Individual or Social Standards in The Scarlet Letter

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To make a decision, one weighs the benefits and the downfalls, and concludes by judging the factors of each alternative. One's choice of whether to conform to society's demands or submit to personal impulses is difficult, especially under strenuous circumstances. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a profound romance in which the characters must make such a decision. A reconciliation of the two forces is not seemingly feasible. Reliance of self consumes Hester Prynne, while denial of self engrosses her partner in the crime of adultery, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. The roles of Hester's daughter, Pearl, and her estranged husband, Roger Chillingworth, as individual beings are less evident than that of their impact on Hester and Dimmesdale's views toward society. Every character in the story must decide the importance of their personal feelings against that of maintaining the standards of the Puritan society.

Hester Prynne exists in an idealistic Puritan town with "a people amongst whom religion and law [are] almost identical" (ch 2). It is evident, however, that Hester is an individual - not a product of the town. Even when condemned to wear an A on her bosom for her crime, Hester creates a lavishly bold scarlet letter, serving as physical evidence of the predominance her inner will has over conforming to the Puritanical ideals. Though her punishment causes her shame and suffering it does not appear to bring her to any clear state of repentance, as she continues to live boldly in her sin and not surrender to pressures. It is only in the presence of the Puritan society that the weight of sin pulls her down. Its making her an outcast separates her obligation to it; she is a free-...

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... false and unnatural relation" (ch 4). He is aware of his selfishness and impure affiliation, yet he wreaks vengeance upon Dimmesdale, who really does love Hester.

Existing with one extreme or another, the characters in The Scarlet Letter must weigh the importance of maintaining the standards of society against satisfying their own impulses. The pressures to conform to ideals are great; only Hester Prynne withstands them fully and stands boldly in the light of her sin. Her cowardly lover Arthur Dimmesdale is not so strong, and it takes the intervention of Pearl and Roger Chillingworth - granted they impact Dimmesdale oppositely - before he is finally able to uphold his sin publicly. The choices made in The Scarlet Letter overflows with passion, shame and redemption - a combination only achieved in a romance.
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