2007 Open-ended Question: In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present activities, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character's relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
Whether positive or negative, past events have the power to influence the manner in which both the individual and their society must adjust their beliefs and perspectives in accordance with their actions. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter exposes the reality of the strict boundaries that women faced before the 20th century. Hawthorne depicts both the personal and societal consequences of an adulteress, to reveal the nature of evil, and its coexistence with good.
Rather than diving into the plot, the novel begins by "setting the scene" and juxtaposing a deathly prison door with an elegant rose bush. The narrator suggests that a rose bush, or nature in general, serves as "a sweet moral blossom," that sheds light upon the darkness of human nature. However, the narrator negates a definitive meaning of the rose bush, subtly mentioning it as the novel progresses. Hester Prynne then comes up to the deathly door with an illegitimate baby, as a result of committing adultery. Here, the juxtaposition of a daunting door and the innocence of a newborn baby, adds to emphasize the contrast, and coexistence of good and evil. However, in the pre-20th century public eye, this particular newborn baby, reflects evil in its purest form - the result of a most sinful action.
As punishment, Prynne must wear, as the novel suggests, a scarlet letter "A," on the breast of her gown, every day. This symbol shuns her from society. Her letter stands out among a crowd not only for its sinful connection, but also for its beauty and craftsmanship of gold embroidery. Prynne's talent and passion for embroidery allowed her to support herself, worn by ministers, governors, and even military men. Though she may be ranked at the top of embroidery, society still looks down upon her sin. She was forbidden to embroider bridal clothing, for it would be tainted. No matter how much she has progressed in her future, her past sin continues to plague her.
Pearl, the illegitimate child, is viewed as a "demon-child." However, as her name implies, she is Prynne's greatest treasure. Pearl is both a reminder of disgrace, but also, a mother's only jewel. When Boston's societal leaders feel Pearl represents too much sin, they intend to take her away from Prynne. In the Governor's Hall, Pearl points out a reflection of her mother in a convex mirror; a mirror that exaggerated the scarlet letter so much, that it took over the image; as in life, Prynne is hidden behind the preconceptions that the townspeople possess due to her scarlet letter. They look out the window, into a garden that has failed to take in the old plants. The garden's owner, Governor Bellingham, is unable to take care of his garden, because he is trying to plant old plants. The garden represents the Governor's inability to run his city, for he continues to try to instill old ideas into new soil. It may be time for these old leaders to embrace new world ideas - hinting towards the beginning of acceptance towards Prynne's sin. Gardens are usually associated with beauty and serene feelings, but his garden is dull and lifeless, barely providing nutrients to its plants. The only thing that is beautiful is the rosebush. Although nature does provide relief from all the chaos and ills of society, it is rare that good comes with no evil. With every rose, comes a thorn; with every pleasure, comes pain - pure pleasure is rare, because good and evil almost always coincide.
When they reach judgment, Prynne begs Dimmesdale for mercy. He answers to her plea, and does not want to further investigate as Chillingworth wishes. It seems that Dimmesdale is merciful, because he understands human nature, and because he is indeed a minister. As the novel progresses, Chillingworth looks noticely "evil." Dimmesdale tells Chillingworth that Prynne is at least lucky to have confessed her sin, rather than having a sin eat her up inside. He goes into depth about the difficulty and horror of possessing an unconfessed sin. His unconfessed sin is that he is Pearl's father; he is the accomplice of the adultery; this epic twist completely undermines faith and moral value. A reverend has sinned, and fails to acknowledge it. This act demonstrates how good, his mercy towards Prynne, coincides with evil, the guilt of his hidden sin. Upon deeper analysis, one can see how it is less of good coinciding with evil, but how what seems to be good, is actually evil.
Chillingworth discovers the sin when he looks at Dimmesdale's chest when he is asleep; however, Hawthorne negates what he saw. This mystery provokes Chillingworth to continue and finish what he had already started - emotionally destroying Dimmesdale. As his name suggests, he is full of coldness, lacking warmth and compassion. He feels no sympathy for Dimmesdale, and will continue to play mind games. The only difference between Chillingworth's sin, is that he feels no guilt, no remorse. The pain gets worse and worse, becoming impossible to bear. He clenches his chest, paralleling to the location of the scarlet letter. He feels pain where the sin is open, in his heart, where emotions so deep plague both his mind and body. Although both share the same pain, it is killing Dimmesdale because he cannot confess it.
The only person who realizes the connection between the two is Pearl. She realizes that the minster's pain in his heart parallels with the scarlet. She is innocence plagues with evil; she has made the connection (evil), but does not possess its meaning, for she is innocent. It is for her young mind and innocence that prevents her from acknowledging a minister's, or any religious figures, symbol of purity. For that reason, she possesses a higher knowledge.
Furthermore, when Prynne meets the minister in the forest, they are still able to find their love for one another, even after seven years. They call each other by their first names and plot to run away together; it is only in the forest, away from society, that they are able to find a sense of compassion and truth. It is society's ills that creates social customs and decide was can or cannot be accepted. Prynne rips off her scarlet letter, finally experiencing freedom by tearing off the object that society created for her. Escape is found from removing the social fears and boundaries that society creates. However, Pearl is unable to recognize her mother and forces her to put it back on. This illustrates how Prynne's sin cannot be forgiven too quickly, and cannot be forgotten.
In the end, Dimmesdale gives his most powerful sermon for Election Day, but dies soon after. The mark on his chest cannot be recalled; if it is a mark of an A, it represents the sin they have dually committed; if there is no mark, it represents the sin that can be committed by anyone, and the mark is in the mind - a mark that will plague forever. One year later, Chillingworth dies, for he is a leech that can no longer feed off Dimmesdale's blood.
Hester Prynne's sin of adultery, reflects how one past event can completely change the future course of a life; both in the way an individual sees themselves, and also the way their society views them. Her scarlet letter served as the social boundaries and prejudgments that society created for her. Because of this, readers are able to look through the eyes of Hester Prynne - from the outside, in. The inside, is plagued by social constraints, and the reality of what is right and good. Society has prevented good from being pure; it either coincides with evil, or is what is most feared- seemingly good, but is actually evil.