The Scarlet Letter Essays
The Scarlet Letter Essays: Sample
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The Scarlet Letter Essays: Public Guilt vs. Private Guilt
Perhaps the foremost purpose of The Scarlet Letter is to illustrate the difference between shaming someone in public and allowing him or her to suffer the consequences of an unjust act privately. According to the legal statutes at the time and the prevailing sentiment of keeping in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Bible, adultery was a capital sin that required the execution of both adulterer and adulteress--or at the very least, severe public corporal punishment. Indeed, even if the husband wanted to keep his wife alive after she committed adultery, the law insisted that she would have to die for it. It is in this environment that Hester commits adultery with Dimmesdale, but we come to see that the public shaming cannot begin to account for all the complexities of the illicit relationship--or the context of it. What Hawthorne sets out to portray, then, is how the private thoughts, the private torture and guilt and emotional destruction of the people involved in the affair, are more than enough punishment for the crime. We wonder whether the state or society has any right to impose law in private matters between citizens. Does adultery really have no impact upon the lives of others? If not, it should not be seen as a crime against the village. A more charitable reading of the Bible would come later in reflections on the New Testament interpretation of adultery law, namely, that the public need not step in to punish a crime when we ourselves have our own sins to be judged. Each person suffers enough already for his or her own sins.
The Scarlet Letter Essays: Punishment vs. Forgiveness
One of the more compelling themes of the novel is embodied by Chillingworth, who seems the arbiter of moral judgment in the story, since Dimmesdale--the minister and the supposed purveyor of righteousness--is himself tainted as a party to the crime. Chillingworth is surprisingly forgiving of Hester's crime. We sense that he understands why she would forsake him. After all, he is deformed, he is older, he has not been nearby, while she is beautiful and passionate. Indeed, we get the feeling that Chillingworth's self-loathing allows him to forgive Hester, but this attribute also increases the relentlessness and rage with which he goes after Dimmesdale. In Dimmesdale, he sees the vigor and passion which Hester desires and which he himself does not possess. Like a leech, he's out to suck Dimmesdale of his life force, not just to punish the minister for the crime of fornicating with his wife, but also to symbolically appropriate Dimmesdale's virility. And as the novel continues, Chillingworth seems to grow stronger while Dimmesdale seems to weaken. That pattern continues until Dimmesdale dies in an act of defiance, his public demonstration of guilt, which essentially leaves Chillingworth stripped bare of his power to punish or forgive.
The Scarlet Letter Essays: Symbols
The scarlet letter is symbolic in a number of different ways, but perhaps most in the ways that the sinners choose to wear it. Hawthorne's generative image for the novel was that of a woman charged with adultery and forced to wear the letter A upon her clothes, but upon wearing it, decided to add fancy embroidery as if to appropriate the letter as a point of pride. Hawthorne read about this choice in an actual case in 1844, recorded it in his journal, and thus The Scarlet Letter was born as Hester Prynne's story. Hester, a knitter by trade, sees the letter as a burden laid on by society, an act of community-enforced guilt that she is forced to bear, even though it seems to make little difference for her private thoughts. Dimmesdale, however, as the town minister, wears his own scarlet A burned upon his flesh, since it is the community's rage he fears the most. Thus we see the difference between a woman who has made peace with the crime, publicly confesses, and endures the suffering the community imposes, and a man who imposes his own punishment because he cannot bear to reveal the crime to the community.
The Scarlet Letter Essays: Sin and Judgment
Hawthorne's novel consistently calls into question the notion of sin and what is necessary for redemption. Is Hester's initial crime a sin? She married Chillingworth without quite understanding the commitment she made, and then she had to live without him while he was abroad, then fell in love with Dimmesdale--perhaps discovering the feeling for the first time. Is the sin, then, committing adultery with Dimmesdale and breaking her vow and commitment, or is the sin first marrying Chillingworth without thinking it through? And what is Chillingworth's sin? Essentially abandoning his wife for so long upon their marriage, or failing to forgive her once he knew of the crime? Is Dimmesdale's sin his adultery or his hypocritical failure to change his sermon themes after the fact? Or are all of these things sins of different degrees? For each kind of sin, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime and what must be done, if anything, to redeem the sinner in the eyes of society as well as in the eyes of the sinner himself or herself. We also should remember that what the Puritans thought of as sin was different from what went for sin in Hawthorne's time, both being different from what many Christians think of as sin today. This should not teach us moral relativism, but it should encourage us to be wary of judging others.