Historical/Social Milieu-The Scarlet Letter is set in New England, specifically Boston, while it was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1600’s. Puritans moved to America because they were devoted to their religion and were not allowed to worship as they chose in their native England. They became “Puritans” when they decided they wanted to become pure by ridding themselves of anything to do with the Catholic religion. Their colony’s laws were based on the laws of G-d. Despite the fact that they were typically humble people, they liked orderly and delineated roles and anyone who did not follow their strict social doctrine or challenged a leader would be shunned. In addition, men and women had very different roles. Relevant to this story, a woman’s character was seen as weak and therefore they could easily succumb to temptations, witchery and evil magic.
Characterization-Hester Prynne is a strong willed young woman(probably in her teens) who carries a lot on her shoulder, both in her secret of who she had the affair with and the other life(Pearl) she must protect. Hawthorne portrays her as a free spirit in comparison to the repressed society. She came to America alone, deals with the judgment, sexism, and religious rejection of her town, loss of her husband and her lover, and although she has Pearl, is truly alone. Yet even still, she is depicted as one of the first female protagonists-dealing with unfair punishment and still managing to alter the meaning of her letter A into able and is “accepted” back into society.
When her husband comes back to the town after two years, he hides his identity, renaming himself Roger Chillingworth, in order to dig up who had the affair with Hester. Pearl is really Hester’s only companion when she is shunned from society. Since Pearl is only a child and the object of their scorn, she serves as a primary symbol and constant reminder of the scarlet letter. Other important characters include the judges who seem to have no effect on Hester. She feels no guilt for what she has done, only sorrow for the consequences she has received; loneliness added to the loneliness she already had. Roger Chillingworth makes a weak attempt to reconnect with his wife but doesn’t; misreads the damage that has been done in his absence and the seriousness of her current position in society. The minister Dimmesdale battles feelings of guilt for what he has done with Hester, but also the love he still has for her.
Conflict-Conflict in The Scarlet Letter is the mother of them all-sex in a Puritan society. Hester is depicted as a sexual person and she is unrepentant. What a scathing indictment on all that the men in that world attempted to impose on the women. At every corner there is conflict and through it all, Hester shines. She endures the life she is left with when her husband sends her to America alone, she finds love when she is lonely, she bears the brunt of a brutal society, bent on alienating her and holding her as an example of shame and she makes a great life for her baby and herself despite the shunning. Even with the symbolic scarlet letter and all of the problems that it is supposed to bring upon her, she manages to turn it into an opportunity and to spin the positive out of it. The most compelling conflict in The Scarlet Letter is not the outward difficulties but rather the internal conflicts Hawthorne forces Dimmesdale and Chillingworth to go through. Their conflict is unresolvable because they are totally responsible for what has happened and neither of them can admit it to themselves or to their community.
Point of View-The Scarlet Letter is told from a third person omniscient point of view. This style analyzes the characters and tells the story in a way that shows that the author knows more about the characters than they know about themselves. Even still, he is a subjective narrator; he voices his own interpretations and opinions of things as seen in his clear sympathy for Hester and Dimmesdale. By writing in the third person, Hawthorne is able to tell a story, follow each character’s lives, and also reveal their unspoken thoughts and private actions. So, in a way you could say it is almost like he is a member of this Puritan society but has the advantages of disengagement and omniscience.
Author’s Intent-Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is a scathing commentary on Puritan society, the hypocrisy and dereliction of basic human morals and the triumph of one woman’s spirit in that world. Hawthorne portrays the townspeople as monsters; caddy, hysterical, judgmental, rigid, and hypocritical- leading us to form negative opinions of Puritans. He shows the hypocrisy of their way of life; religion should be a private thing and each individual should mind their own business and that is clearly not the case in Hester’s story. I think he portrays Hester as strong and brave because she is truly pure. She does not argue with or fight the people who shun her and her silence represents this. The man she had the affair with however is villainous by remaining silent. People are quick to judge the worst of people and therefore, many people are misunderstood. I think Hawthorne thought Puritanism wasn’t a good spiritual path to follow; it led to unjustified outrage and ridiculous punishment, and frequently against the wrong person. The Scarlet Letter is a depiction of Puritan society, seen through the lens of an innocent and unrepentent woman whose spirit endures despite the attempts of her society to spurn her.
Theme-The Scarlet Letter stresses the connection between identity based on one’s society as seen by the strangeness of Hester remaining in the town even after her people shun and reject her. Leaving Boston or taking the A off in her mind would tell society that they won, that they have power over her. By removing the letter, she would be proving to the town that she is ashamed of the letter so she keeps it on, to show she accepts herself and her actions and she therefore incorporates the sin into her life. Similarly, Roger Chillingworth shows the results of leaving one’s true home and attempting to reconfigure his identity. He is drawn back to his wife and the original town that they settled in America and Hester is eventually able to see through his attempted new identity. When he realizes how much Hester has been able to grow in this community, he lets down his guard and tries to merge the gap that has been created between himself and Hester and Pearl. In a different way, Dimmesdale has the constant pressure of being a symbol for the town. He is perceived as a holy figure and therefore has little time to self reflect like Hester is able to. His identity has been decided by the town since they have such a large influence on it, and really is not an individual, only a leader figure appointing punishments that the town favors.
Symbols/Metaphors/Simile/Allusion-Pearl existence is the epitome of symbolism-she exists because of the sexual relations had, she is a reminder of Hester’s actions and moreover, she represents the idea that Hester had to have been with a man and no one is fessing up to it, therefore making every man a suspect. She represents innocence and purity and it is likely not a mistake that Hawthorne chose to have a baby girl come from Hester’s loins. Even her name is symbolic-she is the result of Hester’s “crime” and therefore, is really no precious stone. She is a constant reminder of Hester’s sin, a living version of the scarlet letter. Even still, she is also a blessing for Hester as she also represents spirit and passion that resulted from this sin. The letter A is obviously a constant reminder to Hester of what she has done, though she doesn’t seem to feel the effect from it that she is supposed to. She has sewn on a bold scarlet colored A, embroidered with gold. The A originally stands for adulterer but transforms to really be irrelevant(the Native Americans think it is a marking of high status/importance) and it becomes a symbol for a new future and the ability to move on.
Imagery/Mood/Tone-There is a lack of dialogue. The Scarlett Letter, therefore, uses imagery to create the story. Since the subject matter is somber, all of the images match that mood. In that same way, everything is described in a dark tone/mood to build suspense and emotion. For example, Hester’s prison door is described as “having never known a youthful era”. The building’s heavy oak door is studded with iron spikes, and the prison appears to have been constructed to hold dangerous criminals. Then Hawthorne places a rosebush next to this door- to remind us of nature’s kindness to the condemned- which is a clever technique employed.
Chapter 8 in Text-
In Rev. Arthur Cleveland Coxe’s essay about the Scarlet Letter, he perceived Hester as weak and frail. This critic felt that Hawthorne’s description of Hester did more harm than good for woman’s rights. In general, women are often stereotyped that way but I have to disagree and say that Hester seems like she breaks the trend and is depicted as independent and strong minded. There are many examples of this such as her will to live independently and her refusal to let her branding define her and the way she holds her head up when walking in public. This critic also went on to say that The Scarlet Letter has deeply degraded other literature and was only created for the market. This seems way off the mark. Hawthorne’s creation examines life issues, how societies deal with sensitive issues, and is a timeless analysis of the plight of women in the world.
Julian Hawthorne’s comparison of the Scarlet Letter to a tree is a fitting analysis; it goes to the root of the matter and reaches some unconventional conclusions. The punishment of the branding with the scarlet letter is a historical fact, the letter A provided a base for further, deeper points to be made. The scarlet letter uplifts the theme from the material to the spiritual level. The overall point of this criticism is that Hawthorne chose to tell a story that has more depth than even he realized; he was discussing groundbreaking topics that would impact later literature and ways of life.