The Scarlet Letter is recognized as one of the cornerstone elements of American literature. Published in 1850, the text is a romantic work of historical fiction that explores occurrences in 17th century Puritan Boston. The novel traces the shame the town places on Hester Prynne after she gives birth from an adulterous affair. Even as the work is set in the 17th century, many its underlining themes remain concerns of modern society. For this reason, the work remains a classic. This essay examines the text through an analysis of Hawthorne’s articulation of a strict and modest society.
One of the central themes of the novel is the scarlet letter ‘A’ that society forces Hester Prynne to wear; throughout the novel the letter becomes not only the physical manifestation of strict society, but also a symbol of this modesty. Early in the novel Hester’s daughter, Pearl, says to Hester, “‘Mother,’ said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom” (Hawthorne, p. 23). Here Pearl is referring to the scarlet letter that Hester is forced to wear. Hawthorne shows the centrality of this letter by having Pearl comment on it in an indirect way. Her comparison of it to a lack of sunshine is powerful and poignant as it emerges from a character that stands outside the Puritan influence. Later in the novel the narrator notes, “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!” (Hawthorne, p. 162). This statement further advances the scarlet letter as an aspect of symbolism. While earlier it represented a physical manifestation of shame as brought on by social modesty, in this context it symbolically represents Prynne’s existence outside of this strict form of social organization.
The text also explores the hypocrisy inherent in Puritan Boston. At one point in the novel Pearl witnesses Dimmsdale in public and asks her mother, “‘was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?’” (Hawthorne, p. 187). Hester responds, “‘Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!’…‘We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest’” (Hawthorne, p. 187). This occurrence demonstrates that while externally people in this society act one way, when outside of their peers’ eyes they are free to express their true feelings. Towards the end of the novel, after Hester returns to the town, the narrator notes, “the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be…looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too” (Hawthorne, p. 209). While earlier in the novel Prynne’s adultery had represented a deep form of shame, after having endured the strict scorn of society, Prynne has achieved what can be understood as a more authentic experience. The society that once scorned her now tacitly recognizes her strength and true purity.
In conclusion, this essay has examined Nathaniel Hawthorne’s the Scarlet Letter. In this context of understanding, it has examined Hawthorne’s articulation of the strict and modest Puritan Boston. The symbolic nature of the scarlet letter, as well as the shifting and hypocritical nature of this society are explored. Ultimately, the essay reveals that Hawthorne’s text forms a profound and subtle criticism of extreme forms of social modesty and shame.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Simon & Brown, 2011.