The Emphasis on Identity, Self and Community in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlett Letter is somewhat considered romance novel written in 1850 and set in Puritan Colonial America. Nathanial Hawthorne, its author, invites us on a journey that follows the life and death of Hester Prynne, a young woman left alone by her husband who has long been gone, and feared to have been killed by native Americans during war. She ends up having a child through the crime of adultery, leading to much judgement and her eventual ostracization from the community. The novel explores themes of reputation, religion and guilt and the importance of standing up for what is right. Hawthorne, through his work reminds us that “in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike” and encourages us to question whether it is appropriate to punish others for sins when it is sensible to admit that none of us are perfect and have often committed villainy and sometimes made morally unjustifiable decisions.

Nathanial’s own life may have aided the inspiration for this novel. Unlike other transcendentalist authors of the time such as Emerson who’d chosen to branch out slightly from traditional romantical writing, he chose to focus on a more pessimistic outlook on life. This could have been due to his own experiences at the time, as with a daughter himself, he often struggled to provide for his family. He belonged to a rather wealthy family, but frequently felt guilty to make use of the money due to its puritan connection. The publishing of the Scarlett Letter was supposed to ease the strain and make things easier for him. In addition to this, Hawthorne was disapproving of the severe and uncompromising Puritan religion at the time, made from those who had come from England to escape the clutches of the Church of England, which was becoming ever more violent. The disparagement ran deeper that this though as Hawthorne had his own personal connections to the religion. His great-great grandfather, Judge Hawthorne, had been a prominent judge at the Salem witch trials which had begun in early 1692 and been the only one who refused to apologise for the appalling punishments that many innocent people were subjected to. The Scarlett letter reveals many lessons that are still valid today, its importance illustrated by the number of adaptations created, the most recent being ‘Easy A’ . Hawthorne places great significance on how identity, self and community affect how a person sees themselves, and perhaps more importantly at the time, how others saw them.

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Identity is a very central idea in this book. There are many characters that face conflicting opinions and feelings about themselves, interestingly contrasted by the youngest character, Pearl, who never seems to doubt herself and her abilities. Hester’s own identity is taken from her once she is branded with the Scarlett letter, A for adulteress. There is a noteworthy and interesting contrast here between this and the 2010 film where Olive, the modern-day Hester instead brands herself with the ‘A’ sewing it on all her clothes. This could perhaps indicate reclaiming that power Hester was once robbed off so shamefully, further suggesting that nowadays women have much more control of how they are seen. Even though the branding was supposed to attract disapproval, allowing all the people in the small Massachusetts town to recognise her for her crime, it instead permits her to grow to be a better person, becoming “so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted” perhaps because she has now gained a greater empathy for what it means to be isolated and different. Hester could be seen a protagonist with strength and bravery, who knowing full well that the ‘A’ could be removed if she went to live in another city, chooses to remain where she is and build a life with her daughter, Pearl. Her identity allows her to change the meaning of a symbol that carried so much distaste, and this goes as far as the townspeople even debating whether the Scarlett Letter be “token off your bosom” .

With strength and grace, she accepts that moving would change perceptions of her, but perhaps stays because of her own religious principles and a want to change the stain put on her reputation. The journey from isolating herself at the beginning of her punishment, and women heckling her saying that they believed her penalty should have been worse and more violent, to her acceptance of being an outcast paired with the growth of her child elicits an emotional response within readers who could feel as if they’ve truly grown with the character and experience a sort of catharsis as she gains peace within herself. Pearl is another vital character who effects Hester’s identity and discovers her own in Hawthorne’s work. She too is set apart from society and seen as a symbol of evil, the product of her parent’s sin. Hawthorne early in the book makes a point to connect the identities of mother and child saying that as a baby Pearl “seemed to drink in all the turmoil, anguish and despair which pervaded the mother’s system” through her breast. This is a theme that continues throughout the novel and could support the argument that Hester gained all this strength through her daughter who had a “trait of passion” that she never lost. Another connection that could be explored could be the idea that Pearl herself is the embodiment of the Scarlett Letter. She is wild and uncaring what others think of her, perhaps due to the sheltered life she had lived with her mother, and even the way Hester dresses her in chapter seven denotes a connection between the two.

However, Pearl is not simply an evil problem child, she also has traits of innocence which are characteristic of children. Hawthorne invites us to remember the naivety that comes with childhood especially evident in chapter six where he says she is worthy enough to have been “a plaything of the angels” and we see her caring side for Arthur Dimmesdale, the main revealed to be her father, who has watched her mother go through all the turmoil that the ‘A’ has brought her and said nothing, when she lays her cheek on his hand in “a caress so tender” suggesting she displays a light loving personality when given the chance, even to those who seldom deserve it. The exchange Pearl and Hester have in chapter 16 when she realises, she can play in the sun, but it disappears when her mother reaches it, is also another example of how clueless Pearl is, as in her eyes, her mother has done no wrong. Hester encourages her to chase, remarking that the sunshine “will soon be gone” . Perhaps a metaphor for the happiness of Pearl when she is old enough to discover why her mother wears the A. These juxtaposing elements of her character remind readers that nothing is black and white, and no one can be truly evil.

How we see ourselves in the Scarlet Letter makes for stimulating discussion if we focus on relevant characters such as Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl’s father and esteemed figure. The book urges us to believe that Dimmesdale is a respectable pillar of the community, even boasting being a scholar at Oxford University which makes his downfall all the more fascinating. It is significant that, although being too ashamed to come forward as Pearl’s father, Dimmesdale punishes himself in secret, even going as far as whipping and starving himself because of his guilt. He exclaims that the ‘Judgement of God” is on him and it is too much for him to bear. The way Reverend Dimmesdale sees himself seems to have much more of a greater affect than how others perceive him. Being a religious man, in a time where religion was so important, as well as belonging to a religion that believed that every task you completed must aid and strengthen that belief, would have only exacerbated the problem. In chapter 23, he seems to believe dying on the scaffold along with Hester and his daughter is better than just admitting the truth to everyone. This overwhelming heavy guilt and disgust with oneself drove Dimmesdale to his death. Hawthorne implies here that in order for one to be set free, they must be prepared to be truthful with themselves, much like Hester Prynne was.

Parkinson who writes an essay on the concept of self in the Scarlett Letter argues that it is Hester that is a prisoner to the patriarchal structures of society, but it is also worth proposing that this is not the case. Arthur Dimmesdale is captive to his title, and to who society believes he is. As a reverend in this time, he knows his is unable to make mistakes and unable to have moments of weakness which tortures him furthermore throughout the story. Perhaps it could also be said that Hawthorne rejects stereotypical gender roles as Dimmesdale assumes the feebler character, who keeping a secret of this magnitude has torn apart. Towards the end of the novel, when Dimmesdale reveals the ‘A’ on his chest therefore revealing his secret, he shortly after dies, perhaps expressing the highest form of freedom, and catharsis by telling the town. The author creates ambiguity as it’s never quite explained where the mark has come from, whether Arthur Dimmesdale has mutilated himself, or whether the ‘A’ has come from a higher, supernatural power, e.g. God. Either way, they both show the negative feelings this character has towards himself, and the person he has had to pretend to be throughout the book. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true” he says in chapter 20, suggesting the idea that no one has only one personality, and that as human beings we show the self we believe is appropriate at the time. This could relate to a psychoanalytic reading of the novel, influenced by ideas of Sigmund Freud and the concept of the Id, Ego and Superego which alludes to the fight between our instincts, our morals and reality and how they work together to keep us as civil members of society.

The townspeople that make up the community of the Massachusetts Bay Colony really drive the characters to feel guilty in Hawthorne’s work, allowing greater emphasis to be placed upon their wrongdoings. In chapter two, a townsperson, referring to Dimmesdale as “her Godly pastor” says in aguish that such a scandal has befallen their people and the community, being unaware of the real issue believe their reverend is falling ill because of the shame Hester has brought upon them. There are many examples of civilians treating Hester and her daughter like outcasts, which perhaps highlights the message of hypocrisy in the novel. He makes special mention to the fact that if everyone was to be honest, “a scarlet letter would blaze on many a bosom” , as many people in that town were not completely innocent themselves, a prime example being Roger Chillingworth who faked his identity in the search for revenge, an unchristian motive. In chapter one, towns women demand they “put the brand of hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead” as her punishment is not enough for them, and even perhaps being the same social status as Hester, now believe themselves to be better than her as she wears her sin outright. However, they do self-reflect, a reoccurring theme in the book, when they think about removing the ‘A’ and welcoming Hester and her child back into society. Here, it seems like breaking the law is the same as breaking God’s law, which leaves little room for failure in this xenophobic town.

In conclusion, emphasis on self, identity and community is done majorly through characters and the settings they surround themselves with. Hawthorne is successful in allowing the reader to understand just how much stress would befall members of the Puritan community so that they would act perfect. It raises the question of how many actions were truly sincere rather than actions being done, or words being said to appear better than one really was. He also sheds light on the moral the story teachers, which is the value of telling the truth, as sometimes it can be the only thing to set you free.

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The Emphasis on Identity, Self and Community in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from
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