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Scarlet Letter Influences

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s background influenced him to write the bold novel The
Scarlet Letter. One important influence on the story is money. Hawthorne had
never made much money as an author and the birth of his first daughter added to
the financial burden (“Biographical Note” VII). He received a job at
the Salem Custom House only to lose it three years later and be forced to write
again to support his family (IX). Consequently, The Scarlet Letter was published
a year later (IX). It was only intended to be a long short story, but the extra
money a novel would bring in was needed (“Introduction” XVI).


Hawthorne then wrote an introduction section titled “The Custom House”
to extend the length of the book and The Scarlet Letter became a full novel
(XVI). In addition to financial worries, another influence on the story is
Hawthorne’s rejection of his ancestors. His forefathers were strict Puritans,
and John Hathorne, his great-great-grandfather, was a judge presiding during the
S! alem witch trials (“Biographical Note” VII). Hawthorne did not
condone their acts and actually spent a great deal of his life renouncing the
Puritans in general (VII). Similarly, The Scarlet Letter was a literal
“soapbox” for Hawthorne to convey to the world that the majority of
Puritans were strict and unfeeling. For example, before Hester emerges from the
prison she is being scorned by a group of women who feel that she deserves a
larger punishment than she actually receives. Instead of only being made to
stand on the scaffold and wear the scarlet letter on her chest, they suggest
that she have it branded on her forehead or even be put to death (Hawthorne 51).


Perhaps the most important influence on the story is the author’s interest in
the “dark side” (“Introduction” VIII). Unlike the
transcendentalists of the era, Hawthorne “confronted reality, rather than
evading it” (VII). Likewise, The Scarlet Letter deals with adultery, a
subject that caused much scandal when it w! as first published (XV). The book
revolves around sin and punishment, a far outcry from writers of the time, such
as Emerson and Thoreau, who dwelt on optimistic themes (VII). This background,
together with a believable plot, convincing characterization, and important
literary devices enables Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to the
develop the theme of the heart as a prison. The scaffold scenes are the most
substantial situations in the story because they unify The Scarlet Letter in two
influential ways. First of all, every scaffold scene reunites the main
characters of the novel. In the first scene, everyone in the town is gathered in
the market place because Hester is being questioned about the identity of the
father of her child ( Hawthorne 52). In her arms is the product of her sin,
Pearl, a three month old baby who is experiencing life outside the prison for
the first time (53). Dimmesdale is standing beside the scaffold because he is
Hester’s pastor and it is his job to convince her to repent and reveal the
father’s name (65). A short time later, Chillingworth unexpectedly shows up
within the crowd of people who are watching Hester after he is released from his
two year captivity by the Indians (61). In the second scene, Dimmesdale is
standing on top of the scaffold alone in the middle of the night (152). He sees
Hester and Pearl walk through the market place on their way back from Governor
Winthrop’s bedside (157). When Dimmesdale recognizes them and tells them to join
him, they walk up the steps to stand by his side (158). Chillingworth appears
later standing beside the scaffold, staring at Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl. In
the final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale walks to the steps of the scaffold in front
of the whole town after his Election day sermon (263). He tells Hester and Pearl
to join him yet again on the scaffold (264). Chillingworth then runs through the
crowd and tries to stop Dimmesdale from reaching the top of the scaffold, the
one place where he can’t reach him (265). Another way in which the scenes are
united is how each illustrates the immediate, delayed, and prolonged effects
that the sin of adultery has on the main characters. The first scene shows
Hester being publicly punished on the scaffold (52). She is being forced to
stand on it for three hours straight and listen to peop! le talk about her as a
disgrace and a shame to the community (55). Dimmesdale’s instantaneous response
to the sin is to lie. He stands before Hester and the rest of the town and
proceeds to give a moving speech about how it would be in her and the father’s
best interest for her to reveal the father’s name (67). Though he never actually
says that he is not the other parent, he implies it by talking of the father in
third person (67). Such as, “If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace,
and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to
salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and
fellow-sufferer” (67). Chillingworth’s first reaction is one of shock, but
he quickly suppresses it (61). Since his first sight of his wife in two years is
of her being punished for being unfaithful to him, he is naturally surprised. It
does not last for long though, because it is his nature to control his emotions
(61). Pearl’s very existence in this scene is the largest immediate effect of
her parents’ crime (52). She obviously would never had been there had her
parents resisted their love for each other. The second scene occurs several
years later and shows the effects after time has had a chance to play its part.


It begins with Dimmesdale climbing the stairs of the scaffold in the middle of
the night because it is the closest that he can come to confessing his sin
(152). This scene is especially important because it shows how pitiful he has
become. Dimmesdale shows just how irrational he is when he screams aloud because
he fears that the universe is staring at a scarlet token on his breast (153). It
also shows how much guilt he is carrying by the way he perceives the light from
a meteor as the letter A. He believes it stands for adulteress while other
people think it stands for angel since the governor just passed away (161). This
scene also shows how Hester is managing her new situation. When Dimmesdale tells
her to come up the scaffold and asks her where she has b! een, she replies that
she has been measuring the robe that the governor is to be buried in (158). This
statement implies that Hester’s reputation as a talented seamstress has spread.


Ironically, her first well known piece of work was the scarlet letter that she
wore on her chest. As a result, she owes her own success to her infamy. Besides
growing older, Pearl’s most significant change is in her perceptibility (158).


In this scene, she constantly asks Dimmesdale if he will be joining Hester and
herself on the scaffold tomorrow at noon and accuses him of not being true
(162). Neither Hester nor Dimmesdale ever told Pearl who her father was, but she
figures it out by the way he always holds his hand over his heart (159).


Chillingworth’s derangement is evident in this scene also. His contempt for
Dimmesdale is so acute that he risks his cover when he gives him a look so vivid
as to remain painted on the darkness after the bright meteor that just passed,
vanishes (161). The third scene is very critical because it is the last glimpse
into every characters’ mind and the last time that everyone is alive. At this
point in time, Dimmesdale’s fixation on his sin has utterly corroded him to the
point of death. After he gives his election day sermon, he goes to the scaffold
and asks Hester and Pearl to join him because he is so weak that he can hardly
support himself (265). He finally exposes the truth and tells his followers of
how he deceived them (267). The only good that comes out of conceding his guilt
is that he passed away without any secrets, for he was already too far gone to
be able to be saved (269). This scene is important to the characterization of
Hester because it is the first time that she is not in complete control of her
emotions (264). Her dream of escaping to England with Dimmesdale is lost when he
decides to confess (264). The unanticipated arrival of Chillingworth and
Dimmesdale’s feeble appearance distresses her, and for the first time, she can
not control the outcome (264). The greatest transformation in Pearl’s life
occurs in this scene. While she used to be perceived as elfish, she now shows
the first signs of normal human emotion. After Dimmesdale confesses his sin, she
kisses his lips voluntarily (268). “The great scene of grief…had
developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek,
they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor
forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (268). Ultimately,
Chillingworth takes a severe turn for the worse when Dimmesdale reveals his sin.


Since Chillingworth based the rest of his life on playing games on Dimmesdale’s
mind, he was left without any goals, and his life became meaningless (268). On
that account, it is clear that Hawthorne uses the scaffold scenes, not only as a
unifying device, but as a means to keep the reader interested in the novel by
providing plenty of action. The main characters sharply contrast each other in
the way they react to Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin. To begin, Hester becomes
stronger, more enduring, and even more sympathetic. She becomes stronger because
of all the weight she has to carry. She is a single mother who suffers all of
the burdens of parenthood by herself. They live on the edge of town, and Pearl
has no one to give her food, shelter and emotional support besides Hester. Pearl
is especially difficult to raise because she is anything but normal. Hawthorne
gives a pretty accurate description of Pearl when he writes: The child could not
be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken;
and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and bril- liant,
but all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the
point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered
(91). Hester’s endurance is proven when the people of the colony completely
change their opinion of her. While a lesser person would run from the hostile
colonists, Hester withstands their insolence and pursues a normal life. After
years of proving her worth with her uncommon sewing skills and providing
community service, the colonists come to think of the scarlet letter as
“the cross on a nun’s bosom,” which is no small accomplishment (169).


Hester also becomes more sensitive to the feelings and needs of other people.


She feels that her own sin gives her “sympathetic knowledge of the hidden
sin in other hearts” (87). So even though the people she tried to help
“often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them,” she
continues her services because she actually cares (85). While Hester tries to
make the best out of her situation, Dimmesdale becomes weaker by letting guilt
and grief eat away at his conscience. Dimmesdale punishes himself by believing
that he can never be redeemed. He feels that he will never be seen the same in
the eyes of God, and that no amount of penitence can ever return him to God’s
good graces. He is so touchy on this subject that when Hester says his good
deeds will count for something in God’s view, he exclaims, “There is no
substance in it! It is cold and dead and can do nothing for me!” (202).


Dimmesdale also believes that his sin has taken the meaning out of his life. His
life’s work has been dedicated to God, and now his sin has tainted it (202). He
feels that he is a fraud and is not fit to lead the people of the town to
salvation. The feeling is so oppressive that the chance of escaping his work and
leaving with Hester and Pearl makes him emotionally (and probably mentally)
unstable. He walks through the town with twice as much energy as normal, and he
barely stops himself from swearing to a fellow deacon (229). When an old lady
approaches him he can not remember any scriptures whatsoever to tell her, and
the urge to use his power of persuasion over a young maiden is so strong that he
covers his face with his cloak and runs off (230). The largest cause of
Dimmesdale’s breakdown is the fact that he keeps his sin a secret. As God’s
servant, it is his nature to tell the truth, so the years of pretending are
especially hard on him. His secret guilt is such a burden that instead of going
with Hester to England and perhaps having a chance to live longer, he chose to
stand, confess and perish on the scaffold (268). Ultimately, Chillingworth
responds to his wife’s betrayal by sacrificing everything in order to seek
revenge. After he discovers that his wife bore another man’s child,
Chillingworth gives up his independence. He used to be a scholar who dedicated
his best years “to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,” but his new
allegiance becomes finding and slowly punishing the man who seduced his wife
(74). He soon becomes obsessed with his new mission in life, and when he
targeted Reverend Dimmesdale as the possible parent, he dedic! ates all of his
time to becoming his confidant in order to get his retribution (127). Vengeance
was also one of the reasons that Chillingworth gives up his identity. The only
way he can truly corrupt Dimmesdale is to live with him and be by his side all
day, every day. The only possible way to do that is to give up his true identity
as Roger Prynne, Hester’s husband, and become Roger Chillingworth. Since the
only person who knew his true identity is sworn to silence, he succeeds for a
long time in tricking Dimmesdale until Hester sees that he was going mad and
finally revealed Chillingworth’s true identity (204). His largest sacrifice is
by far, his own life. After spending so much time dwelling on his revenge,
Chillingworth forgets that he still has a chance to lead a life of his own. So
accordingly, after Dimmesdale reveals his secret to the world, Chillingworth
dies less than a year later because he has nothing left to live for (272). In
conclusion, Hawthorne’s use of characterization gives the book a classic feeling
by showing Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth’s feelings indirectly through
acts. The novel revolves around two major symbols: light and darkness and the
scarlet letter. The book is filled with light and darkness symbols because it
represents the most common battle of all time, good versus evil. When Hester and
her daughter are walking in the forest, Pearl exclaims: Mother, the sunshine
does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of
something on your bosom. Now see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand
you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from
me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet (192). Hester tries to stretch her hand
into the circle of light, but the sunshine vanishes (192). She then suggests
that they go into the forest and rest (193). This short scene actually
represents Hester’s daily struggle in life. The light represents what Hester
wants to be, which is pure. The movement of the light represents Hester’s
constant denial of acceptance. Hester’s lack of surprise and quick suggestion to
go into the forest, where it is dark, shows that she never expected to be
admitted and is resigned to her station in life. Another way light and darkness
is used in symbolism is by the way Hester and Dimmesdale’s plan to escape is
doomed. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the shadows of the forest with a gloomy
sky and a threatening storm overhead when they discuss their plans for the
future (200). The gloomy weather and shadows exemplify the fact that they can’t
get away from the repressive force of their sins. It is later proven when
Dimmesdale dies on the scaffold! instead of leaving with Hester and going to
England (269). A final example occurs by the way Hester and Dimmesdale can not
acknowledge their love in front of others. When they meet in the woods, they
feel that, “No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this
dark forest (206). This emotion foretells that they will never last together
openly because their sin has separated them too much from normal life. The
scarlet letter also takes many different forms in the novel. The first and
clearest form that the letter A takes is “Adulteress.” It is apparent
that Hester is guilty of cheating on her husband when she surfaces from the
prison with a three-month-old-child in her arms, and her husband has been away
for two years (53). Hence, the people look at the letter elaborately embroidered
with gold thread and see a “hussy” who is proud of her sin (54). The
second form that it takes is “Angel.” When Governor Winthrop passes
away, a giant A appears in the sky. ! People from the church feel that,
“For as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it
was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!” (16). The
final form that the scarlet letter take is “Able.” Hester helped the
people of the town so unselfishly that Hawthorne wrote: 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 it s original significance. They said that
it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength (167). In
closing, one of the most important reasons that The Scarlet Letter is so well
known is the way Hawthorne leaves the novel open to be interpreted several
different ways by his abundant use of symbolism. This background, together with
a believable plot, convincing characterization, and important literary devices
enables Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to the develop the theme of
the heart as a prison. Hawthorne describes the purpose of the novel when he
says, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your
worse, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” (272). The theme
is beneficial because it can be put into terms in today’s world. The Scarlet
Letter is one of the few books that will be timeless, because it deals with
alienation, sin, punishment, and guilt, emotions that will continue to be felt
by every generation to come.