Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The Scarlet Letter raised complex and often uncomfortable questions about the relationship between sin and sympathy for Hawthorne’s nineteenth century audience. At the time of its publication in 1850, several Christian editorial writers, in fact, criticized Hawthorne’s novel for not adequately emphasizing Hester’s renunciation of her sin and the process of her atonement. Some argued that because Hawthorne’s story was not clearly enough an example designed for moral instruction, it should not be told at all. Earlier American seduction novels such as Charlotte Temple (1791) and The Coquette: Or, The History of Eliza Wharton; A Novel Founded on Fact (1797) invited the reader not only to witness the female protagonist’s moral struggle and downfall, but also to forgive her transgressions as they were repented, typically in death. The Scarlet Letter, in contrast, invites the reader to sympathize with the sinner as she struggles, often rebelliously, to work out her relationship to her sin and the punishment for that sin.
The point of Hawthorne’s text, like several of his earlier short stories, is to question if not outright criticize the severity of the Puritan law and the self-righteous intolerance of the Puritan community. Like other authors of his day, Hawthorne uses seventeenth century Puritanism as a point of departure for reflecting on what a Christian community should strive for in the nineteenth century. By...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
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In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne deals with two principal themes: the conflict between head and heart, and the nature of sin itself. Through the story of Hester and Dimmesdale, the novelist is able to highlight the contrast between the natural passions of young adults and the harsh rules of conduct established by societies such as the one in Puritan New England. The men and women of Boston are quick to brand Hester a sinner because she violates her marriage vows. They are not privy to the circumstances of her marriage, which is loveless and demoralizing; even if they were, however, they would not have altered Hester's punishment. There is no room for forgiveness in the rigid theocracy in which Hester lives. Compounding the problem are the efforts of her husband, Chillingworth, who comes in disguise from Europe to Boston and spends his time trying to discover the identity of his wife's lover. Under the law, he is justified in his actions, but it is clear to readers that he is evil and his actions destructive — both to others and to himself. Through the story of this unfortunate love triangle, Hawthorne suggests that what is right under the law of the land may be wrong under a higher law.
The second theme is tied closely to the first. While Hester and Dimmesdale are sinners under the law, they are presented as sympathetic figures who turned to each other because they found themselves in emotionally barren situations. The two feel guilty for their...
(The entire section is 312 words.)
Individual vs. Society
The Scarlet Letter is a novel that describes the psychological anguish of two principle characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. They are both suffering under, while attempting to come to terms with, their mutual sin of adultery in a strict Puritan society. As critics immediately recognized upon publication of the novel in 1850, one of its principal themes involved conflict between the individual and society.
Hawthorne represents the stern and threatening force of Puritan society in the first sentence of the first chapter, where he describes a "throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray," who stand before the prison door "which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes," and behind which was Hester. Hawthorne symbolizes the force of the Puritan's civil and religious authority in this "prison-door," which is indeed the very name of the chapter. Yet outside the door, symbolizing Hester, the scarlet letter, and finally the individual who dissents from society, is a "wild rose-bush." This rosebush that stands just outside the prison door, Hawthorne famously suggests, "may serve . . . to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow."
The action of the novel (what there is of action in this notoriously unmoving narrative) maintains the conflict of the individual with...
(The entire section is 1771 words.)