Has anyone noticed similarities between Hawthorne's and Joseph Conrad's views about society?
Both seem to think that social codes exist to prevent people from getting into ambiguous situations that might lead to bad or dangerous behavior. For Conrad, those codes are the values of imperialist 19th century Europe; for Hawthorne, they're the strict moral values of 17th century New England as symbolized by the prison house and the scaffold. For a 19th century American writer, Hawthorne had a very European sensibility when it came to the concept of society.
In both writers' works, flawed characters make flawed decisions in extreme and arguably hopeless situations. In Hester's case, her affair with Dimmesdale takes her outside the borders of society, but her love for Pearl brings her back into it. In the case of Conrad's characters, they swing too far outside of social propriety to return to society. Kurtz is the most baffling and bizarre example. Jim from Lord Jim and Leggatt from The Secret Sharer might be a little closer to Hester's situation.
For me, the strongest similarity between these writers is that they both believe in consequences. Hawthorne and Conrad show that social mores might be imperfect and inadequate, but that any person who rebels against those mores will face the consequences of social ostracism and their own mixed feelings. You cannot enjoy the stability and safety of society unless you accept the limitations of society on your personal freedom and desires.
What prevents Hester and Jim from becoming tragic figures is that they both had an opportunity to avoid romantic or passionate paths in life but chose to pursue them anyway. What makes their situations approach tragic stature to me is their ignorance of the long-range consequences of their actions and how they both had to accept those consequences. They both have epiphanies about themselves and their situations that resemble the epiphanies tragic heroes have in their final moments. They achieve some kind of reconciliation and inner peace in the acceptance of circumstances beyond their control. Their punishment doesn't fit their crime (so to speak), but it is a punishment they brought on themselves.