The Scarlet Letter: Essay Sample


The Scarlet Letter: Essay Sample

The Scarlet Letter is primarily Hester's story; and so upon Hester, and upon her Pearl.  Hester was a tall beauty, with deep black eyes, and with dark hair. Her every action was marked with a natural dignity and force of character that indicated a strong will. But when Hester, baby in arms, stepped through the prison door into the Boston marketplace to encounter the gaze of the iron-visaged Puritan dames and their stern-browed men, there was something exquisitely painful in her beauty, and a desperate recklessness in her mood. Ostracized, standing alone in the world, Hester assumed a freedom of speculation which, had they known it, her Puritan judges would have held a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. Such thoughts visited her as dared enter no other dwelling in New England, thoughts which represented latitude of speculation altogether foreign to Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister and the father of Pearl.And so it was that Hester, weakened temporarily by her imprisonment and shame, acceded to Chillingworth's demand who, was her husband,  that she keep secret his identity, harmful as her oath was to Arthur, a violation of loyalty to the man she loved which she was long in recognizing and long in correcting. And so it was, too, with returning courage that Hester came to hope that out of her lessons, if futile for herself, little Pearl might some day be wiser and better than herself, that out of this elfish child might grow a noble woman.

The figurative connotations of the names Chillingworth, Pearl, and Dimmesdale thus seem to take the reader symbolically into complex nuances of human experience as examined in the novel: the cold heart, the pricelessness of human salvation, and the spiritual darkness that comes with hypocrisy and the loss of the assurance of salvation.

The religious and ethical themes of the novel are also maintained in the Boston setting of Puritan New England. The worldly paraphernalia of most consequence to the drama are themselves physical symbols of a religious faith and an ethical code: the meeting house, the prison, and the scaffold. Central to the story, as these items of setting perhaps were in New England life, it matters little if they may have been sharpened in Hawthorne's imagination by the English counterparts of Westminster Hall, the Tower of London, and the scaffold on Tower Hill. Similarly, the gallery at Westminster Hall, the forum at Guildhall, and Loseley Hall at Surrey, England, if adapted by Hawthorne, were made indigenous to the worldly locus of Boston. Their use, in the gallery appended to the meeting house, in the market-place, and in Bellingham's hall, enlarges and makes more vivid Hawthorne's portrayal of the New England scene where the action in the natural sphere takes place (Mellow 289).

But in accord with the religious and ethical issues embodied in the characters, Hawthorne expands the setting into a macrocosm reflecting universally the spiritual drama in their souls. In another context, Hawthorne labels his characteristic genre of expression a "psychological romance." He stipulates that the subjects of his stories originate in the dusky region of "the depths of our common nature." He proposes to present life in a "slightly idealized and artistic guise" (Mellow 314). In The Scarlet Letter he demonstrates this creed. He externalizes the affairs of the soul - human depravity, the resulting internal passions, and the soul's salvation - in a spiritual by-plot. This auxiliary plot may be regarded as an allegory of sin, as a supernatural motivation integral to the main action, or as a universal drama itself in which the characters of the novel play roles subsidiary to those of the leading protagonists, God and Satan. Whatever critical designation it may go by, this spiritual activity seems to fall within the province of setting atmospherically developed.

Here, what remains is to look briefly at Pearl's character, for the only hope for moral regeneration rests with her. Early in the story, for example, Hester had informed the Puritan magistrates that the scarlet letter "daily teaches me . . . lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself" (Hawthorne 111). Hawthorne seems to have hoped that The Scarlet Letter might do the same for a rising generation of Americans. "The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed" (Hawthorne 263), he proclaims at the end of this story, and that woman is the now grown-up Pearl, who resides in a region yet "unknown" to his readers.

Throughout the story, Pearl exhibits the same divided nature that so plagues her parents. She is often imaged, for example, in terms of doubleness and character division that make her unreal and inhuman, as in "The Child at the Brookside," where her reflected image in the water, "so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself" (Hawthorne 208). Such images suggest that Pearl is as yet unsubstantial as a potential ethical force, but she is most tellingly described as "some half-fledged angel of judgment--whose mission was to punish the sins of the rising generation" (Hawthorne 103). Before she can become the full-fledged angel of the coming revelation, as promised on the last page, she needs "a grief that should deeply touch her, and thus humanize and make her capable of sympathy" (Hawthorne 184).

It is sympathy, not judgment - which had been her father's final choice that Pearl must offer as a lesson to the future, and this revelation is glimpsed at the scene of her father's death: "Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world" as her mother had "but be a woman in it" (Hawthorne 256).

We never see Pearl firsthand again in this book, although Hawthorne "faithfully believes" that she is "not only alive, but married and happy, and mindful of her mother" (Hawthorne 262). She appears again, recast in his next novel in the character of Phoebe Pyncheon, another who is "mindful of her mother" and thus another living emblem of Hawthorne's faith in the redemptive potential of America's maternal heritage. But that Pearl never speaks at the end of The Scarlet Letter deserves final mention. Throughout the story her conflicted inner state is consistently rendered through her erratic use of language. She vacillates, for example, between her mother's resentful silence and her father's false speech: "If spoken to, she will not speak again" (Hawthorne 94), or if she does, it is to "speak words amiss," in an "unknown tongue" reminiscent of Dimmesdale's duplicitous Tongue of Flame (Hawthorne 112). Given the ethical promise inherent in Pearl's development, it would seem that Hawthorne portends some equally promising view of language; that with the spell of patriarchal influence broken and all her sympathies developed, this child of speech and silence must speak the truth at last. That promise cannot be kept; such revelation is still to come.

That Pearl never speaks at the end of this romance implies, first, how strongly Hawthorne believed that the truths she had to tell had not yet been heard in America, that patriarchy and patriarchal language still controlled and limited the minds of his audience. It also suggests how constrained he felt by those same cultural limitations and by the implications of his own "authority." We must remember that, from the beginning, Hawthorne identified not with Pearl but with Hester, that is, with Hester's otherness, with her victimization and her flawed psychology. Like Hester in the forest scene, he had also chosen to authorize others' speech and actions, and like Hester at the end, he must admit to living a "real life" in New England (Hawthorne 262), where the truthful language of a Pearl was still "unknown," still a hopeful fiction. Finally, there is a strong sense at the end of this book that if, like Hester, he can do no positive good in bringing about change, at least he will do no more harm. He will not project his authority into the future by putting words into Pearl's mouth. He will only counsel Americans as best he might and by personal example about the harmful effects of patriarchal culture on individual minds and on language.

The solution to the problem of patriarchy, then, lies not in an exchange of power but in a change of mind, and Hawthorne offers this solution, as he had in The Scarlet Letter, in the person of a young female character who represents the softening influences of maternity in a rigidly masculine world.

Word Count: 1475 (6 pages)

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