Critical Analysis: The Scarlet Letter


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In the book The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is convicted of adultery and ordered to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. Hester is sentenced to never take off this badge of shame, and doesn't until chapter thirteen. As the novel proceeds, Hawthorne presents several questions that are left unanswered. How does the nature of the letter "A" seem to change? What role of does Hester's own response to her situation play in changing the meaning of the letter "A"? How does the letter "A" come to be seen as a symbol of the mysterious connection between human experiences (sinful in nature) and a kind of wisdom that would be impossible without failure? Why does Hester not tell who Pearl's father is when she is on the scaffold?
Hawthorne does not tell us very much about Hester's life before the book opens. Actually, the passionate moment between Hester and Arthur that the whole book is centered around was left out. Hawthorne relies more on the emotional and psychological drama that surrounds Hester, than action. Hawthorne shows us how remarkable Hester's character is, revealed through her public humiliation, and her isolated life in Puritan society. Her inner strength and compassion may have been there the whole time, as we don't know because we weren't told anything about Hester before the book opens, but the scarlet "A" does bring all these qualities to our attention as we read the book.
Hester is physically described in the first scaffold scene as a tall young woman with a "figure of perfect elegance on a large scale." Her most impressive feature is her "dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam." Her complexion is rich, her eyes are dark and deep, and her regular features give her a beautiful face. Contrast this with her appearance after seven years of punishment for her sin. Her beautiful hair is hidden under her cap; her beauty and warmth are gone, buried under the burden of the elaborate scarlet letter on her bosom. When she removes the letter and takes off her cap in Chapter 13, she once again becomes the radiant beauty of seven years earlier. Symbolically, when Hester removes the letter and takes off the cap, she is, in effect, removing the harsh, stark, unbending Puritan social and moral structure.

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Hester is only to have a brief respite, however, because Pearl angrily demands she resume wearing the scarlet "A". With the scarlet letter and her hair back in place, "her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine; and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her." While her punishment changes her physical appearance, it has a far more profound effect on her character.
What we do know about Hester from the days prior to her punishment is that she came from a "genteel but impoverished English family" of notable lineage. She married the much older Roger Chillingworth, who spent long hours working on his books and experiments; yet she convinced herself that she was happy. When they left Amsterdam for the New World, he sent Hester ahead, but then he was reportedly lost at sea, leaving Hester alone among the Puritans of Boston. Officially, she is a widow. While not a Puritan herself, Hester looked to Arthur Dimmesdale for comfort and spiritual guidance. Somewhere during this period of time, their solace becomes passion and results in the birth of Pearl. Which brings up the question: Why didn't Hester tell who Pearl's father was on the scaffold? The reason she didn't do this is because she was still in love with Dimmesdale. She was still married to Chillingworth, but she was in love with Dimmesdale. The decision shows Hester's determination to stand alone despite the opinion of society. Despite her lonely existence, Hester somehow finds an inner strength to defy both the townspeople and the local government. This defiance becomes stronger and will carry her through later confrontations with both Chillingworth and Governor Bellingham. Her determination and lonely stand is repeated again when she confronts Governor Bellingham over the issue of Pearl's guardianship. When the governor determines to take Pearl away from her, Hester says, "God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else, which he had taken from me … Ye shall not take her! I will die first!" When pressed further with assurances of Pearl's good care, Hester defiantly pleads with him, "God gave her into my keeping. I will not give her up!" Here Hester turns to Dimmesdale for help, the one time in the novel where she does not stand alone.
Over the course of the novel the nature of the letter "A" seems to change. Throughout the novel it is mentioned the letter becomes more elegant and glamorous. This is a symbol for what the letter has come to mean to Hester. While it was meant for a punishment, society began to see the letter as something beautiful, because it seems to have set Hester free. The scarlet "A" went from meaning adultery, to Able. The Puritans may see the letter gaining in beauty because they find the separation appealing, an escape from their own secrets and pain. Despite the scarlet letter, Hester proves that she is full of strength, compassion, and honesty. Hester is the opposite of Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is the embodiment of cowardice, envious of Hester's courage. He wishes he too could break away from the conformed ways that have swallowed his life. Yet he will keep all of his guilt and painful emotions inside, all because of his fear of being looked down upon by his society. Whether courageous Hester is analyzed or Dimmesdale's cowardice character, the results are the same. During a time that was filled with strict morals and very conservative ideas, the most important value in self-learning and maturity was the realization of individuality. This time period strongly frowned upon diversity, so the struggle to express oneself was extremely difficult, and that's exactly what Hester was able to do. This novel was very focused on teaching the idea of valuing your own morals and ideas above everyone else's. Even when the battle is you versus everyone, even when a large conformed society is very hard to fight.
By the end of the novel the letter "A" comes to be seen as a symbol of the mysterious connection between human experiences (sinful in nature) and a kind of wisdom that would be impossible without failure. What this means is that are going to sin no matter what. It is impossible to live a human life without sinning. It's human nature to sin. There is a link between sinning and wisdom. Wisdom is gained from human experiences, most notably mistakes. It would be impossible to gain knowledge and wisdom if we didn't have any experiences to learn from. Hester committed the sin of adultery. From that sin we were shown what kind of courage, honesty, and strength she has inside her. All of those attributes won't make her previous sin of adultery go away, but the knowledge she gained from the experience will stay with her throughout her life.
In the end, Hester's strength, honesty, and compassion carry her through a life she had not imagined. While Dimmesdale dies after his public confession and Chillingworth dies consumed by his own hatred and revenge; Hester lives on, quietly, and becomes something of a legend in the colony of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace through her suffering.


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