The Scarlet Letter was immediately successful, and still is today, because it addresses divine and ethical issues from a unique American standpoint. In 1850, adultery was a tremendously sensitive subject, but because Hawthorne had the support of the New England literary establishment, it was accepted easily into the sphere of suitable reading. The Scarlet Letter represents the pinnacle of Hawthorne's literary genius. It remains significant for its truth-seeking and psychosomatic depth, and continues to be read as a classic tale on a widespread
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theme. The Scarlet Letter's setting is that of a Puritan community centuries ago. Even so, the moral dilemmas of individual accountability, overwhelming shame, anger, loyalty, and revenge are still true today. The reader can learn about ways to get through some things that America's society today experiences from this novel. Many critics of The Scarlet Letter have written that this novel encourages the idea that sin can actually lead to the perpetuation of knowledge or growth. This is a common theme found in the novel by most who read it. However, a question not so commonly asked, is what exactly did Nathaniel Hawthorne himself want his reader to learn from this work of art? One of the many lessons Hester learns throughout the novel is humility. She learns that she can be strong and willful without being arrogant. "The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not to tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers-stern and wild ones-and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss" (Hawthorne). This quote exposes that even the novel's narrator is very similar to the belief system taken up by Nathaniel Hawthorne himself. He would not have been able to write this book without taking a stance on the subject at hand. In other words, he either did or did not believe that sin could lead to knowledge. Since Hester is the sympathetic character, one could presume that Hawthorne's opinion was that of this essay's. It has been said that writers are "teachers" in a way to today's society. This is true according to Hillis as stated below: It seems important to remember that the great novelists are consciously or unconsciously teachers of morals, while the most fascinating essays and poems are essentially books of aspiration and spiritual culture. Lest the scope of these
studies be misunderstood, it should be said that the author approaches these volumes from the viewpoint of a pastor, interested in literature as a help in religious life....these studies emphasize the importance of right thinking in order to right conduct and character, and the uses of great books as aids and incentives to the higher Christian life. (Hillis)
Nathaniel Hawthorne was, at first, drawn in to the Transcendentalist movement, and influence from this movement is evident in the novel. Hawthorne left transcendentalist Brook Farm disappointed. Although he left and did not delve into this belief system as a life-long custom, he still kept some of the ideals. One of his ideals which can be seen in The Scarlet Letter is the belief in one's own choice and consequences thereof. This novel contrasts passion and individualism with the Puritan way of life. I see that Hawthorne created the narrator of this story to reflect himself. It is a way to get out his beliefs without publicly announcing them from his own mouth. The listener may doubt the words of a person they do not personally know, but it is much easier to believe the words of the narrator. The reader gets to know the narrator throughout the book just as if it is a personal relationship. His narrator does a fantastic job of conveying Hawthorne's true emotions. It could be derived that Hawthorne wanted his readers to see that Hester endured much pain through her sinful actions, but the pain has a silver lining. This silver lining, symbolically, could be the knowledge Hester gained. It could be stated that Hawthorne wanted us to see that by the knowledge that we gain, we can find the truth and the freedom we crave, and to show this, he created a narrator similar to himself. Hester's horrible circumstances brought forth the "heroic traits" she already had inside. (Crowley 172)."By the doctrine of felix culpa, 'the fortunate fall,'
that out of sin and evil comes good and that Hester is educated and refined by her wrongdoing" (Fogle 132). Hester stood her ground even though she was horrifically shamed by her peers. She knew that real wisdom and knowledge come from honesty and "self-justification" (Crowley 173). Nathaniel Hawthorne worked as a customs surveyor in Salem, Massachusetts (as did the narrator of The Scarlet Letter). He published the novel in 1850. Hawthorne wrote "The Custom House" as its own entity, but it became the prelude to The Scarlet Letter. "The Scarlet Letter, for all its complexity taken alone, presents a seamless front from the perspective of 'The Custom House'" (Dauber). Hawthorne attained his material for "The Custom House" from his actual work at a custom house. In the story, there is a glimpse of the scarlet colored letter. Both stories deal with the Puritanism ideals. Hawthorne wrote "The Custom House" and The Scarlet Letter as a response of his thoughts to the articles he read while still holding a job at the custom house in Salem. The Puritans were a group of religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630's. The Puritans "saw in everything God's will" (Fogle 7). Hawthorne writes the novel as if it is a true biographical story. He does this to intrigue his reader that much more. It is more plausible that a reader/listener would learn and bring to life lessons from a news story more so than a coloring book. This is an over exaggerated analogy, but it still pertains. The Puritans were known for their condescending way of life and speech. This group of people in our story is harsh and sanctimonious. It is almost as if there is no room for the state of "humanity" or "humanness" in this society. They are built around "what is supposed to be" more than "what actually is." Some may argue that the reasoning behind Hester's growth is nothing to do with
knowledge, but why? This is because these detractors say that our communities have just gotten lax, or that our morals have declined. In contrast, advocates of the "sin equals knowledge theory" argue that our people as a whole are far beyond the comprehension of people of earlier times. Our present technology far exceeds the technology of any past time frame. Perhaps it is not that our morals have deteriorated as time goes by, but that our understanding of the human state has allowed us to recognize fault as less intolerable. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses authoritarian Puritan society as a sketch for all people. Hawthorne did not necessarily agree with the Puritan way of punishment, but he does not blatantly dispute it in the novel. He shows Hester amongst the Puritan way of living, and allows for sympathy. Upon reading this novel, the reader feels remorseful for Hester. This creates a feeling of disgust with the way the Puritan group of people handled her situation. As the novel continues, however, we are able to see the amount of growth Hester makes. Perhaps Hawthorne did not want his reader to take the Puritan society created in the novel so literally. In Hawthorne's time and in today's time, are there not people still outcast by a past decision of theirs? America's current society still does this. Maybe, in fact, Hawthorne took what he saw in his own lifetime and exaggerated it by making the downcasters Puritans- because they are so well known for their condescension. Let us start at the beginning, since the relationship between sin and knowledge is important to the Judeo-Christian tradition from which Hawthorne emerged. As the story goes, Adam and Eve were given a beautiful life, but because they ate the fruit from the tree of "knowledge of good and evil" they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. When they gained knowledge, Adam and Eve became, as the Puritans believed, sinful and unacceptable by Heaven. They were suddenly aware that they were naked, and they felt embarrassed. When they leave the
garden, they are forced to do manual labor and multiply. According to Christianity, everyone is born with "original sin" we have inherited from the misdeeds of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As Eve took the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, starving for wisdom, little did she know that the entire human race would thereafter be tainted by her "sin." If the reader were to look at the narrator of the story and link it to Hawthorne, one could derive his beliefs on this subject: Human beings have been prone to evilness, and are more likely to go astray than to act in a Godly manner. This is a faithless, cynical view of humanity, but one perhaps justified by the actions of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Dimmesdale. Hester and Dimmesdale follow this theory and the story line of Adam and Eve almost to the letter. Sin seems to be an inevitable factor in their lives; although they are good people, their inherited sin boils up and nearly destroys them. As with Adam and Eve, Hester and Dimmesdale's actions, put them in sad situations. They face expulsion, pain, and suffering, but they also gain knowledge. Hawthorne recognized Hester and Dimmesdale's deed as a sin, but had a more forgiving opinion of it than the Puritans and some people in today's society. Hawthorne shows in his novel that yes, sin is bad, but one can learn and grow from it regardless. Hester may be the perfect case of sin leading to knowledge. After the trial, Hester Prynne is in better shape emotionally than the other parties to the conflict- Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. One would assume that the main character would be the shakiest in a situation such as this, but it is actually Dimmesdale and Chillingworth that are the most unstable. Even though Hester has sinned according to her peers, she makes a recovery that is by far the best possible. The remaining two lack the courage and knowledge to be able to seek a way of somewhat serenity. Guilt, obsession, and the desire for revenge are the crutches of Dimmesdale
and Chillingworth. The story shows us the problems with hiding deep dark secrets. Dimmesdale hides his sin, Chillingworth hides his true identity, and they both suffer for their concealment. When Dimmesdale finally stands to confess his sin, a little sun shines down on him from "the heavens" (Hawthorne). The truth finally set him free. Although Hester does not win a release from her community's ostracism for her confessions, she does eventually reap the rewards, so to speak. In chapter thirteen of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives Hester a break. After seven years of experiencing her community's hatred, she finally gets its long awaited respect for her
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work and conduct. In this example, Hawthorne shows that it may not be easy to bounce back from a "wrong-doing" but it is possible with patience and perseverance. Hester learns humility from this experience. In the beginning of the novel, she is very proud and arrogant, but when she turns from that attitude, she rises above her former position in the eyes of those watching. Hawthorne sometimes uses his writing to penetrate, investigate, and convey his perceptions of the complex moral and spiritual conflicts that plague mankind. Hawthorne created The Scarlet Letter in a way that it can be explained with reference, as stated earlier with the example of Adam and Eve, to the supernatural world of heaven and hell. "Heaven is the sphere of absolute knowledge and justice and- hesitantly- of complete fulfillment" (Fogle 134). Because of Dimmesdale's position in the church, it would be all too shameful to allow the public to know his crime. He is one of few that know of the hidden act and it completely ruptures his spirit. He does not allow himself to grow through this knowledge as Hester does until it is too late, though, as this quote goes on to explain:
Dimmesdale, a 'remorseful hypocrite' is forced to live a perpetual lie in public. His own considerable talents for self-torture are supplemented by the situation as well as by the devoted efforts of Chillingworth. His knowledge is an agony. His conviction of sin is in exact relationship to the reverence in which his parishioners hold him. He grows pale and meager- it is the asceticism of a saint on earth; his effectiveness as a minister grows with his despair; he confesses the truth in his sermons, but transforms it 'into the veriest falsehood' by the generality of his avowal and merely increases the adoration of his flock; every effort deepens his plight, since he will not- until the end- make the effort of complete self-revelation. (Fogle 141). Some say that Dimmesdale gave himself a "scarlet letter" and others say it is the work of God. They imply that the letter present on Dimmesdale's skin is judgment passed by Heaven. Through much persecution, Hester Prynne is forced to grow as a person, despite the fact that her neighbors continued to go on as they were. Hester knows that because of the child, there is no way to cover up her sin. No one in her community will forget the dreadful dead because a human life was the result of it. Not only did she show her personal strength and growth on the scaffold in front of everyone, but she also showed her townspeople the fantastically embroidered "scarlet letter." I think that her peers were shocked at this. It almost seems as if Hester is proud of her letter. However, I do not think she was proud of it, but that perhaps she did not want the onlookers to "get the satisfaction of seeing her hide the letter" (Smithpeters). Of all the characters morally compromised in the story, Hester made the best of her condition. But there was one truth she was unwilling to show. Throughout the novel, she refuses
to name her fellow culprit, Dimmesdale. It is not said exactly why she is so generous in this way though. It could have been so he could be allowed to keep his career as the town's Reverend Minister. It could have also been because she truly loved him and did not want him to endure the pain publicly as she had. The real reason is not obvious. One just has to use their imagination.
This remarkable story can be taken from so many different points of view and give each reader a different mental picture. Even though the novel setting is that of a Puritan community centuries ago, the moral dilemmas of individual accountability, overwhelming shame, anger, loyalty, and revenge are still true today. The way Hawthorne implants the issue that the prevalence of sin can actually lead to the perpetuation of knowledge or growth, and truth is the freedom we crave is surely ingenious.
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