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Passion and Evil in The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan society of Salem excludes anyone who is in any way deviant and renders that person sinful. However, the society, the townspeople themselves, is not without fault. However they try to conceal and contain their passions and all their faults because of their fear of exclusion. All the characters in the book that are excluded from society are the most "natural" and true and possess a second-sense perception and almost magical intuition.
Hester Prynne's separation from the townspeople is both physical and mental. She is expelled from the town as an adulteress, and she goes to live with her illegitimate daughter to a cottage "not in close vicinity to any other habitation." (68) They are despised by the whole town. Even children throw stones at them and chase them down the street. People do not dare to come close to Hester because of the mark as an outcast. To the townspeople, Hester's character is something different and uncertain from the values that they are used to. "Wherever Hester stood, a small, vacant area - a sort of magic circle - had formed about her, into which … none ventured, or felt disposed to intrude." (206) Hester is destined to forever wear a scarlet letter "A" on her chest - "A" for "adulteress" - a sign of her sin, shame and separation from the righteous people.
However, by being separated from the Puritanical town of Salem and all its prejudices, Hester is able to look at the people objectively and see much she was not able to see before. "Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to Hester that [the scarlet letter] gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. (73) The people of the town are so busy covering up their faults and hiding their human passions, that they cannot see their own or each other's faults. Hester, who wears her Cain's mark of exclusion openly, does not have to worry about the opinion of others, and gains an intuition - an insight into the hearts of the people who throw her out.
Hester's mark of shame becomes a mark of being different, a mark of nonconformity.
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Pearl, as the illegitimate daughter of Hester, is also an outcast. Raised by Hester who never tries to impose any discipline on her, Pearl "could not be made amenable to the rules." "In giving her existence, a great law has been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder." (76) Pearl is the most natural and pure character in the book. She goes "dancing and cavorting" on the streets, she chases sunlight, she is full of energy and is constantly in motion. Like Hester, she is given a very acute sense of the people around her. For example, she recognizes her father through her second sight. "[Pearl], that wild and flightly little elf, stole softly toward Mr. Dimmesdale, and, taking his hand in the grasp of both of her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender … that her mother … asked herself, "Is this my Pearl?"" (98) Pearl, not bound by anything except her own fancies, always does whatever she feels like in that instant. She is completely in tune with the world around her.
Another character who is not a part of the common people of Salem is Roger Chillingworth, Hester's former husband. His main purpose in the book is to find out and slowly punish Hester's lover with whom she had committed adultery. People sense at once that Roger Chillingworth is not one of them because of his great skill and knowledge and because many see "something ugly and evil in his face" (109). Some people even call him "a guise of Satan, or Satan's emissary" (109) People are afraid of him; no one knows who he really is when he comes into the town all by himself. No one knows much about his past, or about his purpose, which provokes rumors and stories behind his back. Roger Chillingworth, as an outsider, can also sense people very well. Almost immediately, he discerns Dimmesdale to be Hester's former lover, even though only Dimmesdale and Hester know the secret. "Old Roger Chillingworth … had perceptions that were almost intuitive." (112)
However, Dimmesdale, although a man of great knowledge and imagination, is so caught up in hiding his secret because he is afraid of being discovered and thrown down from his respectable position in society, is locked up in himself. He strives to remain a part of the town, and therefore does not have the ability of perception like those who can look at the townspeople at a distance do. "Trusting no man as his friend, Dimmesdale could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared." (112) Roger Chillingworth, so determined in his persecution "of the man who has wronged him" (63), moves in with Dimmesdale, meanwhile pressuring him psychologically all the time to confess his sin. Dimmesdale's health becomes worse and worse, but he still cannot feel that it is his so-called physician that is ruining his life. Dimmesdale conceals his passions, like his love for Hester and desire to redeem his sin by confession, in order to remain within the society, and is therefore untrue towards himself and other people.
Another character in the story that possesses magical perception is Mistress Hibbins. She is a "venerable witch-lady" (130) and "a bitter-tempered sister" (99). "A few years later, [she] was executed as a witch" (99). During her life she is the woman viewed as "Satan's snare" (100), the evil to be avoided by any respectable member of the society. "The crowd gave way before her, and seemed to fear the touch of her garment as if it carried a plague among its gorgeous folds" (212). However, Mistress Hibbins has the ability to see. She knows other people's secrets and talks to them openly about them, but she does not spread them around as gossip, which the townspeople do a lot. She says to Hester about Hester's secret meeting with Dimmesdale in the woods, "Couldst thou surely tell, Hester, whether he was the same man that encountered thee on the forest-path? … I know, Hester, for I behold the token" (213). Even though she is supposedly "satanic," Mistress Hibbins has no pretense or falseness in her. Pearl, who accepts only the most "natural" people and things, talks "eagerly" (213) to her, and calls her "good Mistress Hibbins" (213). Mistress Hibbins may be satanic, but she does not hide it or act in any way fake, like Dimmesdale for example.
The passions of Mistress Hibbins are evil, and she does not try to conceal them. "Hester was surprised by the confidence by which [Mistress Hibbins] affirmed a personal connection between so many persons (herself among them) and the Evil One" (213). The passions of Roger Chillingworth are evil, and so are the raw passions of Dimmesdale, after he meets with Hester in the woods. "As a [pure and saintly maiden] drew nigh, the arch-fiend whispered [Dimmesdale] to … drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil." (193) Even Hester worries about Pear, the "devilish imp" (71): "It had appalled [Hester], nevertheless, to discern here a shadowy reflection of evil that had existed in herself" (89). All these people have passions and wear their own scarlet letter of being deviant from other people. All of them have some streak of evil in them.
Hawthorn connects passion with evil. The people who are excluded from the society are those with passions and therefore with something evil and immoral in them. Rigid rules of the society that supposedly make people moral and righteous take away the most "natural" aspects and abilities from people, such as passion. Hawthorn criticizes Puritans, who by hiding their passions, become blind and untrue toward themselves and lose their natural instinct and intuition, which also makes them to be blind and untrue toward other people.