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The Scarlet Letter

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The novel “The Scarlet Letter” is written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who explores the revolution of the society in the 17th century in Puritan Boston. The author gives the story of a woman by name Hester Prynne who suffers and struggles to overcome the stringent laws and rules of those times to assume a new revolutionary life which is made of repentance and dignity. Hester gives birth adulterously, which is a grave sin in the society and is forced to wear a scarlet. The author critically uses the theme of legalism (where the society is very strict and is bound to follow laws given due to region or to uphold moral value), guilt, and sin throughout the novel and Hester can be seen as the revolutionary woman of that time. The author describes the puritan society of the 17th century and the way people related and their lifestyles in terms of religion, discipline, relationship, and punishment.

Book description

Hester is forced to wear the scarlet A on her breasts which is a piece of cloth that has the shape of capital A, since she has given birth to a baby conceived from a different man than her husband. The scarlet A symbolizes the act she committed of adultery and represents her sins. In her society it is the badge of shame which is exposed to all people. Hester’s husband (Roger Chillingworth) whom people believed had been lost at sea and is unknown to the villagers appears while she is being punished for adultery (Johnson, 1995).

The pregnancy had resulted from an act of adultery after the long wait for her husband where she had gotten into an affair and conceived a daughter. Hester remains quiet about her husband’s identity and never reveals her lover who was responsible for the pregnancy. She painfully bears the shame and disgrace of wearing the scarlet in public. Roger Chillingworth who practices medicine appears during the disgracing of his wife and reveals his identity only to his wife who is under oath not to tell anyone. Roger focuses on getting the truth behind the pregnancy and revenge.

Years pass and Hester works as a seamstress to earn a living and daily bread for herself and daughter Pearl. She even suffers being shunned from her community and lives at the outskirts of the town in a small cottage. The daughter grows to become headstrong and mischievous. The author uses Pearl as a symbol as the scarlet a coming to life representing Hester’s life, love, and punishment (Hawthorne, 1999). The community threatens to take Pearl away from Hester but Arthur Dimmesdale intervenes to enable them stay together.

Arthur was the father to Pearl and was the secret lover to Hester and he is a minister and keeps the secret of the love between him and Hester. Dimmesdale becomes ill from a heart problem caused by psychological stress and Chillingworth moves in to take care of him. Eventually he suspects that Dimmesdale may be the secret lover to his wife, and finds a deeply curved An on Dimmesdale’s chest which makes him more suspicious (Johnson, 1995). Hester had by then earned reprieve from the contempt of the society through her benevolent actions and when Pearl is aged seven they visit a deathbed and on their way back meet Dimmesdale confessing his sins. However he never agrees to confess publicly.

Hester seeing the worsening condition of Dimmersdale goes to Chillingworth and threatens to reveal his identity if he doesn’t stop harassing the minister. After the minister know the real identity of Chillingworth he plans to sail away to live with Hester and Pearl as a family. The symbolic scarlet A gains more meaning when Pearl’s mother removes it and she is rejected by Pearl. The sin theme is further expressed when neither Chillingworth nor Dimmesdale wants to confess in public about the already happened events (Johnson, 1995).

The plan to escape is found out by Chillingworth and he books a ticket on the same ship; this makes the minister confess the truth publicly and dies a day before the trip. Chllingworth dies a year later, and Hester and her daughter disappear and after a longtime Hester returns to Boston alone wearing the scarlet letter and continues with her life. Pearl gets married and inherits Chillingworth’s property. The inheritance of wealth revolutionizes Boston in that women were not entitled to get inheritance but Pearl and this brings liberation in Boston. Hester later dies and is buried in a new grave that symbolizes her life and death and the tombstone is written with the capital A to symbolize Hester and Dimmesdale (Hawthorne, 1999).

Feminism Critical Perspective

The author of The Scarlet Letter has explored feminism in the easy with the main character being Hester. She is forced to go through ups and downs in her life and her experience in the novel gives ideas to revolutionize the 17th century woman to get equal rights, treatment, and opportunities as the man. However, she is not overtly feminist.

Hester becomes the great example of the change of the puritan rule and transformation to the emancipated society. She became self-reliant in her seam stress work and contributed to her earning a daily bread all her life; the author quotes "It was the art - then as now, almost the only one within a woman's grasp - of needle-work." (Hawthorne, 1999)

Though she never opposes the authoritarian rule of the puritans she believes in herself and works from inner consciousness that makes her revolutionary to the whole society. Some readers may portray her as submissive and guilty and she pays for her adulterous sin she has committed but she does not curse herself but tries to collect the pieces of her life to build a strong future for herself and her daughter.

Hester is subjected to shame and never gets what other women value most; i.e. a good marriage life and home yet she is still strong psychologically, living alone and segregated "The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread." (Hawthorne, 1999). This could make a woman break psychologically and unable to cope with life and resort to other means such as suicide but she carried the scarlet A with courage to liberate the others from the puritan laws.

The woman in the text has been put forward as committed to love. As we can see, Hester never reveals the secret affair with Dimmesdale. This means that women are true ambassadors of love and they believe in true love. She suffers quietly keeping the secrets of love while Dimmesdale refuses to confess his love for her and leaves her alone to suffer the consequences. The 17th century women are expressed as having better morals and quite strong at heart than the same generations men as shown by the dedication of Hester. She is also portrayed as stronger when Dimmesdale gets a heart illness that makes his health deteriorate while Hester was still strong in body and conscience.

The scarlet A was supposed to make her tormented and degraded, but it gave her the gateway to revolutionize the society. She is able to work her way to be able to fit back in to the society even with the imbalance of power she experiences. This can describes her as a psychologically emancipator to many others who may have suffered the same fate of traditional puritan society rules which were all backdated and uncivilized. She evades the stigmatization of the scarlet A and forefronts the liberation of the 17th century woman (Johnson, 1995). "The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood." (Hawthorne, 1999)

Johnson, (1995) urges that though she had committed adultery, she still remains submissive to her husband Chillingworth when he arrives in Boston. Hester agrees to what her husband says and also portrays respect in that though she has an adulterous affair concealing it would be more respectful than just confessing. She also defied her husband moral obligation but she rebelled when her husband became inhuman to the ailing Dimmesdale where she gains full independence from him just as she had got independence from the puritan oppressive rules. The act of adultery should also not be assumed since it was what many women feared. This meant that Hester was sexually revolutionized in that she gave herself out of will to Dimmesdale the minister thus she defied the puritan laws and moral responsibilities to her husband.

Psychological Critical Perspective

The psychological aspects in the novel have been explored by the author who sees each character facing a psychological battle. The main star Hester champions psychological battles where she is the most affected. Hester is forced to wear the scarlet on her breast which deprives her off her dignity and freedom. She is tormented by the fact that the society decides to treat her as an outcast and lives separately in the outskirts of town. Though the scarlet A is supposed to pay the price for her adulterous sins she is tormented by being paraded in the public and coerced to reveal her secret lover; which she doesn’t. She is supposed to reveal her private life in public which is a shame and disgrace.

She is psychologically tormented by the puritan’ laws though she does not give up. She is seen as psychologically strong and an achiever with her strength being a symbol of emancipation to the society in the 17th century. Speaking to the minister she says "Thou knowest," said Hester--for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame--"thou knowest that I was frank with thee.  I felt no love, nor feigned any, during the runaway” she plans to run away without the scarlet A which is an indication that she wanted to remove the scarlet A even before but due to the law and obligations she had to wear it. This must have brought to her psychological pressure and stress since she was doing something that she never wanted to.

Hester is also faced with the challenge of bringing up her daughter without revealing her father. She is forced to remain silent as she is not ready to revealing the father. She is also sworn to secrecy as to the identity of her husband who is believed to have died at sea but appears in Boston later. The psychological pain for Hester is deeply expressed in Hawthorne’s work where she is portrayed as an icon to conquer the psychological torment in society. She is a perfect example to follow, for the women in society in that she overcomes all battles are they religion, discipline, relationship, punishment, and community and remains psychologically strong and leads the emancipation of the Boston society of 17th century. In acts such as remaining brave to the Puritan laws, and the scarlet A humiliations many would say that it was the worst trauma for a woman but she overcame.

Dimmesdale is another character who suffers psychologically in the novel. Hawthorne expresses him as a relatively weak character in relation to psychology. He is also tormented due to the secret affair that he has with Hester that resulted in the birth of Pearl. He refers to the situation and at numerous times keeps tense due to the fear of being known to be the father of Pearl (Hawthorne, 1999). Dimmesdale also suffers from an illness related to psychological stress; this is the part that exposes him as the weak character. His psychological trauma continues when the medicine man and Hester’s husband Chillingworth comes to take care of him and starts investigating him for the secret affair and fears that it will be unveiled.

This psychological stress makes his illness complicated since he has been a minister of the gospel and he fears that his hypocritical actions of adultery if unveiled he will be punished by the puritan law and loose his integrity and dignity. Johnson, in his book “understanding the scarlet letter: a student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents” urges that this stress makes him even plan to leave his homeland and be a fugitive which he successfully plans but never leaves. His final psychological trauma comes when he realizes that Chillingworth knows the truth about their runaway plan to Europe. He is not able to cope with this pressure and once he confesses the truth about his deeds he dies. Dying in the arms of Hester makes him also a weaker character as opposed to Hester who does not mind people knowing the truth and goes ahead with the runaway plan.

Chillingworth also suffers psychologically from the same problems as Dimmesdale; he fears that his identity will be blown up thus ruining his life at Boston. He was also faced by the puzzle of who was responsible for his wife’s pregnancy. Chillingworth goes to al heights to establish the truth and he sacrificed a lot to reveal the true father of Pearl and was not contented when Hester refused to tell him the truth. In this case he is psychologically stressed by seeing his wife having an adulterous affair which has led to the wearing of the scarlet A. He also fears his identity revealed that is why he makes Hester swear to secrecy.

Historical Critical Perspective

The setting/plot of the novel is the 17th century in a village in Boston. Hawthorne the author was a worker at the custom house sin Massachusetts. During this period a revolution was needed against much oppression that were present and this novel can be seen to fit the context of the society then and described its occurrences and happenings. According to Johnson (1995) the authoritarian rule of the Puritan give the novel a historical base of the occurrences in the period and why it was necessary for a revolution which would focus on the context of establishing better governance in the society.

The society at that time never condoned sin and it has been depicted as a straight society ready to punish evil; this evil and punishment is determined by the Puritans who have resorted to oppressing several groups and marginalizing others such as women and children. Hawthorne uses the scarlet letter A to symbolize not only the adultery or angel in the society but also the authority which has made life difficult for the women (Johnson, 1995).

Gutenburg  (2010) describes the Native American setting in the novel as used by Hawthorne to examine the groundwork of the American culture and laws and how it was exceptional, innocent, sentimental, violent, and its arrogance towards what was happening in the society. The author describes the history and generates an unforgettable and enjoyable characters and symbols that suit that history such as the scarlet, the great stone face, black veil, and the birth mark so as to give a mirror image of the happenings of the society; this enables the reader to have the perception of the dark culture at the time and aim to improve it.

Hester can also be a historical icon since she triumphs over all the historical puritan injustices and struggles through single motherhood which was a grave sin at the time. The author uses the historical rules and puts them in the context of satire to awaken the readers to a new dawn that focuses on accepting the mistakes in the society; and to emphasis on the need for fair treatment of all gender (Johnson, 1995). This move is supported by all feminist critics who agree that subjecting of women to such disgrace as Hester went through would not build a fair society. Hester can be described as the Esther in the Christian holy book “the Bible” who opposes what rulers do to oppress their subjects.


Hawthorne’s work can be defined as a masterpiece of art and his writing outstanding. He uses this book to develop such themes as sin, revenge, feminism, forgiveness, compassion, guilt, and justice, among others so that the society may be emancipated from their cultures and tradition. He uses a rich art in writing such as symbolism especially in the scarlet letter A. The numerous interpretations of the letter A such as Adultery, Angel, Authority, America and others brings ambiguity in the whole story that requires the reader attention and correct interpretation at all times.

The book also uses a perfect place and time in history and also employs the correct characters that are equal to the task of delivering the message to the audience. The presence of characters such as Hester makes the book interesting to read as she unfolds what the society seems impossible. Hawthorne employs suspense that makes the reader want to know whatever happens next especially being a hot subject about human rights and dignity. The present society has a lot to learn from the novel in that should embrace the character of Hester and remain open to ideas, but most importantly to preserve human rights.

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