On an Enlightened Conscience: Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter explores guilt’s destructive physical and psychological effects on individuals in relation to an implied conscience. The human conscience exists to distinguish between right and wrong, a trait entrenched in humans throughout evolution. Scientifically speaking, the conscience resides in the anterior prefrontal cortex which performs reasoning and judgment tasks, originally developed to limit self-preservation in order to prevent self-destruction due to unrestricted competition. Often referred to as the “inner light”, the conscience allows people to feel the sensation of guilt, remorse, and conversely, integrity. The conscience has been questioned in society for ages; however, famous explanations include Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Charles Darwin’s evolution, as well as various religious interpretations. Hawthorne’s novel reveals the timeless influence of the conscience in human society and individual action across all eras by using various reflective materials as devices to demonstrate the physical manifestation guilt for each character. Those who sought truth find themselves elated without the burden of guilt with clear, brightly illuminated reflections; however, the identities of those who attempt to justify sin against their conscience become unrecognizable, later reflected through the physical manifestation of their psychological instability, therefore altering the perception of their identity. Hester Prynne views her reflection twice, each showing her a distorted version of her actual image, suggesting she could not see her identity clearly, instead allowing the shame of the letter weighing on her conscience to alter her appearance and increase her sense of guilt. Hester ... ... middle of paper ... ...mmesdale and Hester cultivate from their guilt finally free them from their altered reflections the weight of sin forces onto their minds. The physical manifestation of a guilty conscience is explored throughout the course of the novel, and through the concealment of truth and weight of shame destruction wreaks havoc on the soul whereas truth freed the light from within. The judgment of an action’s righteousness can have profound effects on the psychological stability of an individual and the fundamental roots of Christianity rely on its presence to ensure practitioners of the religion obey the moral codes established in the Scripture. A classical Puritan belief defines the message Hawthorne conveys through the symbolism of mirror imagery as stated by Father of Puritanism, John Calvin, who asserted, “the torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.”

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