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In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthrone masterfully weaves many themes and uses character development to format the plot of this novel. The themes of The Scarlet Letter are carried out through the four main characters -- Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingsworth, and Pearl -- and also through symbolism. In this novel, Hawthrone hoped to show that although Hester and Dimmesdale sinned, they achieved the wisdom of self knowledge and inner growth through their suffering.
Before the novel actually starts, there is a section of the book entitled "The Custom House". While this is not an integral part of the novel, it provides insight into Nathaniel Hawthrone, the man. Here it is learned that Hawthrone’s ancestors were strict Puritans (he was born in Salem). One of his ancestors was considered a "hanging judge" and was actually a judge in the Salem Witch Trails. This is why Hawthrone has an interest in the Puritan period.
Although Hawthrone did not actually participate in the Puritan period, he still felt guilty about what his ancestors did. He was angered by the hypocrisy of the church who condemned sins, yet committed them and was also angered by the government. This becomes apparent to the reader throughout the course of the novel. In fact, The Scarlet Letter was a way for Hawthrone to vent his frustrations with the institutions.
Brief Summary of the Novel
The Scarlet Letter is a novel revolving around a woman who committed the sin of adultery in a small Puritan town in seventeenth-century Boston. Hester Prynne, the adulteress, refuses to reveal her lover’s name, and as a result is forced to wear a large, red "A" on her bosom. This is to tell everyone of her sin. Hester is also forced to live isolated with her daughter, Pearl, who is the result of her sin. Meanwhile, the small Puritan town remains very devoted to and very proud of their young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. What they do not know is that it is Dimmesdale who is Hester’s Lover and Pearl’s father. The fact that Dimmesdale keeps his sin a secret is tearing him up, both physically and emotionally. To complicate matters even more, Hester’s old and slightly deformed husband is back. He had stayed in England for quite a while allowing Hester to settle into their new home.
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Themes and Character Development
In The Scarlet Letter, the themes are played out by the characters. Hester’s development, for example, illustrates the theme that recognition of our weaknesses may make people stronger and more sympathetic to the weaknesses of others.
The punishment that is chosen for Hester is a long and drawn-out one. It is a mental punishment, one that will last her her entire lifetime. Like Chillingsworth stated on page 69, "A wise sentence Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone."
Because of her great punishment, Hester grows and matures throughout the years. The letter causes her to be an outsider in her own home and for her to have no friends. As a result, she matures much. Whenever a person matures, he or she can look at the world through a different pair of eyes and therefore be more perceptive to other people’s pain.
Hester, in part of a punishment imposed on herself, helps the poor. She uses her surplus to give to the less fortunate, although they feel superior to her and show it. But due to Hester’s maturity she continues to help the poor.
Because Hester felt pain, she learned to be "warm and rich; a wellspring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand...she was a self-ordained Sister of Mercy."(p.156) In fact, it is ironic how a person who was shunned by a town in receiving the scarlet letter was later praised by it -- how the supposed most vile person was really the kindest and most sincere. She want from Adulteress to "Able."
Hester also shows her great emotional growth with Dimmesdale. When she is with him, it is she who is the strong one. She is the one who made the decision to leave and it was her who bore the humiliation of the town’s justice alone, without betraying her lover.
Hester’s growth can be especially seen when compared to Dimmesdale’s deterioration. Hester grew because she faced her sin, while Dimmesdale slowly killed himself as a result of hiding his sin and living with guilt.
Hester also embodies the theme that the truth can set you free. While Dimmesdale grew frailer every day, Hester chose to overcome the punishment imposed on her by the community. The reason she could overcome the punishment is that she had not hidden the truth as Dimmesdale did. Her salvation lied in the truth. This is evident in chapter seventeen, where Hester and Dimmesdale met in the woods after a separation of seven years. While Hester has made her peace, Dimmesdale is consumed with guilt of his
double life. He does not know what to do with himself. Dimmesdale goes as far as to say. "Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly on your bosom! Mine burns in secret!"(p.183) This shows the reader that the reason that Hester has been able to walk through the town and survive the seven years of punishment is that she has allowed the truth to be told.
Dimmesdale brings about the themes that guilt can be more destructive than punishment imposed on others and that deception and secrecy can be destructive.
Throughout the whole novel, Dimmesdale’s character can be seen going through many different changes. Dimmesdale is literally killed because of his guilt and remorse and the knowledge that eats away at his heart -- that the right thing to do is confess his sin openly and to stop hiding behind his high place in the community and church.
In chapter three, page 72, Mr. Dimmesdale is described as "a person of very striking aspect." He must also be very passionate to commit such a sin, especially considering the time and his position. But from there on, Dimmesdale’s health and appearance start to decline. Dimmesdale can not come to terms with the consequences of a confession and as a result he keeps his silence.
In the first scaffold scene, for example, when Dimmesdale is told to convince Hester to reveal her lover, he is noticeably shaken. The situation "drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous."(p.72).
It is on the first time at the scaffold that Dimmesdale is first seen with his hand over his heart, as it is throughout the novel. Dimmesdale is constantly shown with his hand over his heart as if he, too, had a scarlet letter.
Three years later, when Hester goes to the Governor’s house, the minister’s health has "severely suffered."(p.109)
Towards the end of the novel, Hester and Dimmesdale meet again in the woods after a separation of seven years. The pastor is described as "leaning on a staff...he looked haggard and feeble."(p.179) When Dimmesdale meets Hester in the woods, "there was a listlessness in his gait, as if he saw no reason for taking one step further."(p.180)
Arthur Dimmesdale’s mental health also suffered as a result of his secrecy. For example, there is Dimmesdale’s nightmare of the diabolic shapes that mock him, his mother turning her face away at him, and of Hester with Pearl, walking. And Hester "pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast."(p.142)
As mentioned before, Dimmesdale is always seen with his hand over his heart. A question plague’s Pearl’s mind...why? It also plagues Chillingsworth because in chapter ten, he "laid his hand upon his (Dimmesdale’s) bosom, and thrust aside the vestment." After a brief pause, Chillingsworth turns away with "a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror."(p.135)
So certainly, there is something over his heart. Even little Pearl knows: she tells Hester that that the reason that she wears the letter is "the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart."
Finally, at the third scaffold scene Dimmesdale rips open his ministerial band from his breast and reveals to all the scarlet letter on his chest. Speculation on how the scarlet letter got to his chest ran rampid. Everything from a self-inflicted torture to remorse gnawing away at him from the inside to Chillingworth’s revenge. At any rate, the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale’s chest shows that guilt is destructive.
Another way to show the theme that guilt is worse than external punishment by others and that deception is destructive is to see the positive changes Dimmesdale goes through when he does acknowledge Hester and Pearl. When Dimmesdale recognizes his loved ones, he is allowed to feel an emotion other than guilt. One such time when Dimmesdale defends Hester at the governors’ house. Here he speaks with an unaccustomed emotion so evident, that later Chillingsworth mentions it. "You speak with a strange earnestness," he said.(p.114)
There is also the second scaffold scene. The three meet late one night and Dimmesdale invites Hester and Pearl to stand up on the scaffold with him. Here he recognizes them: "Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl," said Dimmesdale on page 148. "Ye have both been here once before, But I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!" The trio stood up there together, Pearl in the middle. When Dimmesdale took Pearl’s hand, "...there came what seemed a
tumultuous rush of life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his heart and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system. The three formed an electric chain."(p.148) Although Dimmesdale did not openly acknowledge Hester and Pearl, he got a taste of how good it felt to go open with his secret.
When Dimmesdale finally went open with his sin was in the last scaffold scene, where he tells the community what he did in the daytime. The good that telling the truth did for Dimmesdale shows how the secrecy was really hurting him. Here he is seen with a strange strength to confront his advisories (as was seen in the governor’s house). Dimmesdale finally can face his actions and the consequences that the truth
has. He throws off all assistance with a "fierceness, so determined was he to speak out the whole."(p.237)
All these changes illustrate how guilt and deception are destructive.
Roger Chilligsworth exemplifies the theme that revenge and hatred can destroy a person. When he is first mentioned in the book, he is but a mere observer of Hester’s punishment. But it is soon evident that he is Hester’s husband. From very early on the reader can soon see that Chillingsworth is a very evil person whose goal in life is to destroy Hester’s lover. From the time that "his face darkened with some powerful emotion"(p.67) when first seeing Hester on the scaffold, Chillingsworth’s face has evil reflected on it.
The hatred on Chillingworth’s face is seen by many. They affirmed that his aspect had undergone a remarkable change -- especially since he abode with Dimmesdale. "...the former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet...had altogether vanished and had been succeeded by an eager, searching,
almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look."(p.163)
Chillingsworth did all in his power to torture the minister. "He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart like a miner searching for gold."(p.127)
Pearl, who throughout the novel shows a strange insight into people, calls Chillingsworth the "Black Man."
It can therefore be said that revenge and hatred can destroy a person.
In The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is more of a symbol than an example of a theme through character development. She is the embodiment of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s sin. Pearl is the living symbol of adultery. She is the living embodiment of the scarlet A symbol of passion. Hester recognized this and as a result dressed Pearl in the same way her scarlet letter is adorned. She dresses Pearl in crimson velvet abundantly embroidered with flourishes of gold thread.
Pearl is also the symbol of the illicit union between Hester and Dimmesdale. In the second scaffold scene she is the link between the two.
But although Pearl is foremost a symbol, she does develop greatly in this book. Pearl is also reinforces other themes in the novel. For example, in the end of the story Pearl is seen changed while enforcing the theme that the truth can set you free. In the third scaffold scene, she finally kisses Dimmesdale, who has finally come clean with the truth. Pearl has now broken the spell. The truth causes Dimmesdale’s joy and now Pearl would "grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it."(p.238)
The plot in The Scarlet Letter is mostly developed in the three scaffold scenes. Here is where the major characters are in conflict with themselves or with each other. In the first scaffold scene there is conflict between Hester and the community. The town is punishing Hester and she rebels against it by refusing to show any emotion other than indifference and pride. There is conflict with Chillingsworth and the adulterer because it is here that Chillingsworth vows that "he will be known."
In the second scaffold scene, Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale hold hands. But Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will acknowledge them the next day at noon. When Dimmesdale says no, she tries to let go of her father’s hand. The reason is that Pearl always feels conflict with Dimmesdale whenever he does not acknowledge her or her mother in the public’s presence.
There is also conflict here between Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale in the second scaffold scene. Chillingsworth catches the family upon the scaffold and "was not careful then, as at all other times, to hide the malevolence with which he looked upon his victim."(p.151)
In the third scaffold scene, Dimmesdale admits his guilt, which causes a conflict between him and the community, which does not believe that their minister is capable of such a sin.
There is also a major climate of climatic proportions between Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale. When the minister is about to confess, Chillingsworth comes forth to try to stop him. He does so because if Dimmesdale confesses, he will be unable to continue his punishment and revenge towards him.
In the third scaffold scene, Pearl’s conflict with Dimmesdale ends because he finally confesses to being her father. She kisses him and at last becomes human, not the little imp she has been throughout the novel.
The major sources of conflict and character development in the three scaffold scenes show how the plot is mostly developed there.
Nathaniel Hawthrone creates an interesting tangle of themes played out through character development to unfold the plot of The Scarlet Letter. He marks the plot through the three scaffold scenes that show the four main characters in conflict with each other and themselves. The many interpretations of the novel and the rich symbolism in The Scarlet Letter have made it a classic and will continue to fascinate both the serious literary student and the casual reader alike.