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Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Scarlet Letter–A Story Of Adultery, Shame, And Moral Conflict

On A Field Sable, The Letter A, Gules

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, but the story takes place over 100 years before in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the earliest Puritan settlements in the New World and home of the infamous witch trials.

The Scarlet Letter

The story is less about adultery than about the Christian morality and the severe social conservatism that was an expression of it.  Hester Prynne committed adultery and, having barely escaped the gallows was condemned to ware the scarlet letter A on her breast forever.

Although pressed by the clergymen of the town to expose her adulterous partner, she refused to do so; and as part of her bargain with him to conceal the name of her former husband with whom she had lived in England but from whom she had been separated because of his abduction by Indians and long years of involuntary servitude.

Hester refuses to name her adulterous partner, preferring to assume all the guilt of the immoral act herself and to protect her former lover. Her guilt is profound and incessant. Her honesty and deep moral rectitude would never permit the guilt to be assuaged or forgotten.  Even if the townswomen of Salem had not taunted, harassed, and tormented her as they did, Hester would never have let the sense of her shame, deceit, and moral failure die.

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Gradually the townspeople soften towards her.  They sense, although few would say it openly, that she has suffered enough.  That through her humility, respect, and social work with the poor, the sick, and the dying, she has earned at least a modicum of sympathy if not forgiveness.  She has become as simple member of the town like everyone else.  Ironically, the embroidered scarlet letter worn on her breast, became a professional calling card; and Hester become renowned as the best seamstress in the colony. She embroidered the ceremonial gowns of the wealthy, the high-born, and the governors and officials of the colony.  Her customers saw no issue between the severely modest dress and behavior of their seamstress and her elegant, rich work.

She made clothes for her daughter, Pearl, as well; and dressed her with such color and fancy that she stood out among the drably- and severely-dressed Puritan children. The little girl, impish and elfin – ‘a sprite and an airy spirit’– was given unusual license. Perhaps in compensation for the severe punishment meted out to her mother; or perhaps because they, in their unremittingly severe and harsh moral and civic code missed such free expression of innocence, they let her be.

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Mother and daughter were an unusual pair.  The mother morose and cowed.  The daughter care-free and happy.

As time passes, Hester comes to accept her fate.  She feels that in staying in Salem and accepting her punishment; in protecting the secrets of both her lover and her husband, she has accommodated her guilt, and made peace with God and the community.

The same is not true for her former lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale, as man whose hidden guilt has eroded his psyche and turned him into a weak, frail, and sick man; but at the same time provided a spiritual insight which gave his sermons passion and credibility.  Townspeople crowded his church on Sundays, anxious as they were to be guided and enlightened by this man who was very close to God.

The conflict between the two – his moral posture and his sinfulness – soon began to completely disassemble him.  He climbed the pulpit in the empty church and gave a sermon which bared all.  He was a sinner, a moral reprobate, a deceiver, and an insult to God and his flock.  Yet he could never give the sermon to his congregants.

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     John Wesley, www.en.wikipedia.com  

Worst of all, Hester’s former husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to Salem, announces himself to Hester, but agrees to her request that he keep their former marriage a secret.

Chillingworth, however, suspects that Dimmesdale is the adulterer, and once he is sure of it, begins to torment the preacher, insinuating that he, as a doctor, can see his suffering; and that it can only come from his mind.  He, like Iago, is evil in his desire to destroy an imagined enemy; and like Iago enjoys slow torture.  For months the doctor, now living with the preacher, makes innuendoes, insinuations, and increasingly forthright suggestions about his guilt and need to confess it. 

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Pearl, meanwhile, has grown into a precocious and unsettlingly observant girl.  She knows implicitly about Dimmesdale, the macabre and evil Chillingworth, her mother’s shame and guilt, and the meaning of the scarlet letter.  It is she, her mother fears, who will expose all.

The story ends expectedly.  Dimmesdale dies of his years of psychological illness, but not before he has confessed all and embraced Hester and his daughter, Pearl.  Chillingworth has lost, and reacts like Satan in Paradise Lost – defeated by goodness and the power of God, but unrepentant. Hester and Pearl go away, perhaps to England where Pearl can enjoy her unexpected inheritance.

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     Gustave Dore, www.en.wikipedia.org

Hester, however, returns to Salem to her work as ‘Sister of Mercy’.  She lives alone, and never takes off the scarlet letter she has replaced on her bosom.

The Scarlet Letter is a remarkable book. A study of the destructive sanctimony of the early Puritans; an anticipation of Freud with its symbolism; powerful in presenting its theme of guilt; profoundly religious in its recapitulation of Christian themes of sin, redemption, and salvation in early America; and a compelling story of intrigue, good and evil, and sublimated passion.

While Hester Prynne is the main character of the book, the others – Chillingworth and Dimmesdale – are equally important, and both men whose characters evolve and erode under the pressures of guilt, revenge, and retribution.  Pearl is perhaps the most interesting character of all, because of her symbolism, and her elicitation of the most perverted fear of witchery and the demonic in Salem.  She is at once the hope for the colony – free, spirited, and innocent – and its worst indirect critic.  She exposes the sham of religious pretention and sanctimony.

As in most novels, things turn out for the best.  Dimmesdale dies the death he has long sought, but only after expiating his sin and having made peace with his family.  Chillingworth is exposed and dunned out of the community. Hester accepts her important role in the community, created as it was by the scarlet letter; and Pearl inherits thousands and leads a happy, prosperous, and generous life in England.

Hawthorne has no point of view other than his criticism of 17th century American Puritanism – not new for men of his era.  He accepts the lives of Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth with as much equanimity as Shakespeare.  Human nature will never change, they both say, and the beauty is in the telling.  Like Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well; but in the case of The Scarlet Letter, the reader believes that the characters are in the places they belong.  One always assumes that although all Shakespeare’s Comedies end with a happy wedding, the couples will be divorced soon after.

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