Spiritual Reassessment In The Scarlet Letter English Literature Essay

3170 words (13 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this


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The British novelist Fay Weldon offers this observation about happy endings: “The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from the readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean fortunate events – a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death – but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death.” Identify the “spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation” evident in the ending and explain its significance in The Scarlet Letter as a whole.

The novel, The Scarlet Letter, most definitely has references of moral development and moral reconciliation within it. Moral development is best defined is the process through which children develop attitudes and behaviors which will be accepted into society as being commonplace, based on the social and cultural customs of a specific region. Moral development is displayed throughout The Scarlet Letter through Hester Prynne’s daughter Pearl. We get to see Pearl grow up in the story, from the moment she was conceived in the prison, until the end of the story. She developed as a baby to a young child, always questioning Hester Prynne about the Scarlet Letter and why she wore such an object. We also witness the daily struggles Pearl must endeavor as she tries to live with her mother Hester in a town that shows them both absolutely no respect because of Hester’s extramarital affair.

Throughout The Scarlet Letter there is also the theme of moral reconciliation. The scene of moral reconciliation in this story occurs when the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold that Hester stood on seven years earlier and admits that he is the father of Pearl. This scene is extremely significant to The Scarlet Letter because this is the moment of closure for Hester Prynne and for Pearl. Throughout the entire story, Hester Prynne had to carry the Scarlet Letter for her adulterous acts, which definitely took a toll on her, both physically and emotionally, because she was constantly ridiculed by the unforgiving public. Despite the setback, Hester tried to teach Pearl what was she felt was best, however, Pearl still felt confused about who her father was, since Hester never directly told her. It wasn’t until the moment of moral reconciliation, the moment which Arthur Dimmesdale confessed that Pearl was put out of her doubt and understood who her true father was.

2. Given your earlier study of Puritan literature, trace the elements of Puritanism in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Discuss the extant to which Hawthorne embraces or critiques Puritan ideology. (Compare actual Puritans you have studied with Hawthorne’s fictional characters: Anne Bradstreet with Hester Prynne; Edward Taylor with Arthur Dimmesdale; Jonathan Edwards with various ministers in Hawthorne, or with the narrator himself.) Incorporate your knowledge of Puritan society that you have acquired from your study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Throughout The Scarlet Letter, the elements of Puritanism are displayed in every aspect of how each character behaves and operates. Basic elements of the Puritan beliefs included relationships, religion, community, discipline, and punishment. First, relationships between men and women were extremely strict and constrained, which made adultery an extremely bad sin throughout any Puritan community. Religion was also a very important part of everybody’s daily life and people of those times often went to their ministers and reverends for help and support. Puritan punishments were harsh to try to prevent other people from committing the same offense as the criminal had committed. Marriage was also an important element of the Puritan times, and once a couple was married, it was a terrible offense if one or the other was not loyal to each other. Lastly, women had absolutely no say and no power within their communities. They were not represented in government and could not own land.

I believe that Nathanial Hawthorne embraced the Puritan ideology when he wrote The Scarlet Letter. After each and every page, he painted a picture of how Puritans lived their daily lives. He especially used the four main characters of the story, Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl to demonstrate to the audience how people had to live in those times and the everyday challenges that most people faced. Hawthorne also demonstrates how strict the people were back in Puritan times, as well as their punishments through Hester Prynne and her ordeal at scaffold. After her crime, she was jailed and then humiliated at the scaffold for three hours, but she would have a lifetime of humiliation and despair with the Scarlet Letter A on her chest for the rest of her life. Hawthorne also showed the audience the toll that the Scarlet Letter also took on Hester Prynne’s daughter, Pearl, for she was disrespected by the community as well because of her mother’s wrongdoing. Pearl was also in a state of psychological confusion because she didn’t know who her father was or if she had one.

Nathanial Hawthorne’s fictional characters have a distinct Puritan background to them and can so forth be compared to actual distinguished Puritans. For example, Hester Prynne can be compared with the writer Anne Bradstreet. Although Anne Bradstreet didn’t exactly suffer the same way as Hester Prynne had and didn’t commit such an offense as Hester had either, Anne suffered in different ways. Anne Bradstreet was an excellent writer, however, she couldn’t get her work published because during Puritan times, it was frowned upon for women to have such intellectual knowledge. Anne’s brother-in-law secretly brought copies of her work from America to England to have it published anonymously, and her work gained popularity in England. Just like Hester Prynne, Anne Bradstreet was looked down upon because of her education level and writing skills.

Another one of Nathanial Hawthorne’s fictional characters, Arthur Dimmesdale, can be compared with Arthur Dimmesdale. Edward Taylor was an American poet, physician, and pastor. Three years after Edward Taylor graduated from Harvard University, he went to Westfield, Massachusetts where he fulfilled his duties as a pastor like Arthur Dimmesdale.

Nathanial Hawthorne’s fictional ministers can be compared with Jonathan Edwards. Like the many ministers in The Scarlet Letter, Jonathan Edwards had a strong religious background. Jonathan Edwards was a famous preacher, theologian, and writer. Jonathan Edwards’s most famous sermon was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God which mostly discussed about the image of hell.

3. Certain pervasive themes recur in Hawthorne’s stories. These include: the individual’s isolation from the community; the influence of the past on the present; the consequence of sin and guilt; the limitations of self-reliance; the evil of manipulation. How is each of these important to the development of the plot of The Scarlet Letter, and also to the development of each of the novel’s 3 main adult characters?

The recurring themes in Nathanial Hawthorne’s stories are important because they are the true meaning of the story. The first theme, the individual’s isolation from the community, is important to the plot because it shows how people react when they feel as if they are the only people in the world. Hester Prynne was isolated from the community because of the Scarlet Letter, which singled her out as an “adulterer.” The Scarlet Letter identified her wrongdoing to the townspeople who made fun of her and ridiculed her, furthering her isolation. Her cottage was on the outskirts of town right on the edge of the forest so she didn’t have to leave near the abusive townspeople.

The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale was isolated from the community in some different ways than Hester Prynne. He gets along fine with the townspeople; however, he is isolated because of guilt. He knew he had contributed to Hester Prynne’s problem and that guilt of knowing was slowly eating away at his life inside of him. He was isolated and sickly and was always at the care of his physician, Roger Chillingworth, who was also isolated from the community as well. His need for revenge and the way he dressed scared the townspeople into thinking that he was sent by the devil to go and get Arthur Dimmesdale. Roger Chillingworth’s obsession for revenge turned him into an older man and furthered him from the community.

Another recurring theme in The Scarlet Letter is the influence of the past on the present. This theme is relevant to the plot because it shows that the people during Puritan times will never forget the past. The events and actions of one particular person in the past will determine how that person will be judged and looked upon in the future by the general public. This was a common practice in Puritan society and is reflected in The Scarlet Letter. Every action that a Puritan person did could come under scrutiny from government officials, religious officials, or the general public.

Hester Prynne was definitely affected by this theme. Her extramarital affair was part of her past and the people of Boston were never going to forget about it. Her horrific behavior in the past determined who she would be in the future. As the story progressed, the Scarlet Letter on her chest was a constant reminder of her terrible sin. It reminded her and the people around her everyday of her transgressions. Hester came under fire from the townspeople who mocked her constantly and ridiculed her because of her past actions.

The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale was definitely affected by this theme. Although never publically humiliated as Hester Prynne had been, his past was isolated only to his emotional thoughts. Arthur Dimmesdale was extremely lucky that his evil secret was never released into public, because if it was he would have probably have been hanged for it. Although his past actions remained private, they constantly ate away at his health, making him weaker and weaker despite his young age. His physician, and the third major adult character, Roger Chillingworth, also had a questionable past of his own. Roger Chillingworth like Arthur Dimmesdale was fortunate, for Hester Prynne kept his past a secret so he wouldn’t come under fire from the public. He was a demanding husband who wanted Hester to love him, but eventually sent her to America but he himself never came. He faked his death because of a shipwreck and showed up in Boston as a physician with a new alias, “Roger Chillingworth.” His action in the past when he was with Hester shows the reader his true personality. He is an evil person who acts as a leech in the story, always hungry for revenge. His acts in the past in England influenced his future acts and the way he operated when he embarked in Boston.

The third recurring theme in The Scarlet Letter is the consequence of sin and guilt. This is important to the story because Puritans felt that sin was extremely evil. They felt that if a crime was committed a serious offense would have to accompany it to set an example to scare people so they would understand the consequences for that particular offense. Puritans often tried to use guilt to get people to confess to crimes. This theme definitely played an important role in the adult characters of The Scarlet Letter.

Hester Prynne is the primary example of how this theme affected the characters of the story. She experienced firsthand the consequences of sin, by being harassed by the townspeople and constantly mocked for her actions. The Scarlet Letter on her chest was a symbol of shame and openly shamed her on a daily basis. She was on the frontline of the assault and took the heat for her sin, which in turn, took a toll on her health and wellbeing. She got weaker and weaker as the story went on, as both her consequence and her guilt began eating away at her, both physically and emotionally. Her guilt wasn’t just because of the Scarlet Letter and her offense, it was also because she was holding the secrets of two men, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth. She had to conceal Arthur Dimmesdale’s transgressions similar to hers and she had to also conceal Roger Chillingworth’s true identity, which definitely took a tremendous emotional strain on her. Hester Prynne also had a child Pearl as a result of her sin.

Arthur Dimmesdale, just like Hester Prynne, had a secret of his own, which is why his health started to go down the drain at such a young age. His sin with Hester Prynne definitely made him feel guilty and wrong. His emotional strain made his body physically weaker and weaker. Arthur Dimmesdale eventually confessed his sins at the last minute before his death; however, he was still an active minister preaching to the community despite him being a hypocrite. His physician, Roger Chillingworth was most definitely affected by this theme as well. Lying to the community and falsifying his identity was his sin. Just like Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth lived as a hypocrite. In a desperate act, stimulated by revenge and probably guilt, he tried to find Hester’s lover. After Arthur Dimmesdale confesses and dies, Roger Chillingworth has nothing else to live for, so he eventually dies himself.

The fourth element in The Scarlet Letter is the limitation of self-reliance. ***

The final theme in The Scarlet Letter is the evil of manipulation. This theme is important to the plot because it demonstrated how people took advantage of each other in Puritan times. This theme is shown primarily between Roger Chillingworth and Hester Prynne. Roger Chillingworth was a master manipulator and took full advantage of Hester Prynne back when they lived together in England. He expected Hester to submit to him and show affection to him despite the fact that he ignored her most of the time. He manipulated Hester when he sent her to America and never showed up like he promised. He eventually showed up as Roger Chillingworth, in some sense, he manipulated and deceived the entire town because of his false identity. Arthur Dimmesdale indirectly is a manipulator as well. Hester Prynne was imprisoned alone with her baby and when she was humiliated on the scaffold, she stood there obediently with her baby. Where was the father this entire time? Arthur Dimmesdale kept his sin a secret until the very minute of his death. He let Hester stand and take the punishment at the beginning of the story. He stood and watched wear the Scarlet Letter, yet he never admitted his wrongdoing. He is equally as guilty as Roger Chillingworth is for manipulating Hester Prynne and taking full advantage of her.

Nathanial Hawthorne did an excellent job incorporating these five themes into the story. These relevant themes were not just problems in the past; they are still existent today and wreak havoc in the daily lives of all people around the world.

4. Two major symbols in The Scarlet Letter are “the scaffold of the pillory”, and “the natural environment (particularly, the forest and the seashore) outside of Boston”. It might be said that Hawthorne intended for “the scaffold” to symbolize time, while the natural environment symbolizes the conflict between Puritanism and individual freedom. Explain in detail, with specific examples from the novel, to what degree each of these 2 symbols succeeds in accomplishing the author’s purpose.

The two major symbols in The Scarlet Letter the “scaffold of the pillory” and “the natural environment outside of Boston” are very important symbols in this novel. These symbols are also settings in this novel. Nathanial Hawthorne definitely succeeded in using “the scaffold of the pillory” to represent time. We see the scaffold at various intervals in The Scarlet Letter, first at the beginning of the story when Hester is being humiliated there. Secondly, we see the scaffold when the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale asks to meet Hester and Pearl there, and lastly, we see the scaffold at the end, where Arthur Dimmesdale shows his true self and reveals to the general public, his true sins. Hawthorne made the scaffold to act like a central meeting place for the main characters of the story, especially for Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale. Every time Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale meet at the scaffold, they seem to be celebrating a new milestone as they move closer to becoming a complete family with Pearl. This might be so, until the end of the story when Arthur Dimmesdale dies at the scaffold after his confession. That is the moment of how long time has passed until Arthur Dimmesdale confessed his sins and transgressions. It also shows how much time has passed since Hester Prynne was there being humiliated as a punishment for her transgressions.

The other symbol which Nathanial Hawthorne uses in The Scarlet Letter is “the natural environment outside of Boston” which symbolizes the conflict between Puritanism and individual freedom. The author uses this to demonstrate the completely different aspects of each of the communities as well as the different ways of living which can be found in these completely separate places. The town of Boston represents a civilized community with its own set of laws and regulations which have to be recognized by every citizen living there. However, in the woods right outside the borders of the town, is a completely different world, not represented by any laws or regulations. The woods provide a place for both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale to open up to each other. They are for a few moments a young couple once again, not separated by the laws and regulations of an abusive city. Both Hester and Arthur were true to each other when they were out talking in the forest. The forest was also a place for Mistress Hobbins to conduct her midnight rides unnoticed from the rest of the town.

The author Nathanial Hawthorne uses these two important symbols to represent who his characters were. He puts his characters into a position in which they continually look back on the past without knowing how much time has actually gone by between the beginning of the book and the end of the book. He gives his characters a place to be themselves and express who they really are to each other, not have to act like robots to fit into a single-minded society which won’t accept them.

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