Monday, April 2, 2012

The Scarlet Letter Essay

The Scarlet Letter Essay

Reflection of the Puritan society in the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This paper is devoted to a well-known piece of literature The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the middle of the nineteenth century. The novel however touches the issues of colonial New England two centuries before it was written. The major confusion, caused by the novel, is due to the fact that the author took the time not corresponding to the time of writing The Scarlet Letter. Also due to the earlier times described in the novel, it is said to belong to historical romance written in the period of transcendentalism of the American literature.

This movement was also brightly presented by other writers – as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and so on. Transcendentalism was said to reflect the reaction towards rationalism of the eighteenth century and was aimed against the religious orthodoxy of Calvinist ideas in New England. The main three wails, on which transcendentalism stood, were idealism, mysticism and individualism. The short characteristic of this literature period can already shed the light on the main themes and ideas, presented by the writer of the Scarlet Letter.


Most critics state, that the novel of Hawthorne belongs to abolitionism literature. Abolitionism was a well known movement of the nineteenth century against slavery in America, which finally led to start of the Civil War. Hawthorne did quite clearly oppose abolitionists, writing that slavery was “one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances.” (Hawthorne, 8).

The novel The Scarlet Letter, telling about the events, which took place in Puritanical Boston two centuries before the novel was in fact written, investigates the themes of sin, quit and legalism. The ironical attitude of the author of The Scarlet Letter towards the puritanical views of these concepts is evident in his description of the prison’s building as already old and worn, although the colony itself was only around fifteen years.

The Puritans’ religious movement, obsessed with their own conceptions of lifestyle, was intolerant to any other ideas. Their authoritarian and suppressing attitude was contrasted by the writer to general human life principles. The main heroes of the novel – Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth without any doubts belong to the Puritan society, their souls and bodies subdued to the strict rules of Puritanism. Although the author spoke about American society, in reality his dramatic themes were universal.

The Scarlet Letter can not be considered to be only criticism against the Puritans’ society, Hawthorne spoke also about their strong positions. In a way he showed even admiration of their beliefs and some standards. Hard work, faith and courage were without any doubts the main forces to support the colony, the people of which had to face numerous dangers, like Indian attacks, lethal diseases, cold weather during winter and so on. In order to overcome all these troubles the people needed strong and clear rules, which were taught to their children from the very early years. Thus the structure of the Puritan society seemed to be strong enough, but too oppressive towards its individual members – providing teachings on sins and guilt for them. The weak points of these rules were highlighted by Hawthorne through presenting several various “types” of sinners – as Dimmesdale, Chillingworth and Hester are all sinners according to the rules of the Puritans, but only Hester had to wear the letter A. This was the way for the author’s expression of his ironical attitude towards the publicity of the knowledge, which was inherent in the Puritan society. Hawthorne used the ideas and rules of these “iron men” for presenting a dramatic conflict in the novel. Here we can also trace one of the main themes of the novel – connection between humanity and sin in the society. Are Dimmesdale and Chillingworth sinners? According to the rules of the Puritans – yes, but “officially” they are “clear” in the eyes of the society - “‘People say,’ said another, ‘that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to his heart that such a scandal has come upon his congregation” (Hawthorne, 65). This is way for the author to present the main drawback of the Puritans’ society, namely its hypocrisy – only what lies on the very surface or what is shown to others publicly can be judged and reproached.

Pearl as a child seemed to notice some things, which were not evident for the others, in the Chapter “Forest Walk” she said to her mother: “Mother, the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom… It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!” (Hawthorne, 150). Not only people, but the sunshine also turns away from the woman-sinner.

Hester was completely subdued to the rules and ideas of the society she was living in; she was never able to break the connection to the place, where she had to go through shame and reprimand, where she was unhappy. It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility” (Hawthorne, 165). But readers can fell only sympathy with her, because in reality all people, even nowadays are directly dependant on the society they are living in, on the opinions of the people, surrounding them, not a single individual is able to separate himself from others and build his own moral rules and subdue his behavior to his rules. We are all influenced and controlled from outside. We remember the saying of Emerson concerning connection between people and society: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members….The virtue most [requested] is conformity….Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” (Emerson, 4). From the first reading it seems to be too harsh and too critical, but in reality, Emerson showed profound understanding of the main laws of societies, it does not matter of what historical period and of what country. Since the early times, when the ancient people started to form societies, theses societies had rules, the major aim of these rules was to bring order, at the same time controlling and subduing all the members of the society. Certainly all people have different moral and physical strengths and thus the place, which every person tries to get is different, but they all for sure are dependent on the social views and regulations. To be purely individual and independent can nobody in any society. There is however the notion of conformity, which Emerson is speaking about and there is a difference also between just obeying the rules of the society and the so-called “herd” mentality. There always were and will be people, belonging either to the first “group” or following the second one.

In the novel The Scarlet Letter, the rules of that society would seem barbarous nowadays, as nobody now can be officially reproached for adultery, apart of the cases, when the life of some celebrity is discussed, as now this is said to belong to personal sphere. In the society, in which Hester and the rest of the heroes lived even such personal issues were brought into publicity and we do not see any indignation in Hester – as she fully accepted the rules of the society and was ready to suffer from the corresponding punishment. This is probably one of the best examples, although a little exaggerated, of the conformity Emerson was writing about and the hypocrisy, which is inherent for nowadays society as well: there are can be numerous examples of it, there are still rules for everybody, but this doesn’t mean, that those members of the society, who have money and power, have to follow this rules. Hypocrisy can be traced in religion, in politics, in economy: people go to church and make donations, but in reality do not think about simplest religious moral rules; political leaders come out with great speeches, make promises to serve to their electorate, but some of them forget about this soon after their election; the richest people have great opportunities for developing their business and say they do their best to contribute to improvement of the situation with unemployed and those living of scanty means, in reality using it only for promotion of their businesses and making money on the work and ideas of their employees. Hypocrisy belonged into the structure of the society as an integral part hundreds of years ago and till nowadays it still does.
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