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The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne English Literature Essay

Hypocritical effort to conceal the secret sins has Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Roger Chillingworth collapse. This hypocrisy makes Hawthorn be disappointed with the Puritan society. So he criticizes it with the method of tragic irony in the novel. For example, Dimsdale becomes imperfect by trying to be perfect. The more his followers regard him as a saint, the more he feels sinful. Thus, the story is full of tragic irony.

In the beginning of the novel, Hester with black eyes and dark hair is standing on the scaffold for three hours, carrying her little daughter of three months old in her arms. While she is withstanding the public ordeal, The Reverend Mr. Wilson delivers a speech about sin and the reason why Hester has to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her breast. He persuades Hester to uncover the father of her child, but she does not speak at all. She suddenly sees Chillingworth, her husband, standing in the crowd. He makes a gesture with his fingers not to disclose his identity. When she returns to a prison, she is almost mad with a spiritual pain. That evening, Chillingworth visits her as a physician who takes care of her. She talks with him for a long time in the dark prison. She tells him that she does not love him. She admits that she has wronged him. She refuses to tell him about the child's father, and he decides to find who the father is. He asks her not to reveal the fact that he is her husband.

Three years after her releases from imprisonment, Hester does not leave Boston. Instead, she lives in a seaside shanty on the suburbs of Boston. She makes her living by doing needle work. She helps the needy people. Her acts of charity cause her to gain respect from the people. Meanwhile, the governor Bellingham tries to take her daughter away from Hester, persuading her to raise Pearl in a Christian way. But she does not give her up. As the years pass, Pearl grows up. She is Hester’s happiness. Chillingworth slowly gets a good reputation as a physician, and finally becomes the medical adviser of Dimmesdale. As their friendly relationship develops, Dimmesdale even speaks about his personal matters to Chillingworth. They live together in the same house and it makes Chillingworth find that Dimmesdale greatly pays attention to Hester. He finally knows that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father. So he decides to take revenge on him. One night while Dimmsdale is standing on the scaffold, Hester and Pearl come. Dimmesdale calls them to the scaffold. Dimmesdale tells Hester that he is afraid of Chillingworth on the scaffold. At that time, Chillingworth is secretly watching them. After she sees Dimmsdale being in despair, Hester sympathizes with him in his suffering. So she decides to help him. Four years have passed. Hester has a good reputation and respect from the people in the community because of her charity. Her scarlet letter "A" is no longer of a token of her shameful adultery to her.

When Hester meets Chillingworth in the seashore, she tells him that she is going to confess to Dimmsdale that he is her husband. One day Hester and Pearl come across Dimmesdale in the woods. He looks painful because of his secret sin. He appears to be in the depths of despair as if he doesn’t have any desire to live. Dimmsdale confesses his spiritual pain to Hester. It makes her confess that Chillingworth is her husband to Dimmsdale. He seems to be furious at first, but finally he forgives her. They agree to leave Boston and go to Europe together with Pearl. Dimmesdale believes that he is able to have more civilized and refined life there. After he returns from the woods, he abruptly decides to confess his sin in public. So he writes the Election Sermon. It is successful. Meanwhile, on the day when they secretly go to Europe by ship, Chillingworth plans to board the ship with them. After Dimmsdale finishes his sermon, he beckons to Hester and Pearl to come. They stand on the scaffold together. Dimmesdale confesses to the people that he Commit adultery with Hester and Pearl is his daughter. After confessing his sin, he dies on the scaffold. After Dimmesdale's death, Hester goes to Europe with her daughter. Pearl happily marries and lives there, but Hester returns to Boston. She never takes off her scarlet letter. When she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. They share a scarlet letter “A” on their gravestones.

Attitude

Nathaniel Hawthorne makes good use of the dramatic irony in his novel. He regards human beings as originally imperfect creatures. The dehumanization in a Puritan society in the novel is criticized with the method of tragic irony which is closely related to a dualistic view of life. Most of the characters are Puritans. They are innocent and try to build an ideal society in their own way. Such a perfect Puritan community holds its own secrets and sin within each member. This creates irony or hypocrisy and has each person feel guilty. In the novel, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chilligworth are isolated from a normal society and they suffer from the various aspects of sin. Hypocritical action to conceal their secret sins makes them collapse. Although Hester feels humility and embarrassment because of her sin, she is spiritually free. When Dimmesdale finally uncovers his sin to the people around the scaffold, they refuse to believe that he is sinner like Hester. The fact that Dimmsdale is the vulnerable minister and a secret sinner results in an endless maze of irony. Dimmesdale’s dual identity is shown in Hester wearing the shameful token of the scarlet letter on her breast and in Chillingworth with his secret revenge for Dimmsdale. The irony of Dimmesdale’s situation is shown in the fact that he becomes imperfect by pretending to be perfect. Dimmesdale tries to appear to be a perfect man, for he thinks there is absolute good and evil in the world.

By using tragic irony, Hawthorne builds up the plot which gives us constant interest in his novel. Thus, The Scarlet Letter is chiefly composed of tragic irony, and the author's purposes are well represented by it.

Shift

In chapter 16, Dimmesdale appears to be in despair as if he has no will or hope to live whereas in chapter 18, he takes courage because Hester encourages him that she promises to go to Europe together. So he decides to leave the Puritan society. He is reborn with enormous energy. He thinks everything positively. In chapter 23, he suddenly gives up everything. He cannot act against his conscience. In this chapter, Chillingworth loses his purpose of revenge completely when Dimmesdale dies. Hester also lose her lover. She does not need to feel the loneliness she has already had when Dimmesdale dies. Pearl can have a life which is full of love and happiness.

In chapter 13, Hester's charity and kindness gradually have her position to be changed in the community. She helps the needy people living in the town. Good reputation from the people make her scarlet letter symbolize something other than shameful adultery. It no longer stands for "shame," and it is no longer a token of her shameful adultery. It now stands for "Able."

The readers can see the shift of Dimmesdale's conscience by comparing the three scaffold scenes. In the first scaffold scene, he does not want to reveal his secret sin. In the second scaffold scene, he confesses his sin in private at night, so it does not seem to be a public confession. In the final scaffold scene, he reveals his sin in public. At this time, his conscience finally clears.

Themes

This section will discuss the following four themes: sin, conscience, Puritanism, and forgiveness.

Sin

By choosing a Puritan society and adultery as the setting for this novel, Hawthorne is free to explore the psychological impact of sin on everyone involved.

In Puritan society adultery is both a crime and a sin. As a woman whose husband is absent, Hester's pregnancy is evidence of her immoral relationship with a man, not her husband. Puritans usually impose the death penalty on adulterers, however, since Hester's husband might be dead they refrain from administering it in this case. They cannot let her sin go unpunished, so they sentence her to three years in prison, and she must wear the "A" on her breast during her lifetime. In addition, she is cast out of the community. To the Puritans, sin is like the infectious disease. Hester is "quarantined" in the hope that her sin will not pollute the community. Puritanism is a strict version of Christianity. In other sects after Christians confess their sins and perform penance, their sins are forgiven and they receive reconciliation with God and their community. Hester for her part acknowledges her wrongdoing, so she endures her punishment with grace. Upon her release from prison, she makes a living by sewing and embroidery. Her industriousness and thrift allow her to carry out many works of charity for the poor. Although her life is not a very happy one, her sin and subsequent penance create an opportunity for her spiritual development and personal growth.

Dimmesdale carries the weight of sin in private. He does not make spiritual progress instead he becomes a hypocrite. Puritans expect their ministers to have high moral standards. He feels guilty that he is not living up to them. He tries to perform penance in private, but his efforts do not offer him any spiritual relief. His spiritual agony starts to affect his physical health negatively, to the point where his congregation begins to worry about him.

Chillingworth has a reader's sympathy in the beginning because he suffers from wrongdoing of his wife. Marrying a much younger woman does not qualify as a sin. But as time passes he gives himself over to sin by taking revenge on Dimmsdale who has an adulterous relationship with his wife. The sin of revenge physically transforms him in the following ways: accelerated aging, deformation of facial features, and the stoop in his back. He can be said to personify the phrase "ugly as sin."

Conscience

For Hawthorne, individual conscience plays a valuable role. When a person relies on his intuition and sympathy for others, he/she is able to make good moral decisions. The Puritans, in contrast, have little use for individual conscience. In order to do what is right, a Puritan only has to follow the religious rules of community. As such individual conscience is subordinate to the religious commandments of the Bible, Hester uses her own intuition to make moral decisions, a characteristic which sets her apart from her fellow Puritans. Dimmesdale's conscience torments him. The readers can see the developments of Dimmsdale’s conscience by comparing the three scaffold scenes in chapter 2, chapter 12, and chapter 23. In the first scene, he exhorts Hester to name the father, but it is clear from his double speak that he does not want his sin to be revealed in public. In the second scaffold scene, he confesses his sin out loud, but he is alone at night, so it does not count as a public confession. In the final scaffold scene, after his election day sermon he confesses to the people that he is Hester's secret partner and he is a father of Pearl. His conscience finally clears, but he has lived with the guilt for so long that he has no strength to live after his confession. Chillingworth starts out with a conscience as evidenced by his conversation with Hester in which he admits marrying her against her wishes is a mistake that leaves her vulnerable sin of adultery. When he suspects that the other party to adultery is still in town, he loses his conscience in direct proportion to his effort to exact revenge on Dimmesdale. With revenge as his whole motive for living, he cannot survive after Dimmesdale's confession, which renders revenge useless.

Puritanism

Puritanism has a strong effect on The Scarlet Letter. In the novel, Hawthorne wants to describe how Puritanism in the 17th century apparently ignores the sanity of human minds in every aspect of punishment and salvation. He gives us the essence of the Puritan thoughts of Boston, including the Puritan's view on man's sinful situation, and the intolerant Puritan attitude towards sinner. The Puritan leaders at that time condemn every person who fails morally and force them to face a public penitence. The Puritan law is far from God's divine love which embraces all sinners having imperfect nature and human weakness.

Hawthorne is disappointed with the intolerable system of Puritan society and its strict and inhumane moral code which denies man's imperfection. In the novel, the Puritans impose too heavy a penalty on Hester, although she is a sinner. Hester realizes that she can not escape from severe punishment by strict Puritan laws, and also realizes God's love for the poor and the needy. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale is described as a typical scapegoat who can not escape from the influence of inhumane and merciless Puritan dogmas. Hester Prynne achieves her spiritual greatness despite her own humane weakness and the prejudice of her Puritan society.

Forgiveness

The reader picks up early clues about Hawthorne's attitude toward forgiveness in the custom house because he explicitly mentions offering forgiveness to his enemies. Hester is able to forgive her enemies for the most part. Hester, as a part of moral development, learns how to forgive and she is also able to exhort others to forgive. For example in chapter 14, she asks Chillingworth not to take revenge on Dimmesdale and to forgive him. One of the indicators that Chillingworth has turned to Satan is that he is incapable of forgiving. He is even given the label "the Unforgiving" in chapter 11. In chapter 17, Hester confesses Chillingworth's identity to Dimmesdale. Dimmsdale is unwilling to forgive her, but finally he does so of his own free will. He makes a point of asking God for forgiveness for both of them. For Dimmesdale, forgiveness by God is more important than human forgiveness. This is not surprising because to a minister forgiveness of sins by God is necessary for admission to Heaven. While Dimmesdale is dying on the scaffold, he does not forgive Chillingworth. Instead, he calls on God to forgive his tormentor.

========================================================================================================================================================================

Attitude

Nathaniel Hawthorne makes good use of the dramatic irony in his novel. He regards human beings as originally imperfect creatures. The dehumanization in a Puritan society in the novel is criticized with the method of tragic irony which is closely related to a dualistic view of life. Most of the characters are Puritans. They are innocent and try to build an ideal society in their own way. Such a perfect Puritan community holds its own secrets and sin within each member. This creates irony or hypocrisy and has each person feel guilty. In the novel, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chilligworth are isolated from a normal society and they suffer from the various aspects of sin. Hypocritical action to conceal their secret sins makes them collapse. Although Hester feels humility and embarrassment because of her sin, she is spiritually free. When Dimmesdale finally uncovers his sin to the people around the scaffold, they refuse to believe that he is sinner like Hester. The fact that Dimmsdale is the vulnerable minister and a secret sinner results in an endless maze of irony. Dimmesdale’s dual identity is shown in Hester wearing the shameful token of the scarlet letter on her breast and in Chillingworth with his secret revenge for Dimmsdale. The irony of Dimmesdale’s situation is shown in the fact that he becomes imperfect by pretending to be perfect. Dimmesdale tries to appear to be a perfect man, for he thinks there is absolute good and evil in the world.

By using tragic irony, Hawthorne builds up the plot which gives us constant interest in his novel. Thus, The Scarlet Letter is chiefly composed of tragic irony, and the author's purposes are well represented by it.

Shift

In chapter 16, Dimmesdale appears to be in despair as if he has no will or hope to live whereas in chapter 18, he takes courage because Hester encourages him that she promises to go to Europe together. So he decides to leave the Puritan society. He is reborn with enormous energy. He thinks everything positively. In chapter 23, he suddenly gives up everything. He cannot act against his conscience. In this chapter, Chillingworth loses his purpose of revenge completely when Dimmesdale dies. Hester also lose her lover. She does not need to feel the loneliness she has already had when Dimmesdale dies. Pearl can have a life which is full of love and happiness.

In chapter 13, Hester's charity and kindness gradually have her position to be changed in the community. She helps the needy people living in the town. Good reputation from the people make her scarlet letter symbolize something other than shameful adultery. It no longer stands for "shame," and it is no longer a token of her shameful adultery. It now stands for "Able."

The readers can see the shift of Dimmesdale's conscience by comparing the three scaffold scenes. In the first scaffold scene, he does not want to reveal his secret sin. In the second scaffold scene, he confesses his sin in private at night, so it does not seem to be a public confession. In the final scaffold scene, he reveals his sin in public. At this time, his conscience finally clears.

Themes

This section will discuss the following four themes: sin, conscience, Puritanism, and forgiveness.

Sin

By choosing a Puritan society and adultery as the setting for this novel, Hawthorne is free to explore the psychological impact of sin on everyone involved.

In Puritan society adultery is both a crime and a sin. As a woman whose husband is absent, Hester's pregnancy is evidence of her immoral relationship with a man, not her husband. Puritans usually impose the death penalty on adulterers, however, since Hester's husband might be dead they refrain from administering it in this case. They cannot let her sin go unpunished, so they sentence her to three years in prison, and she must wear the "A" on her breast during her lifetime. In addition, she is cast out of the community. To the Puritans, sin is like the infectious disease. Hester is "quarantined" in the hope that her sin will not pollute the community. Puritanism is a strict version of Christianity. In other sects after Christians confess their sins and perform penance, their sins are forgiven and they receive reconciliation with God and their community. Hester for her part acknowledges her wrongdoing, so she endures her punishment with grace. Upon her release from prison, she makes a living by sewing and embroidery. Her industriousness and thrift allow her to carry out many works of charity for the poor. Although her life is not a very happy one, her sin and subsequent penance create an opportunity for her spiritual development and personal growth.

Dimmesdale carries the weight of sin in private. He does not make spiritual progress instead he becomes a hypocrite. Puritans expect their ministers to have high moral standards. He feels guilty that he is not living up to them. He tries to perform penance in private, but his efforts do not offer him any spiritual relief. His spiritual agony starts to affect his physical health negatively, to the point where his congregation begins to worry about him.

Chillingworth has a reader's sympathy in the beginning because he suffers from wrongdoing of his wife. Marrying a much younger woman does not qualify as a sin. But as time passes he gives himself over to sin by taking revenge on Dimmsdale who has an adulterous relationship with his wife. The sin of revenge physically transforms him in the following ways: accelerated aging, deformation of facial features, and the stoop in his back. He can be said to personify the phrase "ugly as sin."

Conscience

For Hawthorne, individual conscience plays a valuable role. When a person relies on his intuition and sympathy for others, he/she is able to make good moral decisions. The Puritans, in contrast, have little use for individual conscience. In order to do what is right, a Puritan only has to follow the religious rules of community. As such individual conscience is subordinate to the religious commandments of the Bible, Hester uses her own intuition to make moral decisions, a characteristic which sets her apart from her fellow Puritans. Dimmesdale's conscience torments him. The readers can see the developments of Dimmsdale’s conscience by comparing the three scaffold scenes in chapter 2, chapter 12, and chapter 23. In the first scene, he exhorts Hester to name the father, but it is clear from his double speak that he does not want his sin to be revealed in public. In the second scaffold scene, he confesses his sin out loud, but he is alone at night, so it does not count as a public confession. In the final scaffold scene, after his election day sermon he confesses to the people that he is Hester's secret partner and he is a father of Pearl. His conscience finally clears, but he has lived with the guilt for so long that he has no strength to live after his confession. Chillingworth starts out with a conscience as evidenced by his conversation with Hester in which he admits marrying her against her wishes is a mistake that leaves her vulnerable sin of adultery. When he suspects that the other party to adultery is still in town, he loses his conscience in direct proportion to his effort to exact revenge on Dimmesdale. With revenge as his whole motive for living, he cannot survive after Dimmesdale's confession, which renders revenge useless.

Puritanism

Puritanism has a strong effect on The Scarlet Letter. In the novel, Hawthorne wants to describe how Puritanism in the 17th century apparently ignores the sanity of human minds in every aspect of punishment and salvation. He gives us the essence of the Puritan thoughts of Boston, including the Puritan's view on man's sinful situation, and the intolerant Puritan attitude towards sinner. The Puritan leaders at that time condemn every person who fails morally and force them to face a public penitence. The Puritan laws is far from God's divine love which embraces all sinners having imperfect nature and human weakness.

Hawthorne is disappointed with the intolerable system of Puritan society and its strict and inhumane moral code which denies man's imperfection. In the novel, the Puritans impose too heavy a penalty on Hester, although she is a sinner. Hester realizes that she can not escape from severe punishment by strict Puritan laws, and also realizes God's love for the poor and the needy. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale is described as a typical scapegoat who can not escape from the influence of inhumane and merciless Puritan dogmas. Hester Prynne achieves her spiritual greatness despite her own humane weakness and the prejudice of her Puritan society.

Forgiveness

The reader picks up early clues about Hawthorne's attitude toward forgiveness in the custom house because he explicitly mentions offering forgiveness to his enemies. Hester is able to forgive her enemies for the most part. Hester, as a part of moral development, learns how to forgive and she is also able to exhort others to forgive. For example in chapter 14, she asks Chillingworth not to take revenge on Dimmesdale and to forgive him. One of the indicators that Chillingworth has turned to Satan is that he is incapable of forgiving. He is even given the label "the Unforgiving" in chapter 11. In chapter 17, Hester confesses Chillingworth's identity to Dimmesdale. Dimmsdale is unwilling to forgive her, but finally he does so of his own free will. He makes a point of asking God for forgiveness for both of them. For Dimmesdale, forgiveness by God is more important than human forgiveness. This is not surprising because to a minister forgiveness of sins by God is necessary for admission to Heaven. While Dimmesdale is dying on the scaffold, he does not forgive Chillingworth instead he calls on God to forgive his tormentor.

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