The novel entitled 'The Scarlet Letter' was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and was published in 1850. The story revolved around the American Puritan culture, which the author is very familiar with because according to him, he mentioned “in my native town of Salem” (8) and “this old town of Salem—my native place” (14) so he was born in a Puritan family from Salem, Massachusetts.
The protagonist, Hester Prynne, was found guilty of adultery and was outcasted by the community in New England. As a form of punishment for the sin she committed, she wore an embroidered scarlet letter 'A' on her bosom that reminded people and herself of the crime. The father of her child, Pearl, was later revealed to be the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale after being eaten by his guilt. Both expressed their feelings and intentions for each other and promised to abscond which did not happen due to Prynne's husband. On the other hand, her husband is named Roger Chillingworth who was hungry for revenge as he was betrayed by his wife. He focused so much on bringing down Dimmesdale when he found out he was Prynne's lover but still left him bitter in the end when Dimmesdale died after his realization. After her lover's death, Hester Prynne left the community and helped women through counseling but still wore the scarlet letter 'A'. The letter 'A' was still mentioned until the end of the novel on the deathbeds of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.
The title of the novel gave the impression of a mystery genre. However, it was not a mystery genre at all when I continued to read the novel. The part where the lover of Hester Prynne's identity is unknown could make up for readers like me who could assume a mysterious plot from the novel. In return, the readers would not predict the plot of the story unless the reader reads a synopsis. However, the scarlet letter's importance in Hester Prynne's life became clear as the readers get to know what happens in the novel. The setting and plot of the story were intriguing because I was wondering how the protagonist will deal with society's expectations for women and how she will continue to live on knowing the consequences she will deal with throughout living in the community she's in. The novel also included the Puritan culture where I first discovered the existence of such culture.
The author mentioned, “the martyrdom of the witches,” (16) that happened in Salem, Massachusetts. It was known for witch trials which allowed me to imagine a small, conservative, and strict community. People belonging to this type of community strictly comply with and obey the teachings of their respective beliefs. Making sure everyone in society follows and practices their religious beliefs is a must.
A witch was mentioned namely Mistress Hibbins who was described as “the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate” (76) and “Governor Bellingham’s bitter-tempered sister” (174). It was revealed that she, “a few years later, was executed as a witch.” (174). Her behavior showed how the community believes what witches do to the common people. She tried to invite Hester Prynne to come to the forest as quoted,
“‘Hist, hist!’ said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy seemed to cast a shadow over the cheerful newness of the house. ‘Wilt thou go with us tonight? There will be a merry company in the forest, and I well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one.’” (174)
It was implied that witches have a connection with Satan or devils in general because after Prynne politely declined her invitation due to Pearl, this sentence was stated “Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan’s snare.” (175)
Shaming Hester Prynne for adultery where the society closely monitors her and makes sure she remembers her sin was described expectedly. People gossiping after knowing about Prynne and justifying what the right punishment for her established the type of culture the author wants to demonstrate. It is one way of letting the readers experience the humiliation Prynne went through.
We can observe similarities in both Hester Prynne’s and Mistress Hibbins’ situations in the community they reside in. Both women are outcasted by society—the former due to adultery and the latter due to her identity as a witch. Hawthorne wrote how people reacted when they saw Mistress Hibbins in the following sentences,
“As this ancient lady had the renown (which subsequently cost her no less a price than her life) of being a principal actor in all the works of necromancy that were continually going forward, the crowd gave way before her, and seemed to fear the touch of her garment, as if it carried the plague among its gorgeous folds.” (361)
The author wants the readers to visualize and be introduced to the Puritan culture. It is demonstrated that the community strictly follows teachings from the Bible and the words of God. 'Thou shall not commit adultery' is included in the Ten Commandments. Since adultery was considered a sin, Pearl was labeled as “a demon offspring” (Hawthorne 148) and “of demon origin” (Hawthorne 149). Hester Prynne who committed it was punished by reminding the person herself of the crime or sin she committed. However, the public shame was not shared by her lover, and instead, she protected Arthur Dimmesdale. It does not make sense that only the woman suffered for a sin that is done by two persons. Although the public revelation of Dimmesdale being Pearl's father at least happened in the end, it was devastating that only Prynne had to suffer humiliation for years that she gradually accepted that the scarlet letter is a part of her identity.
The novel is a great reference for overcoming what society only labels you to be. Hester Prynne went through public humiliation in her daily life as decided by the community she is in. However, the so-called 'badge of shame' embedded in her bosom did not weaken Prynne's honor. She continued to do her best and took responsibility for Pearl. When the community was questioning her capability to raise her daughter and assumed her future circumstances, she firmly fought to keep Pearl. She made sure that Pearl will not be negatively connoted like herself and made sure she learns from her mistakes. These incidents are found in the eighth chapter, “THE ELF-CHILD AND THE MINISTER”, where Hawthorne wrote,
'I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!' answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.
'Woman, it is thy badge of shame!' replied the stern magistrate. 'It is because of the stain which that letter indicates that we would transfer thy child to other hands.' (165)
In the modern era, communication and information between humans and society are easily achieved with the help of technology. The situation can hardly be compared to today and the 1800s due to our societies being continuously improving. This novel can still be read and a great reference for years to come since it includes a culture that still exists, although declining, and influences modern societies and guides people's judgments morally (Hutson).
It was mentioned in the second chapter, entitled 'THE MARKET PLACE', that the higher-ups in the community are 'God-fearing gentlemen'. It suggests that religion plays a superior role in society where the words of God must be followed and kept in mind in their daily lives.
'The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch—that is a truth,' added a third autumnal matron. 'At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she—the naughty baggage—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!' (Hawthorne 78)
Readers may find the novel interesting since everyone upholds a different morality. Some may reject and be disgusted by Hester Prynne's decisions and relentlessness because she chose to protect her lover and bear the shame alone. It could also be due to her being an unfaithful wife, especially to people who are devoted to their specific religions since they take God's words genuinely. However, some could also support her as she battles the consequences of her actions. The author described how Prynne genuinely cares for her daughter and her lover. It is difficult living in a conservative community where you are constantly reminded of your sins and redeeming yourself seems impossible to do. Prynne is described as truly making the rest of her life devoted to her loved ones so the readers could empathize with her situation. The following paragraph describes how Prynne loves her daughter,
'God gave me the child!' cried she. 'He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness—she is my torture, nonetheless! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!' (Hawthorne 168)
'What would I do if I was in Hester Prynne's situation?' This question could pop into our minds as we read passages of the novel. Our decisions regarding her situation will differ since it is a matter of upholding our morality and judgment. It is clear how public opinion holds power in situations like Hester's. A person could be outcasted by the people of the community due to one mistake which would degrade that person's honor and dignity in a day or less.
Roger Chillingworth’s greed for revenge may or may not be understood by everyone. At first, it was understandable because he felt betrayed by his wife, but later he was blinded too much by taking revenge. This backfired in the end and left him with a bitter feeling. However, we cannot overly judge his actions because the effect of betrayal among individuals varies, and his wife even bore a child that is not his. In his case, he chose to strike back, and eventually, his emotions took over him.
“All his strength and energy—all his vital and intellectual force—seemed at once to desert him, insomuch that he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished from mortal sights, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge; and when, by its completest triumph consummation that evil principle was left with no further material to support it—when, in short, there was no more Devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly.” (Hawthorne 388)
Currently, adultery cases in marriages could end in divorce. It would not always be up to the community to punish the individuals unless the community itself still lives in a way and values the same as Puritans do. From the way the punishment for adultery was demonstrated, it seems that the persons who committed it have no way to redeem themselves anymore. Society's perspective today about marriage became more aware and open that infidelity is prevalent between married couples. Although there is a lot to unpack to the reasons for doing so, the possibility of growing out of the relationship exists and it is up to the couple how they would resolve their situation. It is also important to mention that the reason for divorce between married couples is not always adultery. Many factors affect the status of marriages today such as communication. It evolved and the willingness of the two parties to communicate takes part in keeping the relationship going. (Haisha)
The scarlet letter seen on Hester Prynne’s bosom was viewed differently by people who caught a glimpse of it. It was either seen positively or negatively, but mostly the latter. The bearer lived for her loved ones, so she tried to not be affected by the judgments of the community. The scarlet letter was automatically viewed negatively by the community because it was understood to mean adultery. A child-like Pearl who grew up seeing her mother with a scarlet letter A on her bosom viewed it as a part of her. She accepted it without any prejudice, unlike the people around her mother.
The author wrote the novel descriptively and in a third-person point of view where the readers could feel or be in the situation of the protagonist and assume what will happen in the succeeding chapters of the novel such as passages that suggest the identity of Pearl's father and Hester Prynne's husband. Although Hester Prynne's infidelity must be criticized, her attitude to not be affected by the public's opinion and protect her loved ones are actions to be thought about. Most people could not have been brave enough to stand up for themselves since she was belittled by almost everyone in the community. Instead, she followed what her heart tells her to do. It is inspirational to not let anyone other than yourself be identified as told by most of the people around you. I believe the main reason that Hester Prynne did not give up on herself is because of her courage and the presence of Pearl. She is not the perfect heroine we can imagine and expect but can still get lessons from the experiences described by the author.