Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Scarlett Letter

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The strict moral values that ruled the Puritan society were the cause of more misery, and contributed more to the downfall of that way of life than any other factor. The perfection the Puritans were seeking was impossible to obtain. No man can conceal his sin from the public without getting confused about what is the honest truth. This is the plight of Reverend Dimmesdale, Doctor Chillingworth, and Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The townspeople perceive Reverend Dimmesdale as a living example of moral perfection that should be emulated throughout their Puritan colony. Dimmesdale’s role in town, coupled with the interference of Doctor Chillingworth, makes it impossible for Dimmesdale to lay his burden down. The reverend is plagued by his lingering obsession with his crime of passion. Dimmesdale falls through an intricate spiral that leads to insanity, with only death granting a relief from his torture. By the reverend’s refusal to confess his sin, he was doomed to a life of inner suffering. Dimmesdale could have enjoyed a better life with Hester and Pearl if only he had laid his conscience to rest when Hester did.

A mysterious doctor comes to the Puritan colony just as Hester is taking her place on the scaffold; no one would have ever guessed this doctor was Hester’s husband, who was thought to be in the bottom of the sea. Doctor Chillingworth also must keep a deep secret that turns into insanity similar to Reverend Dimmesdale’s. Chillingworth portrays a skilled doctor who is a twisted, wicked character. Chillingworth alleviates the pain of his wife’s betrayal by preying on her secret lover. Fueled by his jealousy, Chillingworth tries to get even with Dimmesdale for providing Hester with a deeper love he could not give her. Dimmesdale’s death denies Chillingworth of his only pleasure, inflicting his wrath of torture. Chillingworth’s death soon follows because he has no other reason to live. The characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth might be referred to as scarlet letters themselves, because both of their dual personalities offer them the same shame that is found within Hester’s letter.

Hester Prynne is perhaps the strongest woman in the colony. Hester was perceived as a strong woman until she was drawn into her forbidden affair with Dimmesdale. It was not possible for Hester to choose to hide her affair because the birth of Pearl, a living confession of her sins, was in the near future. Hester stood solemnly before the colony as punishment for her sins. By refusing to confirm her lover’s identity, Hester is proving her love and devotion to the society. The shame and alienation that Hester feels from the Puritans changes her life forever. The actions surrounding Hester turn her into a strong maternal figure, not only to Pearl, but also to the poor and needy. Hester’s character endures the most public humiliation, but by admitting her secret she is permitted to carry on her life with Pearl. Hester’s life is free from the burdens and disintegration that ruin Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.

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Little Pearl is not only a punishment for Hester; she is also a precious gift from God. Pearl is Hester’s only companion who sees her mother as a person, not as a mere symbol of adultery. Pearl is Hawthorne’s symbol of youthful innocence. The other Puritan children scorn Pearl, just as their parents scorn Hester. The contrast between Hester and Pearl is that the hateful children do not bother Pearl, while it is years before Hester learns to deal with the pain. Pearl fixates on the symbol and makes the reader constantly aware of the symbol and Pearl’s innocence toward it. Pearl is also a symbol of youth and the inquisitive nature that surrounds children. Pearl inquires and implies harsh opinions about the people in her life, particularly Reverend Dimmesdale.

Reading the Scarlet Letter is a task that is easier said than done; because it cannot be simply read, the author’s meaning must be analyzed. Hawthorne does an exceptional job of taking the love between Hester and Dimmesdale, and bringing out evil in order to create a story. Once examined, this evil is found in the characters of the story, is found to exist only as a state of mind, which has been found to exist only as a state of mind, which has been forced on the characters by the Puritan Society. The only exception to the evil is found in Pearl, who is protected by her youthful innocence. The protest of Puritan morality is the author’s message in The Scarlet Letter.

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