The Scarlet Letter and the Darkness of Human Nature
When Nathanial Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, it was the middle of the nineteenth century and the strictly Puritan ideas he centers his book upon had ceased to exist in large measure within his community. The story is set in a time centuries earlier when the colonies were ruled by Puritanism. However, elements of Puritanism lived on within his own community in the way that people continued to harshly judge others before looking first within themselves. Through the story, Hawthorne tried to demonstrate the difference between a woman strong enough to take this criticism and those around her who would rather condemn than face their inner demons enough to try understanding. As a young and attractive woman, Hester had been sent to New England by a husband she had not been or heard from in many years and never loved. In any other case, she would have been free to marry the father of her child before her pregnancy became known. The theme of the book can be traced through a single scene near the beginning of the story in which Hester emerges from the prison carrying her three month old fatherless baby. In this scene, Hester’s punishment is made clear exposing both the cruelty of her punishment and the cruelty of her fellow townspeople in their treatment of her.
While Hester may have been able to hide her pregnancy under her dress, the birth of her baby made it obvious to the rest of her village that she had sinned greatly against God. To punish this sin, the community decided she would need to suffer the lowest status on earth to do penance for her sins which were marked on her body by the scarlet letter A. This letter “had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself” (Chapter 2). For both Hester and for the townspeople, the mere presence of this letter appearing this one time on her dress is enough to mark her as something different from the rest of them and secluded. Even though the letter is elaborately decorated, it is a badge of shame that burns deeply as one spectator notes, “not a stitch in that embroidered letter but she has felt it in her heart” (Chapter 2). By the time she steps out of the prison, the sting of her shame has already entered her soul and Hester knows she will never escape from it. This demonstrates the long memory a community can have regarding another person’s weaknesses.
For some of the townspeople, this unusual punishment, as cruel as it is, is not enough. The women of the village both reveal Hester’s punishment – wearing the letter and standing on public display – and comment on the leniency of the elders. One woman insists that the letter should be branded into her skin. “The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch … At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead” (Chapter 2). Although one woman attempts to quiet these remarks, another woman comments that even a brand in the skin is not enough. “What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead? … This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” (Chapter 2). Again, Hawthorne touches on the darkest part of human nature in that these women are not content that the severity of the punishment is not immediately telling on the soul of the sufferer but instead want to witness her pain. Although Hester’s punishment is long-term and severe, the women want to see her squirm which Hester refuses to do in front of them.
Following her jail term, the sentence of a lifetime under the scarlet letter and the ordeal of standing on public display, Hester is then closely questioned in public about the father of her baby. She’s offered a chance to get rid of her scarlet letter if she will name him, but Hester has already learned the damage caused by exposure. She tells Reverend Dimmesdale that he will never be able to remove the letter: “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as well as mine!” (Chapter 3). Only later does the cruelty of this scene become clear as the reader understands that Dimmesdale is the father of the baby. With the birth of her baby, Dimmesdale and Hester are placed at opposite ends of the social spectrum, one representing extreme sin and the other representing ultimate righteousness. Hawthorne provides a sharp contrast between Hester’s strength as a known sinner and Dimmesdale’s weakness as an example to the town of high moral character and righteousness. “Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister – an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look – as of a being who felt himself quite astray, and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own” (Chapter 3). Knowing the depth of his own sin but keeping it hidden renders Dimmesdale incapable of truly experiencing his own religion and makes all of his future efforts meaningless.
Throughout this scene of Hester’s returning to society from the darkness of the prison, Hawthorne indicates there are many levels to the dark side of human nature. There is the cultural element that people will never forget something bad that someone did and will manage to hold it against them forever. There is also the element that people want to watch ‘bad’ people suffer horrendously for their deeds and that psychological punishment is somehow not considered to be sufficient because the suffering isn’t directly observed. Finally, there is the element of cowardice that would enable one person to allow another person to suffer tremendous isolation and punishment rather than stand up for them as would be right. It is because of this dark side of human nature that the story is possible at all.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1992.