Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter

“… a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful” (1379).

“What [Hester] compelled herself to believe,– what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England, –was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom” (1395).

In this passage, we see Hawthorne’s emphasis on the effects pertaining solely to the individual, and her internal struggle. What is so interesting about this internal strife is that The Scarlet Letter begins with such a public and ignominious scene. Hester is exposed to the entire Puritan community, her sin is broadcasted for the entire town to comment on and look down upon her. Yet, Hawthorne shifts this external, public admonishment of Hester to focus on Hester’s own personal grievances with her sin. In the quote, we as readers see her struggle to grapple with the guilt and shame of her adultery. I found Mills’ argument that Hawthorne, focuses “inward to the heart and soul” (101) is beautifully showcased in these lines. Rather than display Hester’s troubles within the community, Hawthorne focuses on the internal. Hester secludes herself in her cottage outside of town from her own conviction, not from bring forced by the townspeople. Furthermore, her decision to stay was because, “here…should be the scene of her earthly punishment.” It is clear that Hester’s internal strife stems from within herself, not from any outside influences.

“Such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin. Be it accepted as a proof that all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own fraility, and man’s hard law, that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself” (1399).
Again, Hawthorne emphasizes Hester’s internal struggles. She sets herself apart from any other individual on earth. Hester finds her guilt and sin is greater than any other, despite her knowledge of both Dimmesdale’s and Chillingworth’s deceptions. Dimmesdale, the father of Pearl, is hiding his sin out of fear; Chillingsworth is hiding is sin out of revenge. Although Hester is aware of these two character’s impurities, she still emphasizes her out guilt above all others.

“Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow of the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world’s heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. the letter was the symbol of her calling. such helplessness was found in her, –so much power to do, and power to sympathize, –that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that is meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (1439).
Another interesting facet of Hester’s internal struggle is the fact that the townspeople in her Puritan community have come to overlook her adulterous sin. They no longer see the scarlet letter as an ignominious symbol, but rather as an empowering symbol for her strong character. Her community sees her with the “power to do, and power to sympathize,” rather than the power to sin. This is an interesting development, because at the beginning of the novel, it is the townspeople that submit Hester to such ridicule and judgment. Hawthorne focuses on the effect of sin on the individual’s soul, by allowing the townspeople to forget Hester’s sin, while Hester, herself, cannot forgive herself.

“Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; ad here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed, –of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it, –resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. . . . Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a Life-long sorrow” (1493).
In the conclusion of the novel, Hawthorne still does not grant Hester internal peace. She returns to the town, to the scene of her crime, and she still wears the scarlet letter upon her chest. While the townspeople see Hester and her scarlet letter as something to be looked upon with reverence, Hester does not. She admits to her once believed ideas that she was a destined prophetess, but “recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin.” The fact that Hester believes she is stained in her sin, suggests that no matter what the townspeople think of her, she will always live with her sin. Despite the fact that the outside world has forgiven and forgotten Hester Prynne’s adultery, she will never and can never forgive herself.

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