dilluns, 11 de maig de 2009



It is considered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most famous novel and the first quintessentially American novel in style, theme, and language.

Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, the novel centres around the travails of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a daughter Pearl after an adulterous affair. Hawthorne's novel is concerned with the effects of the affair rather than the affair itself, using Hester's public shaming as a springboard to explore the lingering taboos of Puritan New England in contemporary society.

The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success for a number of reasons:

- First and foremost, the United States was still a relatively new society, less than one hundred years old at the time of the novel’s publication

· Indeed, still tied to Britain in its cultural formation, Hawthorne's novel offered a uniquely American style, language, set of characters, and -most importantly- a uniquely American central dilemma.

· Besides entertainment, then, Hawthorne's novel had the possibility of goading change, since it addressed a topic that was still relatively controversial, even taboo.

· Certainly Puritan values had eased somewhat by 1850, but not enough to make the novel completely welcome.

· It was to some degree a career-threatening decision to centre his novel around an adulterous affair (but compare the plot of Fielding's Tom Jones).

But Hawthorne was not concerned with a prurient affair here, though the novel’s characters are:

- Hawthorne chose to leave out the details of the adulterous rendezvous between Hester and Dimmesdale entirely.

- Instead, he was concerned with the aftermath of the affair:

·the shaming of Hester,

·the raising of a child borne of sin,

·and the values of a society that would allow a sin to continue to be punished long after it would seem reasonable.

-Hawthorne takes advantage of his greatest assets as a writer:

·the interiority of his writing,

·his exploration of thoughts and emotions

-and uses them to:

·humanize all the parties involved in the affair,

.as well as to demonize the thoughts that become consumed by it.

1. Chillingworth, notably, becomes the embodiment of Puritan values, which led people to lynch and destroy in the name of God but motivated in large measure by the people’s own repressed sins of lust, greed, and envy.

The Scarlet Letter also became intensely popular upon publication because it had the good fortune of becoming one of America's first mass-published books.

The novel became the equivalent of a seminal political tract--and the subject of endless discussion and debate, no doubt influencing social change.

Major Themes

1. Public Guilt vs. Private Guilt

Perhaps the foremost purpose of The Scarlet Letter is to illustrate the difference between:

-shaming someone in public

- and allowing him or her to suffer the consequences of an unjust act privately.

According to the legal statutes at the time and the prevailing sentiment of keeping in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Bible, adultery was a capital sin that required the execution of both adulterer and adulteress, or at the very least, severe public corporal punishment.

It is in this environment that Hester commits adultery with Dimmesdale, but we come to see that the public shaming cannot begin to account for all the complexities of the illicit relationship, or the context of it:

-What Hawthorne sets out to portray is how the private thoughts, the private torture and guilt and emotional destruction of the people involved in the affair, are more than enough punishment for the crime.

-We wonder whether the state or society has any right to impose law in private matters between citizens.

2.Punishment vs. Forgiveness

One of the more compelling themes of the novel is embodied by Chillingworth, who seems the arbiter of moral judgment in the story, since Dimmesdale, the minister and the supposed purveyor of righteousness, is himself tainted as a party to the crime. Chillingworth is surprisingly forgiving of Hester's crime:

-We sense that he understands why she would forsake him.

- After all, he is deformed, he is older, he has not been nearby, while she is beautiful and passionate.

indeed, we get the feeling that Chillingworth's self-loathing allows him to forgive Hester, but this attribute also increases the relentlessness and rage with which he goes after Dimmesdale.

- In Dimmesdale, he sees the vigour and passion which Hester desires and which he himself does not possess.

- He’s out to suck Dimmesdale of his life force, not just to punish the minister for the crime of fornicating with his wife, but also to symbolically appropriate Dimmesdale's virility.

-And as the novel continues, Chillingworth seems to grow stronger while Dimmesdale seems to weaken.

-That pattern continues until Dimmesdale dies in an act of defiance, his public demonstration of guilt, which essentially leaves Chillingworth stripped bare of his power to punish or forgive.

3. The Scarlet Letter

The scarlet letter is symbolic in a number of different ways, but perhaps most in the ways that the sinners choose to wear it:

-Hawthorne's generative image for the novel was that of a woman charged with adultery and forced to wear the letter A upon her clothes, but upon wearing it, decided to add fancy embroidery as if to appropriate the letter as a point of pride.

-Hester, a knitter by trade, sees the letter as a burden laid on by society, an act of community-enforced guilt that she is forced to bear, even though it seems to make little difference for her private thoughts.

-Dimmesdale, however, as the town minister, wears his own scarlet A burned upon his flesh, since it is the community's rage he fears the most.

-Thus we see the difference between:

·a woman who has made peace with the crime, publicly confesses, and endures the suffering the community imposes,

·and a man who imposes his own punishment because he cannot bear to reveal the crime to the community.

4. Sin and Judgment

Hawthorne's novel calls into question the notion of sin and what is necessary for redemption.


-married Chillingworth without quite understanding the commitment she made,

-and then she had to live without him while he was abroad,

-then fell in love with Dimmesdale, perhaps discovering the feeling for the first time.

For each kind of sin, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime and what must be done, if anything, to redeem the sinner in the eyes of society as well as in the eyes of the sinner himself or herself.

We also should remember that what the Puritans thought of as sin was different from what went for sin in Hawthorne's time, both being different from what many Christians think of as sin today.

5. Civilization vs. Wilderness

Pearl embodies the theme of wilderness over against civilization:

-she is a kind of embodiment of the scarlet letter: wild, passionate, and completely oblivious to the rules, mores, and legal statutes of the time.

-Pearl is innocence, in a way, an individualistic passionate innocence.

So long as Dimmesdale is alive, Pearl seems to be a magnet that attracts Hester and Dimmesdale, almost demanding their reconciliation or some sort of energetic reconciliation.

But as soon as Dimmesdale dies.

-Pearl seems to lose her vigour and becomes a normal girl, able to marry and assimilate into society.

-The implication is thus that:

·Pearl truly was a child of lust or love, a product of activity outside the boundaries imposed by strict Puritan society.

·Once the flame of love is extinguished, she can properly assimilate.

6. The Town vs. the Woods

In the town, Hester usually is confronted with the legal and moral consequences of her crime:

-Governor Bellingham comes to take her child away,

-Chillingworth reminds her of her deed,

-and she faces Dimmesdale in the context of sinner (his reputation remains untarnished despite his role in the affair).

But she is free to rediscover herself whenever Hester leaves the town and enters the woods:

-a traditional symbol of unbridled passion without boundaries,.

-The woods also traditionally emblematize darkness:

·In the darkness of night, Hester is free to meet Dimmesdale, to confess her misgivings, and to live apart from the torment and burdens of the guilt enforced by the community.

·Dimmesdale too is free at night to expose his guilt on the scaffold and reconcile with Hester.

7. Memories vs. the Present

Hester Prynne's offense against society occurred seven years earlier, but she remains punished for it.

Hester learned to forgive herself for her adultery, but society continues to scorn her for it. (We might remember Jean Valjean's permanent identity as criminal after a single minor crime in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.)

Indeed, Hester reaches peace with her affair and in that peace comes to see the town as insufficiently forgiving in its thoughts and attitudes.

Pearl is enough of a reminder of the wild choices in her past, and as Pearl grows up, Hester continues to live in the present rather than in the past.

Reverend Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is haunted in the present by sins past and seems to reflect (along with Chillingworth) the town's tendency to punish long after the offense. In suppressing his own confession, Dimmesdale remains focused on coming to terms with a sinful past instead of looking squarely at the problems of the present.