Punishment and Death in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Punishment and Death in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter - Punishment and Death


     Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter deals with many themes, among those

including punishment and death. Utilizing the theme of punishment, the

central character, Hester Prynne, was forced to wear an embroidered scarlet

letter on "her bosom" for the rest of her life as a sign of her sin of

adultery. This object; however, has the opposite affect as a punishment and

as people of the community begin to forget the original significance of the

letter it comes to bear a new meaning, able. In the thirteenth chapter of

this book, Hawthorne comes out and in the third person states "the scarlet

letter had not done its office."


     Hester has gone beyond the letter of the law and done everything asked

of her. She becomes quite a popular seamstress, heralded all over the town

of Boston for her work. She herself wears only drab clothing of ordinary

clothing, punishing herself with humility. There is only one piece of

clothing that she is forbidden to make, the wedding vail, it is assumed

that she can not possibly represent the values of a marriage. It would be

most improper to have one who has committed as sin as she had to be

involved in the marital bonds of another couple. Nevertheless, she does her

work dutifully and completely.


     She is emotionately worn out by all the work and penance for her sin.

Midway through the novel she no longer appears as a hidden beauty. Hester

now wears her hair in a cap, and the only effort of considerable worth is

that which she expends in her teachings to Pearl. She has earned the towns

people respect. People now regard the letter as representing the word



     As the Reverend Dimmesdale refers to Pearl in his argument for

allowing the child to remain with her mother, "God gave Pearl as a blessing

and as a reminder of her sin." The girl herself is a much more considerable

punishment to Hester then the letter "A" is. Pearl is the living symbol of

her sin. All the evil and hate of this story is embodied in this little

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girl. Hawthorne raises the question of how Hester actually sees Pearl by

referring to that "little, laughing image of a fiend" which appears to peep

out of Pearl; "Whether it peeped or no, her mother so imagined it." She is

a beautiful charismatic little child and thus a blessing, but the stress of

Hester's environment twists and turns the actions of the girl into evil

things. In that respect she is more of a punishment to Hester then a piece

of cloth she must over her clothing.


     On her visit to Governor Bellingham's house to plead for Pearl's

custody, Hester passes by a suit of armor in which the breast plate so

magnifies the letter "A" she wore almost consuming her. In later chapters,

after a meteorite appears above Boston, a sexton so wonders if it

represented "Angel" coming from above. Ironically so, it was a fallen one

coming down so. And so the letter "A" takes on a new meaning once again. In

Chapter 13, Hester wonders whether it wouldn't be better if both she and

Pearl were both dead. The mere fact that Hester can contemplate suicide

indicates that "the scarlet letter had not done it's office", because

suicide is an unpardonable sin in the Puritan faith. This fact in

conjunction with what the scarlet letter was meant to be and was not as

well as Pearl herself being quite a punishment in herself, discussed in the

above paragraphs clearly supports my belief in the failure of the scarlet

letter to do its work.

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