Essay, Research Paper: Scarlet Letter

Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The achievement of simplicity in life never occurs because things are not
simple, but manifold, being viewed differently, and speaking more than one
purpose. Nathaniel Hawthorne journeys to seventeenth century Boston and
introduces Hester Prynne as he makes his awareness of this idea evident. Through
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne presents the complexity of life’s components
whether they appear as simple as an embroidered letter or as intricate as a life
changing circumstance. The focus on sin and the consequences and atonement that
follow exemplify Hawthorne’s tragic moral vision. A moral vision dealing
directly with human nature through Hawthorne's own creation of Hester Prynne
provokes this idea, this problematic truth. A woman publicly acknowledged for
what her society held as a grave sin stands before them. She begins her journey,
a journey that will forever change the views of not only her fellow characters,
but also those to whom Hawthorne tries to reach through his writing. In this
journey, meet a woman who’s weakness became her strength, who was looked upon
in ways as changing as the seasons. Hester Prynne and the scarlet letter,
standing not only as character and prop, but also as universal defendants of the
idea of multiple views, are tools for the exploration of this truth. Through
just three different perspectives, Hester and her scarlet letter can sustain the
ideology presented by Hawthorne and contribute to its acceptance. They do so as
regarded by the townspeople, Hawthorne, and Hester herself. The citizens of
Boston deem two manifest opinions of Hester and the letter: that notion from the
opening scene, which differs greatly that by mid-novel. As Hester walks out into
the marketplace for the satisfaction of the townspeople, they immediately evince
their cold and unsparing attitude toward this woman. The letter A was to be worn
as a punishment, to be worn in shame, to be worn as “adulteress.” The
Puritan community was a dark, strict society, feeling indifferent to the
humanness of the woman standing before them on the scaffold, with her infant
daughter against her chest. The beautifully sewn letter does not glow in the
eyes of the people. The letter shapes the way they look at Hester and the way
they treat her. They isolate Hester socially and geographically, which
ultimately causes her own emotional isolation. However, that attitude does
change. The very townspeople who once condemned her now believed her scarlet A
to stand for her ability to create her beautiful needlework and for her
unselfish assistance to the poor and sick. They now saw it as a “symbol of her
calling. Such helpfulness was found in her- so much power to do and power to
sympathize-that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original
signification,” (Hawthorne 156) and now believed it to represent the concept
of “able.” At this point, many the townspeople realized what a high quality
character Hester possessed. They would call to each other, “Do you see that
woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester-the town’s Hester…”
(157). The changing attitudes in her society did eventually see the brave,
strong woman Hester always had been. However, they never would know what it was
like to be the person who bore that scarlet letter. Hester knew the A’s
significance in her own life to be much different from what was viewed by
others. Only Hester herself felt the letter on her chest. Only Hester felt the
change that came over her in those seven years. Walking out to the scaffold that
first day, Hester behaved as the brave, integrity-filled woman that she knew she
was all along. She did not attempt to conceal the symbol that she wore, for she
knew there was nothing to hide. Although Hester is clearly not a Puritan, she
does show respect for the Puritan code. She fully acknowledges her sin and she
boldly displays it to the world. This face of the A is a model of
“acceptance,” a symbol of Hester’s respect for herself, and for her life.
Hester did not plan to commit the sin of adultery, because it was not a sin of
lust in her eyes; it was an act of love. Her salvation lies in the truth, the
truth of love and passion. Hester’s pride sustains her from the opening scene
until she dies, still bearing the scarlet A. Hester’s acceptance transformed
the scarlet letter to being much more than a symbol, it was a guide, “…her
passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair,
Solitude! These had been her teachers-stern and wild ones-they had made her
strong…” (183). In addition to the convictions of his characters, Hawthorne
also expresses his own opinions in regards to his central character, and one
might refer to it as a biased opinion. Hawthorne does not condone Hester’s
adultery, but he does find it less serious a sin than the sins of Dimmesdale and
Chillingworth. Clearly, Hawthorne sees Hester as a victim, emphasizing that she
is a victim of her society and her passion, which ultimately stands as her
biggest downfall as well as her largest asset. When referring to Hester in the
opening scaffold scene, Hawthorne remarks that “never had Hester Prynne
appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as he
issued from the prison” (50). The way Hawthorne chose to illustrate his
character enables the reader to acquire the author’s attitude toward his
subject. To Hawthorne, the A is a symbol used to develop his character. He never
takes a firm stance in the ever-changing meanings of the scarlet letter, yet
merely casts it to his moral vision with the idea of “atonement.” Hester and
her scarlet letter never achieved simplicity. Perhaps because austerity is not
obtainable through the human character. When dealing with human nature, the
intricacy of life is accented and the variety of interpretation is strengthened.
Beautifully illustrating that statement, Hawthorne challenges his readers to
gain this truth through his work and development of Hester and the intricacy of
the A. Hawthorne does not see things as black and white, yet encourages all to
live in the gray area. He realizes that everyone is vulnerable, and everyone
wears his or her own scarlet letter. Each person’s letter is unique, different
from all others; different because of what their own letter has originated from,
and different because of the way it is viewed by various subjects. Hester and
her scarlet letter are a perfect example; a result of passion looked upon from
three perspectives. Hawthorne’s tragic moral vision is illuminated in his
beloved character and the letter she bore. The universal idea that there is more
than one way to view things is not only a truth, but also a complexity in
itself.

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