawthorne, 48) The letter gives Hester a sympathetic knowledge of the sin. So the scarlet letter symbolizes the sin in others too. But when Hester becomes the ambassador of mercy it means “affection”, “able” or even an “angel”.
Pearl is the scarlet letter both physically and mentally. Her function is more than to symbolize the union of Hester and Dimmesdale. She is actually a kind of commentary on the symbol itself. The scarlet letter is the psychological presence of “adultery”. Many of the other sustained or important symbols in the novel are either in the setting or in the characters. The “scaffold”, for instance, is a symbol for the open acknowledgement of personal sin. Night is used as a symbol for concealment, and day is a symbol for exposure. Dimmesdale’s mounting the scaffold and standing with Hester and Pearl at night will not suffice; he knows that his symbolic acceptance of his guilt must take place in the day light. The sun is also used as symbol of untroubled guilt- free happiness or perhaps the approval of God and nature. The sun shines on Pearl, even in the forest, she seems to absorb and retain the sunshine. The forest itself is a symbol in a variety of ways. It is a place where witches gather, where souls are signed away to the devil, and where Dimmesdale can yield himself with deliberate choice to what he knows was deadly sin It is a symbol, then of the world of darkness and evil. The book in the forest is also symbolic in several ways. In the forest scene Pearl’s wandering away to the other side of the brook represent her temporary estrangement from her mother opening of a sort of the spiritual gulf between them. The brook in the forest passing through all gloomy trees is a symbol of life in Puritan society. Even the names Hester and Chillingworth are symbolic. Hester is the evening star, and Chillingworth suggests the cold and cruel nature in him. Pearl is as delicate as a pearl and in all sense a valuable pearl to mother.
Again, the three scaffold scenes with their rhythmic alternation of a June morning, a night in may-June, and again, a June morning, exist under the dual aspect of the book’s ‘light and dark’ imagery. In the first scaffold scene, a June sun beats down on Hester’s public shame (it is echoed even in the “leaden stares” of the settlement’s populace, whereas grey-to-black dress and three-cornered hats and bonnets again echo the dark imagery of the book) as if it were a chillingworth-like agent which ferrets out all moral lapses. Conversely, the sunlight in the forest scene is fitful and mild, except when Hester plucks out her scarlet letter and doffs her cap. In the second scaffold scene, although it is a dark night, it is made memorable by two events: the passing away of governor Winthrop and the appearance of a meteor in the shape of the scarlet letter. The third scaffold scene reverses the images of the first one in that Hester and Pearl will mingle with the crowd which had stared at their public shame in chapters II and III, and in that the somberly- dressed crowd of that episode is now dressed and turned out for an ironically named “new England holiday”. If there are reversals in the imagery of the first three chapters of the book, there are also similarities. Dimmesdale, who was conspicuously absent on the scaffold during the first scaffold scene and only ambiguously present during the second scaffold scene now stands on the scaffold in the third scaffold scene. Even though the events of the story cover a span of seven years, Hawthorne’s three structurally placed scaffold scenes give his book the rhythm and pattern of a present seasonal imagery of rise-fall-rise. Thus it indicates the dominance of structure and creative will over the mimetic and realistic presentation that one normally expects to find in a “European novel.
The Scarlet Letter appears as a brilliant psychological novel unrivalled in its penetrating study of the human mind. Hawthorne himself called his books psychological romances and proclaimed that what he aimed at doing was to “burrow into the depths of out common nature” (Abel). Hence he has given to the characters a depth and psychological intensity unheard of in the fiction before him. He was particularly interested in exploring the result of sin and the effect it produces on the human conscience. The effect of sin on three different persons is traced with great skill. No American novelist before him had been able to represent so convincingly the feelings and thoughts of passionate women as Hester. An American cares much less for social analysis and character development than the European novelist. Reality is not a strong point of the American novel. Henry James, in his essay on Hawthorne, point to the lack of historical tradition in America. In view of this lack the American artist shows indifference to both the past and the present living society. It is the individual and fantasy that matters in an American romance. Although The Scarlet Letter is a historical novel in a sense, we shall hardly call it realistic, like Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, for instance.
Psychology, symbolism and fantasy seem to be much more important to Hawthorne than real people in the real society. Like most of the great American stories, The Scarlet Letter lends itself to myth making because there is very little real society in it. Being a complex figure Hester compounds the sin of passion with the sin of pride. She embroiders the scarlet letter as an elaborate expression of ambiguous defiance. She is not properly penitent in the beginning. But after her return from Boston she is full of repentance. The depiction of Dimmesdale’s self agony, self torture and raging inner conflict, his behavior on the scaffold, his constant introspection all make this novel a fine psychological study of human mind.
The allegory is the puritan from of art. Puritans believed in life as a cosmic struggle between the force of good and evil. Hawthorne’s mind was suitable for him to accept the Puritan’s world picture. Yet, he has too much of Puritanism to understand the complexity of the human world. Therefore, he wrote romance, in which the broad puritan artistic view of clothing ideas in words was put into practice. Hawthorne’s fiction is mainly allegorical. That is, we have a struggle between the personified good and evil and then the ultimate triumph of good over the evil in his books. To these critics, Hester is the complete repentant, Dimmesdale a half- repentant and Chillingworth un- repentant. There is then a moral at the end, for every man to be true to himself and the others. Hawthorne selected sexual sin as the type of all sin.
There is static characterisation embody ideas and ideologies. They are not real human beings as in a novel. The Scarlet Letter in this view is definitely an illustrated sermon on the consequences of sin. Hawthorne, a modern writer, was using the allegory from to show to the Puritans, the limit of their intelligences. This novel is a modern symbolical novel with a hidden depth of meaning upon meaning.
Alienation is another major trait of the novel in most of the major characters. We remember most of the characters in their loneliness. Hester with Pearl in her daily rounds to the village and back, the minister with his hand over heart and his secret tortures and suffering, the physician stooping and collecting herbs and at the fires in his laboratory, etc. Loneliness seems to be the curse blighting their lives. Hester and Dimmesdale are isolated by their original sin, Chillingworth by hatred and his is which violated “the sanctity of the human heart”. This shows forth Hawthorne’s own terror of loneliness and his desire for the magnetic chain of humanity. In Hester’s case “the badge of shame” that is the scarlet letter gains her distance from people. But she transcends her separation from society by good deeds and companionship of miserable people.
Each of the three main characters is an artist figure. Hester Prynne, who commences her climb back into social respectability through her needle-work and embroidery (her form of “art”), is an artist of sorts. Similarly, Arthur Dimmesdale, who commences his climb back into spiritual regeneration through his ‘tongue-of-flame, i.e., his apparently miraculously acquired eloquence, is an aural artist, who like the Shelleyan West Wind (in that poet’s Ode to the West Wind) acquires magical power of persuasion over his congregation. Likewise, Roger Chillingworth, with his preternatural sympathy (even empathy) with a sinner and his clairvoyance, and with his presentation as a stoop-shouldered figure wending his way through fields of herbs, is an artist too. He resembles more the medieval artist’s conception of the necromancer and the alchemist akin to the characters of the medieval classics. Unlike the other two, he is presented as the bad artist who lives in total isolation and battles upon the suffering humanity rather than contributing to the alleviation of human misery and sorrow.
The Scarlet Letter is a story of crime, sin, punishment and expiation. It fully explores the paradoxical cruelties of a strict moral code in a society. There are various ways of looking at a thing. Each way is as correct or as wrong as the other. Life remains a mystery and the human being in it can only time it out. This is exactly the factor that renders timelessness to the book and thus it proves to be a must-be-included work for freshers in literature.
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Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1992). The Scarlet Letter. Wordsworth Editions, London.
James, Henry (1879). English Men of Letters Series. Bibliobazaar, LLC.
Ringe, D.A. (1950). “Hawthorne’s Psychology of the Head and Heart”. Publications of the
Modern Language Association, London