The Scarlet Letter: Societal Stereotypes and Identity

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Our identity is fictional, written by parents, relatives, education, and society. Parents and relatives form children to follow their principles. Society demands that we present an identity that can be comfortably cataloged. We are no longer accepted for ourselves. Judgment based on culture, religion and a plethora of other expectations has created a world filled with formidable situations, filling the minds of many with despondent thoughts. Culture and societal expectations affect the growth of our society and change many identities. Through an analysis of the setting and specific examples from the novel entitled, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the theme of societal expectations affecting one’s character is clearly evident through the conflict presented to Hester and her peers, and their ravenous attempts at normality, even with the persistent reminder of the standards of their setting and not being accepted by society.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel is an example of the intellectual human conflict between emotion and the odds of society. The setting of the story takes place in Boston society before the America Revolution. This setting constitutes an idea of the values of the people in the area, who were named puritans. The Puritans were a Protestant Christian sect that had broken off from the Church of England. They believed that salvation is predestined. Being Successful and having pure love your religion were seen as a manifestation of salvation. The Puritans also believed that all evil is inherited within you at birth and everyone is born sinful, due to Adam and Eve's original sin. The name 'Puritan' comes from the idea of purity and is a reflection of how they are trying to create a pure society. Puritans attempted to have purity permeated throughout every being of their society.

Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are both characters set in this setting of puratin ideals in the novel. These two characters are drawn to each other by desires,that can not be controlled by the religious or social intuitions. They follow their impulses, which lead toion and reproduction. Adulteress Hester Prynne must wear a scarlet A to mark her shame, leading to a plethora of people spurning her. Her lover remains unidentified throughout most of the story to the townspeople, however, internalling, is wracked with guilt, while her husband, Roger Chillingworth, seeks revenge. Hawthorne includes fairly detailed descriptions of the physical surroundings of the characters, which deeper flourishes the theme of the novel. These setting descriptions illustrate the theme of how society is affected by the expectations of their surroundings. For example, in the scene at the Governor’s mansion, he focuses on how Governor Bellingham “had planned his new habitation after the residences of gentlemen of fair estate in his native land” by describing details like the stone towers, the beautiful books, portraits and a suit of armor. This setting highlights the power of tradition, government, and the rule of law. All of these aspects significantly impact the life of Dimmesdale and Hester by punishing them for their affair and preventing them from freely following their hearts.

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Not only is the theme on social unacceptance prevalent through Hester and Dimmesdale, but it is also personified through Pearl, their daughter. Pearl was the product of natural the forbidden love impulses and exhibits a personality that aligns her with nature, rather than society. She is a wild and impulsive child, and the narrator attributes Pearl’s personality to the circumstances under which she was conceived: “In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder.” Because she was concieved through the intrucourse of adultresses, Pearl is described several times as the “devil” throughout the book.

The novel’s climax, the key scene where Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are finally reunited, takes place in the woods. This location highlights the tension between society and its expectations. Dimmesdale states , “I seem to have flung myself---sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened—down upon these forest leaves and to have risen up all made anew.” The experience of being in the natural world, unseen by society with their judgmental outlooks, seems to have a healing effect on his slowly deteriorating body and soul. Dimmesdale’s obsessive guilt occurs because he worries about social and religious rules,however, when entering a space where those rules do not apply, he immediately begins to feel better. After this experience takes place in the woods, they return to the village where Dimmesdale is again slowly dying. Moments before his death, he confesses his sins in an attempt to die without these sins weighing down on him. while all of the townspeople look down upon Hester for committing adultery, Dimmesdale is never brought to justice for his sin. Hester had to spend time in jail and be publicly shames on the scaffold in front of the whole town while Dimmesdale continued working in the church. Hawthorne uses this example to show the flaws of a justice system that bases its laws off of religion. He wants to show that it creates an unfair environment that allows for no error. After Hester is caught committing adultery she is judged by all the townspeople. They all look down on her, mock her, and insult her. Even the poor insult her like in chapter 13 the narrator tells the reader “ She never battled with the public, but submitted uncomplainingly to its worst usage; she made no claim upon it, in requital for what she suffered; she did not weigh upon its sympathies.” The narrator is telling the reader about Hester’s character and how wonderful she is as a person. Somehow though she still faces constant judgment of her character, which is mistakenly believed to be evil by the townspeople. Yet everybody looks up to Arthur Dimmesdale for all of his good deeds because of the social biases of the time period.

The time period of this novel further amplifies the impacts of societal expectations on the townspeople. Through the analysis of the setting, a town filled with judgement in a corrupt society, readers can extrapolate the difficulties of living in this era and the plethora of effects it has on the characters in the novel.

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The Scarlet Letter: Societal Stereotypes and Identity. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
“The Scarlet Letter: Societal Stereotypes and Identity.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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