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Nathaniel Hawthorne was a classic American writer of the 19th century who showed a great deal of interest in moral issues such as social institutions, crimes, and punishments. His infamous novel, The Scarlet Letter, is composed of his views and statements about these subjects. Hester Prynne is the main character of the story, which the title is derived from. Hester has an affair with the town's minister, reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. A child, Pearl, is born from this affair and Hester's sin is revealed to the whole village. As a punishment, Hester and her child are banned from the village and Hester must wear an A on her chest which stands for adultery. The main themes of the story are crime and punishment. Regarding this, the themes developed in this novel may have been influenced by Hawthorne's life and history. His family was directly involved in the Salem Witch trials of 1692 and going through many misfortunes in his life time, he reflected them in the novel. The Scarlet Letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is the author's statement about social institutions, crimes, and punishments, but also a reflection of his own life and history.
The setting of the story takes in Boston, Massachusetts near the seventeenth century when Puritans have flocked from New England to America to seek religious freedom. The town mainly consisted of Puritans whose lives were strictly based on orthodox beliefs and austere lives. The setting of the story was influenced by Hawthorne's history because his ancestor Major William Hawthorne was one of the judges directly involved in the town's witch trial and had responsibilities for the deaths of several accused witches. Also, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. He was genuinely interested in his family's background and had a strong feeling toward it. Thus, it can be an obvious thing that Hawthorne specifically associated the setting of the story to his history:
Hawthorne found himself haunted as well as intrigued by the history of his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Surrounded by the town's past, he struggled to rectify in his mind the incongruence of Puritan practiceâ€¦Perhaps a feeling of personal responsibility and guilt led Hawthorne to select Puritanism as a theme... Exposing Puritan transgressions and forcing the reader to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past gave Hawthorne an outlet for the misplaced blame he laid on himself. (Gervens 1)
Therefore, by specifically using that era, Hawthorne was able to reveal his feelings for the Puritans and their beliefs. Hawthorne may have avoided making direct statements because his feelings weren't positive and it could have caused many conflicts among readers and critics. This can be seen where in the novel; Hawthorne brings a sense of sympathy to Hester and Dimmesdale while presenting Puritanism as the reason for their misfortunes.
Hawthorne brings sympathy upon Hester by making her the first one to get punished. As a woman, Hester couldn't hide her adultery because of her pregnancy, which became a visual sign of sin. She became an example of what not to become in the town. As her punishment, she became an outcast and had to live alone with her child, unlike Dimmsdale who stayed in the town as the town's minister and was honored just as before. Dimmsdale was able to get away with adultery not only because Hester didn't mention his name, but because there wasn't any visual sign. In Puritanism, women were considered weak because they were considered their husband's property and didn't have many rights. But just from what happened between Hester and Dimmsdale we can see the difference in the punishment and treatment they had received.
But as the story progressed, Hester started to become an atypical woman by having confidence and composure. When called upon in front of everyone to show her A, she bewilders the crowd by showing off an elaborately decorated A, instead of a simple one. She never lets her head fall in times of despair and did a fine job raising Pearl by herself as a single mother. Being rebellious to the Puritan society, it can be received that Hester is a sign of independence for womanhood. During the 1840s when the novel was written, America's first women's rights convention was held. They passed a Declaration of Sentiment containing 16 discriminations that women faced in America, which contained things such as lack of property and voting rights. Hawthorne viewed women as strong willed and loving. "A woman must needs follow her own fancy, touching the adornment of her person" (Hawthorne 197). This shows his point that they need to have space and freedom; that a woman must follow her own whims and wishes. "â€¦Hester's thoughts imply something similar, when she reflects that the whole social system would have to be torn apart and built anew before women could assume a fair position on it" (Literature and It's Times 356). Hester can be seen as many things, but she can also be seen as a reflection of Anne Hutchinson. Anne Hutchinson led a group of "Antinomians" and started protesting that the observance of religious laws was not a reliable sign of godliness:
[They] believed that true godliness came from a person's inner acquaintance with the Holy Spirit; one's salvation could not be deduced simply from an outward show of good worksâ€¦ Hester Prynne, also confronts and resists the authorityâ€¦although her crime and punishment differ from those of Anne Hutchinson, Hawthorne twice refers to the famous Antinomian in descriptions of Hester, implying a parallel between his fictional rebel and the historical one. (Literature and Its Times 352)
From being a single parent to showing independence from society, Hester represented strong features of women, emphasizing their independence and loyalty.
One of the major themes discussed in the novel is crime and punishment. Hester accepts her mistake and admits to responsibility while Dimmesdale never says a word about it. From this, Hester is looked upon as the most moral person in the story for being truthful and receiving righteous punishment for the actions she has caused. Because she had nothing to hide, she lived confidently and wasn't ashamed of wearing her A. On the other hand, Dimmesdale felt oppressed and led a painful life of guilt. Although he was never punished, he punished himself through the guilt he couldn't shed. He couldn't meet his lover and their child because he kept everything a secret and it eventually all led to his destruction and downfall. This event, which shows that a public punishment is better than keeping the guilt, paradoxically has also occurred in Hawthorne's family in the year of 1681:
Country records dating from 1681 reveal that two of Hawthorne's relatives on his mother's side were convicted of incest with their brother. The two were given a public whipping and made to stand in public with a band around their foreheads that revealed the nature of their crimes for all to see. Meanwhile, their brother and partner in crime, Captain Nicholas Manning, hid in the forest. (Literature and Its Times 356)
The two that had a public stand may live on with a clean feeling and have a new start but Nicholas Manning would live on with guilt inside him as long as he remembers this incident. Concluding from these two events, it would be evident to say that Hawthorne viewed public confession as a better choice over an internal confession. They may be able to start over with a clean slate if they pay for their previous sins and become clean, like Hester. This is shown when Hester grows old and helps in the welfare of the needy and deprived. At this point, her A symbolizing Adultery now changes its meaning. But Dimmesdale, who refused confession, it only harmed him and ultimately led to his destruction.
When Chillingworth encountered Dimmesdale and found out that Dimmesdale was Hester's partner in crime, he almost eventually decides to take revenge. It may seem that the greatest sin committed in the novel is by Chillingworth. "That old man's revengeâ€¦has been black than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so! Of all the spiritual ruin symbolized by the scarlet letter, no part is more awful than the destruction of Roger Chillingworth" (Hawthorne). This comments that the greatest sin of all is taking revenge. Because adultery doesn't affect other people but because revenge hurts others, it is the worst sin of all. Instead of repenting for sins, he seeks destruction of others. This sin contained hatred unlike the adultery sin which contained love. Even if the adulterers' sin may have hurt someone, it comes unintentional unlike Chillingworth's desire to intentionally hurt others (Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1860-1864)).
Nathaniel Hawthorne's own beliefs and life deeply reflected upon this novel considering all of the points stated above. His motive to write about the settings and plot he chose, and the emphasis he gave on the harsh and fundamentalist view on life shows his clear judgment about Puritans and what they did concerning sin. This story was like his life, starting from his family's background history leading up to the current time the novel was written, describing his views concerning the society and reality. He was able to draw this out because he incorporated his real feelings and experiences in his characters and plot. Hester Prynne really came to life as a character because Hawthorne knew the sorrow she felt from her wife Sophia's lonesomeness. Hawthorne's view upon society shows that sins are corrupt if it contains hatred and revengeful meanings while it can be considered good if it is for love. And also that punishment is better taken in public where they can admit to their responsibilities and learn to live by coping with their past sins, rather than private confessions which will in due course lead to them to their condemnation. Because the story has realistic themes, a sum of Nathaniel Hawthorne's views upon Puritanism, ultimate sins and punishments, and real stories from his life, it becomes more intriguing and interesting to the readers.