The Scarlet Letter – Symbol of Shame Transformed Into Badge of Courage
The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered to be his Magnum Opus. It is inevitably included in listings of the 5 or 10 greatest American novels. He manages to transpose the readers to the Puritan Age to fully comprehend the puritan society that was stern, and repressive with little room for individualism. The formal shape of The Scarlet Letter was that of a religious allegory and through a brilliant kind of literary impressionism, Hawthorne conveyed the somber fortitude, the inexorable justice and cruel superstitions of the seventeenth century puritan theocracy. Set in seventeenth century puritan Boston, it tells the story of Hester Prynne who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair. And as the punishment, she is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ (symbol of adultery) on her dress. Her long lost husband appears just in time to witness Hester's public shame. He vows to find out her lover's name. Hester's lover, Minister Arthur Dimmesdale's sin is that he is unable to publicly admit that he committed adultery with Hester. This inability to confess causes him great anguish and self-hatred. He inflicts physical torture upon himself. His spiritual turmoil results in physical distress and illness. Hester's daughter Pearl serves as a representation of Hester's relationship with Dimmesdale. Initially she symbolises the shame of Hester's public punishment for adultery. But as she grows older, she symbolises the punishment itself by continuing to torment Hester about the scarlet letter. The main theme of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is that hidden guilt causes more suffering than open guilt. In the book, Hester expresses open guilt through being publicly punished for her adultery. She is ridiculed and ostracised by the puritan society, but later is forgiven and even respected by them. Dimmesdale's inability to confess leads him to suffer hidden guilt. His guilt is compounded both by the fact that Hester is taking all the blame for him, and that he is acting as a hypocrite by not confessing his sin. He also says to Hester: ‘Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret.’ Hawthorne uses Hester as his mouthpiece when Hester, in her contemplation thought ‘the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth was everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's. Hawthorne very subtly conveys his message that people who appear to be pure and pious can also be sinners. And it needs a lot of courage to confess one's sins publicly. In this light, Hawthorne depicts Hester as an authentic American heroine, sacrificed by social convenience on the altar of masculine institutions. Hawthorne ends the novel on the note that puritan society is stagnant, whereas Hester and Dimmesdale's experience shows that a state of sinfulness can lead to personal growth, sympathy and understanding of others.
Religious allegory, Symbolism, Puritan legalism, Literary impressionism, Sin, Guilt and hypocrisy.