The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804. His parents were Nathaniel and Elizabeth Hawthorne. When he entered Bowdoin College in 1821, he studied to be a professional writer. He was well aware of the fact that being a writer was not supported by his puritan forefathers and was even looked down upon as a wasted life. In 1842 Nathaniel married Sophia Peabody and they lived in Concord, which was known in that time as the center of transcendentalism, the idealistic philosophy that opposed puritanical and materialistic values. They also lived in the house of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a very famous transcendentalist had lived and written Nature     in1836. He later moved to Salem, where after his mothers death in 1849 he started writing The Scarlet Letter.
     The Scarlet Letter, which is set in colonial seventeenth-century New England, was actually written and published in the middle of the nineteenth-century. Because Hawthorne wrote about an earlier time than his book was publish, it is thought to be a historical romance written in the middle of the transcendentalist movement. Even though this was going on at the time of publication, Hawthorne did not put any of his views about this matter in the novel, instead he poked fun at his other colleges that did write about it. Abolitionism was more important in The Scarlet Letter, because Hawthorne saw this as threatening instability in America and thought he should address his concerns through his book.
     This entire novel takes place in and around the colonial town of Boston, Massachusetts, somewhere around the seventeenth century. At this point in history he describes Boston as being the frontier between the settled sea and the untamed wilderness of the west. He describes what is on the outside of the town as a " Black Forest", which is a symbol of evil.
     Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. She first appears in the novel as an infant, again at three years old, and finally at seven. She grows up as an intimate of nature, but like most of the characters in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is very complex and contradictory. At one point in the book she hates the Puritan elders for what they did to her mother (the game she imagined about the weeds in the garden). Then when her mother tries to throw away the scarlet letter it is her daughter Pearl who insists she wear it again.

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We learn the most about Pearl when Hawthorne describes her at the age of three. We learned that her beauty was radiant and glowing, and that her hair was a shiny brown. Throughout the novel we see that she is puzzling, with strong mood swings and a fierce temper. Her behavior is so unusual that the Puritans believe she is a "demon child." Although Pearl is thought by most readers to be a very strange character, she is really the strongest symbol in the novel, standing for many things. She is an obvious symbol of Hester's sin of adultery. While standing on the scaffold in front of the townspeople Hester realizes that her baby is a symbol when she thinks of covering the scarlet letter with her baby. Also when the baby starts having pains, in chapter 4, she becomes a symbol of the pain Hester has suffered on her day of punishment. Pearl's ability to show emotion helped Hawthorne to make her a very vivid symbol throughout the entire novel. The older Pearl gets the more her actions and questions bother her mother. Pearl hates everything the scarlet letter on her mother's breast represents, so every time she sees it she tries to destroy it, which causes her mother great pain. Pearl is also a symbol of her father Dimmesdale's living conscience. She is a reminder of what Dimmesdale must do in order to save his soul.
     The Scarlet Letter starts as the narrator describes a prison door. After this elaborate description the door opens to show a woman, Hester Prynne, with a baby and an "A" embroidered on her breast. She is being punished for the crime of adultery. While serving her punishment, which was to stand on a scaffold before the townspeople, the novel flashed back to the time when the affair happened. It tells the whole story about how it happened but it does not name the other person involved. As her punishment continued John Wilson, the highest clergymen in Boston, and Rev. Dimmesdale each ask Hester for the name of the other person, but she refuses.
     After this is over Hester's Husband has come from England. His name is Roger Chillingworth. He asks Hester for the man's name but she does not tell him either. He vows to discover the man and have revenge on him.
     After Hester and her baby were freed, they move to a cabin and continue to live in the village. Hester makes a living as a seamstress. She uses her money to try to help the poor, but in return they scorn her. Her attention is mainly on her daughter Pearl, giving her everything she could have ever wanted. Pearl grows up without any friends or companions. When Pearl turns three her mother realizes that there are certain high ranking officials that want to take her baby away from her. She goes to ask the governor for help and finds him with Rev. Wilson, Rev. Dimmesdale, and Dr. Chillingworth. She tells them that she does not want to loose her baby and when they seem to disagree she throws herself upon Rev. Dimmesdale (the father of the baby) and pleads to him and he persuades the others. After arriving Roger Chillingworth has established himself as a doctor. His only patient is Rev. Dimmesdale. One day while Dimmesale was heavily asleep, Chillingworth looks under his shirt and finds the scarlet letter on his shirt too, which means he is the other adulterer. From that day on Chillingworths attitude toward the Rev. changes dramatically. He becomes more sneaky and ugly and his real intentions start to show through.
     Because Dimmesdale knows he is the worst sinner among his church his sermons become more effective. This torments him day and night, and finally he could not stand it any longer. One night he wanders out onto the scaffold and is about to wake the townspeople and confess to them when Hester and Pearl stop him, they tell him wait until tomorrow until noon and all of them shall stand there together. Chillingworth interrupts and takes Dimmesdale back to his home. Hester sees how much Dimmesdale is being hurt by this, so she confronts Chillingworth and begs his to stop the games he is playing, but he still refuses.
     The day before the election is when Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl plan to leave the village. Dimmesdale plans a farewell sermon, but during the sermon Hester feels that Chillingworth knows of their plans. As Dimmesdale leaves the church, his strength fails him and in front of everybody in town he reaches to Hester for help, and goes up the scaffold with them. There he reveals to the people that he was the other man. He asks for the crowd's forgiveness. The he asks his daughter for a kiss, and when she gives it to him his torment is lifted, and he dies an unburdened man.
     Soon after Dimmesdale's death, Chillingworth follows him and leaves all his money to Hester and Pearl. Hester takes her daughter to Europe, but she returns alone later and resumes her old life with the scarlet letter and all. When she dies she is buried beside Dimmesdale.
     In one criticism written by Pearl James, who is a doctoral candidate at Yale University, he writes about the historical elements of The Scarlet Letter and the imagery behind Hester Prynne's emblem. He also talks about how Hawthorne's Puritan views influenced the writing of this book.
     James says that Hawthorn's interests in the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestry was very complicated. Hawthorne was not just interested in documenting but creating an original past. He states that many critics have studied the Puritan laws that govern adultery and have searched for a historical equivalent to Hester Prynne, but one has not been found. Some believe that the midnight scaffold scene in the book is directly related to the death of Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1649. Also Election Day when Dimmesdale gave his sermon to inaugurate the new governor can be found historically on May 2, 1649. James goes so far to say that this tale is an invention, and Hawthorne's use of historical details should not only be understood as significant but also as symbolic.




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