Hester Prynne is the main character of this novel. She is a young married woman whose husband was presumed lost at sea on the journey to the New World many years before the heart of the story begins. She a secret forbidden relationship with Arthur Dimmesdale, the highly regarded town minister, and becomes pregnant with a daughter, whom she names Pearl. She is then publicly condemned and forced to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her clothing to identify her as an adulteress, but because of her loyalty refuses to reveal the identity of her lover. She accepts the punishment with grace and refuses to be defeated by the shame inflicted upon her by her society. Hester only partially regains her community's favor through good deeds and an admirable character by the end of her life. Dimmesdale, knowing that the punishment will be shame or execution, does not admit his relationship with Prynne. In his role as minister he dutifully pillories and interrogates Hester in the town square about the identity of the father. He maintains his righteous image, but internally he is dogged by his guilt and the shame of his weakness and hypocrisy. This is known by an open, self-inflicted wound on his chest. He is admired while Hester receives social contempt. Prynne's husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns but does not reveal his identity to anyone but Hester. Suspecting the identity of Hester's partner, he becomes Dimmesdale's caretaker and plans his revenge on him by torturing him. Ultimately Dimmesdale's guilt drives him to attempt a full repentance of his sin by standing on the scaffold with Prynne and Pearl.
Hawthorne uses the setting to develop the theme of sin, isolation and reunion. In the market place one of the guards opens the jail cell and announces to all the spectators and to Hester shouting, “Open a passage; and I promise ye Mistress Prynne shall be set where man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her… Come along! Madam Hester and show your scarlet letter in the marker place” (Hawthorne 52). Hester is being displayed on the scaffold, which Hawthorne uses to show sin. While Hester is walking out of the jail a woman murmurs to one of the other women, “ This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die!” (Hawthorne 49) This scene clearly shows isolation between Hester and the community. The setting of the scaffold scene also illustrates the reunion between Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl. When Dimmesdale admits on being the father of Pearl to all the townspeople, this scene reunites Pearl with herself by making her normal. The forest is as well as a major setting that instigates sin. Isolation in the forest occurs when Hester meets Dimmesdale to achieve some reunion, but instead drives them selves further into isolation. The use of the settings greatly structures how the theme of sin, isolation and reunion came about.
The scarletsymbol of ignominy may have defiled Hester's public image, yet it has been abenefit rather than a bane to her soul, for by admitting her crime to thecrowd, her soul is freed from two hells: first, the fiery pit where she wouldotherwise go after death, and second, the own personal hell Hester will createfor herself if she had chosen to hide her sin in her heart. Though it wasordered for Hester to wear the letter, it was still her own choice to make itin a vivid scarlet, "so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon herbosom." Hester chose red as the color of her brand of shame, to declareto the rest of the townspeople that she is prepared to acknowledge her sin,instead of denying it; she could have chosen to wear her "A" in aplain and nondistinct color, to escape the townspeople's disdain. Bydisplaying her guilt however, she is granted the opportunity to face herpunishment bravely, thus through her public humiliation, she achieves freedomfrom the personal guilt of not suffering enough for her crimes. Furthermore,"the scarlet letter, forthwith seemed to scorch into Hester's breast, asif it had been red-hot." The scarlet A's glowing embers, scorching theymay be, also serve to heal, for the pain they inflict on Hester enables her toproperly atone for her sin; by devoting this lifetime to repentance andexpiation, she would receive relief in her next life. To the Puritans she isshamed, yet to the heavens she is honored as a repentant sinner who hasreturned to the loving arms of her Creator. Finally, Hester's scarlet emblemis found on the outside, while the mark that her lover Dimmesdale is found in"his inmost heart." Though Hester and Dimmesdale are both brandedwith the scarlet "A", there is a world of difference between their badgesof shame, for Hester's scarlet token is embroidered in dazzling gold threadand is displayed for everyone to see, showing that she hides nothing, whileDimmesdale's letter is branded on his chest: hidden from the public eye, yetwith an effect that is more potent than that of the scarlet token on Hester'sbreast. Indeed, the heat of glowing metal inflicts a far greater pain thanthat of needle and thread, the throb of fire against skin is more potent than apin on a piece of cloth; though Hester may have to endure the taunts of thepitiless Puritans, at least, unlike Dimmesdale, she does not have to endurethose of her own creation. Therefore, it can be concluded that Hester wasbetter off wearing the letter, for by a enduring a lifetime of pain and agony,she escapes an eternity of unbearable torment.
Hawthorne was preaching a wholly puritanical message in the Scarlet Letter with guilt as a symbol for it. For while Puritans do believe that Original Sin effects the whole of society, and that we are all sinners, they nonetheless believe in the possibility of redemption from this Original Sin. That redemption is possible: with the appropriate behaviour and a sense of guilt, shame and conscience. However, they also believe that the method of expression of guilt is important in this regard.
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Hester refers to her label as a "passport" revealing that it is freeing for her, and Dimmesdale is able to preach and understand humanity better because of his relationship. True sin is not understood by the other preachers, but evil is found in the closeness of love and hate in the society.
Another major theme in the Scarlet Letter is identity. Hester embraces her "A" identity and refuses to leave the town so that she can remove the label and restart her life. She does not want it to be removed or to leave the town because that would prove others have power over her, rather than showing that she does not feel shame for who she is. Hester's adulterous relationship is something that she admits is a part of her identity, and she does not want to discard that aspect of herself. Dimmesdale struggles because he is not able……
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Hester learns from her sin, and she grows strong as a result of accepting her punishment. "The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers-stern and wild ones-and they had made her strong." (170). A little more than half way through the novel, Hester has changed into a women capable to help others and being respected by them. Society has now forgiven her and some may even admire her. Although she wears the letter A long after she was able to take it off, she decides to take it to her grave. Hester might have worn that letter so long, to prove that she has nothing to hide. Hester has found the happiness that comes from being at peace with oneself, with society, and with God.
Many years later Nathaniel Hawthorn was greatly interested by the Puritans. This 19th-century American novelist, was born on July 4, in Salem, Massachusetts, and died May 11, 1864. He was the first American writer to apply artistic judgment to Puritan society. He was intrigued by the psychological insight into the complexities of human motivations and actions. In The Scarlet Letter, he expressed one of the central legacies of American Puritanism, using the plight of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale to illustrate the conflict between the desire to confess and the necessity of self-concealment. Hawthorne grew up with his two sisters and their widowed mother, and an uncle saw to his education at Bowdoin College. In 1852, Hawthorne wrote the campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, an old college friend. The best of Hawthorn"s early fiction was gathered in Twice-Told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, and The Snow-Image. These capture the complexity"s of the New England Puritan heritage. Hawthorne"s writing had a wide range of influence upon people, such as Melville who dedicated the great classic Moby-Dick to him. One of Hawthorne"s most famous novels is The Scarlet Letter. One of his characters (Hester Prynne) is changed throughout the novel. Hester changes three different times, from being a shamed woman to a capable women and then to a healer.
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Indeed,though originally meant as her punishment, the scarlet letter actuallyliberates Hester from her guilt, and from even greater punishment. The scornshe feels towards it, and the lengths she goes through to rid herself of itshow that she does not realize the good that the letter has done her. It mayhave punished her, it may have caused her pain, yet the good deep within theletter is greater than the evil that surrounds it on the outside. The scarletletter can thus also be viewed as an instrument of God, rather than aninstrument of Satan; sent to teach a lesson, rather than to punish; a holybrand, rather than a mark of shame and ignominy. It was given to Hester as ameans of atoning her sin and achieving salvation, and as the scarlet letter"A" rests on her sin-stained heart, it mends instead of causing moredamage. Its scarlet fire thus exorcises Hester Prynne's personal demons, sothat in the Afterlife she can finally attain her peace.