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If one is to read Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, they will forever remember the remarkable tale of a woman who succeeds against all odds. It extraordinarily describes the life and times of early Puritan colonists in America and the sin of adultery. The question of morality and its positive and negative effects is at the very core of this story. Is one night of sin worth a lifetime of hardships?
Hester Prynne, a member of a once affluent and prosperous family, was arranged to marry a physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth. Although not out of love, they are married and live successful lives in Amsterdam. When they eventually decide to settle in America, Hester is set on ahead of Roger so that he may finish his business in Amsterdam. Hester does not hear from her husband for two years, and many people conceive of his being lost at sea.
Hester then falls in love with another man and they have a child together. She is found guilty of committing adultery and is sentenced to stand holding her child before Boston on a scaffold for three hours. She is interrogated as to who her fellow sinner is, but she remains strong. Many women of the town believe that Hester's penalty is not harsh enough and therefore, she is marked with the letter A upon her chest. She is returned to her prison cell and a doctor is summoned to help calm her. The doctor turns out to be her lost husband, Chillingworth, and he makes Hester promise to never reveal that he is her husband. She does so in return for the secrecy of the name of the man who is the father of her daughter, Pearl.
Eventually, Hester settles down with Pearl in a small cottage and leads a basically normal life as a seamstress. Pearl turns out to be a very peculiar child with a disobedient attitude towards life. She is 'imp-like'; in appearance and many people believe that she could be a bad influence on their comfortable Puritan town. With hearing talk that Pearl may be taken away from her, she goes to the Governor Bellingham's office in order to talk him into letting her keep the child. Bellingham is displeased with Pearl's attitude of the church and Puritanism, and therefore decides to take her away. Just before he does, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale steps in and talks Bellingham out of it.
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While Chillingworth continues to take joy in watching Dimmesdale's physical degeneration, Hester feels she must help him and therefore asks Chillingworth to allow her to reveal him as her husband. One day, Hester stops Dimmesdale in the woods and announces that Chillingworth is her husband. She tells him to move to Boston and start a new life. Dimmesdale says that he shall, but not alone. So Hester tells him, 'Thou shalt not go alone!'; They become excited about starting a new life together, and Hester throws her scarlet letter amidst the trees and calls for Pearl. Pearl refuses to come to her mother because she is not wearing the scarlet A, which confuses Pearl. To appease Pearl, Hester again attaches the letter to her chest. At Election Day, (when the new governor is inaugurated) Dimmesdale gives a brilliant speech but seems very weak. Returning from the church, he collapses, then regains his balance and continues forward. He makes it to the scaffold, and with the help of Hester, he climbs it to face the town. He cries out that he is the true father of Pearl. He tears his shirt open to reveal a scarlet letter A blazed upon his chest. His confession is what eventually sets his soul free and conquers the evil Chillingworth.
After the passing away of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth has nothing to maintain his craving for revenge, and thereby dies shortly after. His money and possessions are left to Pearl, who has now become a lady, unlike her former 'devilish'; self. She and her mother go on to lead comfortable lives in England and then in Boston after they return in a number of years. Hester and Pearl become prominent Boston townsfolk, and live their last years in peace.
II. Correspondence to U.S. History
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne does an excellent job of explaining the early Puritan colonies of America and the colonist's lifestyles. It describes their strict religion and intolerance for those who did not abide by it. The main area of description is the Puritan view on adultery.
The Puritans were an extremely religious people with even their name implying that they were pure. The bible was their guide for life, as they were often called 'people of the book.'; Both the political and the religious aspects of Puritan society were ruled by morality. The Puritan world view was a society with high moral standards such as honesty, sobriety, responsibility, and hard work. To get to heaven, the Puritans felt one must understand God. One should choose to live a life the way God intended you to. Adultery was considered one of the worst possible crimes that one could commit, under the seventh commandment. The Puritans often imprisoned, whipped, or executed those who went against the word of the bible. Some people, such as Anne Hutchinson and Thomas Hooker were banished from their homes forever.
The Scarlet Letter explicitly discusses the Puritan's belief in the seventh amendment and adultery. As most would conclude, the scarlet letter A stands for adultery. Through prominence and repetition, both the letter and Pearl come to symbolize her sin of adultery. As the book illustrates, Hester is imprisoned for her crime of adultery, forced to stand in front of the town and take their ridicule, and required to wear a scarlet letter A upon her chest. The entire book revolves around her and Dimmesdale's sin. This was a sin not taken lightly in early America. From the beginning of the book, Hester is brought to the scaffold to stand and bear ridicule for three hours. The women of the town do not believe this to be a harsh enough penalty and therefore, she is branded with the letter A marked on her chest. Some townsfolk even believed that execution would be the right solution, but the judge looked upon her good behavior previous to the incident and lightened the sentence. This all goes to show how serious of a crime this was looked at in the beginning of America.
The change in beliefs of crimes such as adultery from Early America to the present is astounding. In the twentieth century, adultery may be frowned upon, but it is an everyday occurrence and the thought of execution has ceased to enter anyone's mind. Maybe some of the Puritan's laws were too strict, but spouses should put forth more effort in keeping their marriages successful. It's a lifetime commitment and it should be honored. Americans have lost their determination to have successful marriages. This rapid deterioration seems very detrimental to America's future and the families within it.
The Scarlet Letter is an amazing novel. In no other book have I seen as far into the minds of the lead characters. Hawthorne's use of symbols and romanticism are exceptional. Anyone interested in early colonization of America and the colonist's relationship with their church should read this book.
I was drawn in from the beginning with the description of the prison and Hester herself. I was brought through the rest of the book with vivid descriptions of the characters and their environments. Although some chapters dragged on, (the ones with absolutely no dialogue) many of them moved along quickly and were very dramatic. Although I must have missed many of Hawthorne's symbols and their meanings, the ones I did catch were outstanding. Although some were very obvious, such as Hester's scarlet A, many were easy to miss, such as the sun symbolizing guilt-free satisfaction.
The overall plot makes this novel such a masterpiece. A woman is lonely, and with her husband missing she has one night of sinful passion for which she pays for for the rest of her life. Her husband comes back and eventually kills of her lover through guilt and torture. He then dies because he no longer has anyone to take his revenge on. I believe this to be a phenomenal setup for a story.
Concluding this analysis, The Scarlet Letter is a superb book and history classes around the country should use it as a learning aid. It is a classic story of a woman triumphing over her error in life and succeeding when it wasn't thought possible. Once you are trapped in this novel, it is extremely difficult to become untangled.