I need quotes that support the theme of individuals versus society in The Scarlet Letter.

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mshurn's profile pic

Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Hester's character, it seems to me, most clearly supports the theme of the individual in conflict with society--and not simply in reference to her adultery. After enduring her humiliation upon the scaffold, Hester was free to leave the harsh Puritan community, yet she remained, choosing to live with the daily humiliation of wearing the scarlet letter. Her reasons are open to interpretation, but the most logical one is that she would not leave Arthur, although they had no life together. 

Some of Hester's behavior over the following seven years suggests that she bowed to the weight of Puritan law and custom but that her society was unable to destroy her fierce individualism. She dressed Pearl in the brightest of colors and took pride in her beautiful daughter, the product of her sin. She used her skills as a seamstress to embroider gold thread into the scarlet letter, turning it into a work of beauty rather than a symbol of shame. This, of course, works symbolically to show Hester's own spiritual growth through her kindness to others in the community, but it also suggests that Hester will wear the letter in her own way. Finally, the meeting with Arthur in the forest demonstrates that Hester still thinks, acts, and feels as an independent person. Struggling to save his life and to secure a life for themselves and their daughter beyond the stifling society in which they are trapped, she tells him they must go away. Her words are not those of a repentant sinner who has accepted the moral strictures of her society. 

After Arthur dies, Hester does take her child and return to England. Why she returns years later to live out her life alone by the sea is subject to interpretation, but by returning there to die, she is buried next to Arthur.

Go to this link for a discussion of the individual vs. society theme in the novel. 

http://www.enotes.com/scarlet/themes

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

While in agreement that the individuals Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale must deal with their own guilt for their sins, there is, nevertheless, an antagonism of the society towards the individual. Since Hester Pyrnne and Arthur Dimmesdale and others live in a society that does not allow for any human fraility, and the prison waits for any who are among those who are not the "elect,"the Puritan society is against the individual in the sense that there is not room for any human error.  If a person should sin, there is no forgiveness.  This rigid Puritanism which allows for none of the intrinsic weakness of humanity is set as a foe to the human spirit which must, as a result of the original sin of the Garden of Eden, fail at times.

And, it is this hypocrisy of Puritanism which allows for no redemption for the "depraved" whose sin is in antagonism to the human soul.  After all, "To err is human," and through Hawthorne's narrative the reader perceives that the despair of knowing that there is no forgiveness is what kills the very spirit and heart of Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale respectively. 

 

timbrady's profile pic

timbrady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I have read this book with my students for many years, and I would suggest that the individual vs. society is not at the heart of what this book is about.  On one level, of course, we have two individuals who have violated a law of their society, but this does not put them in conflict with it any more than my getting a speeding ticket puts me in conflict with my society.  Rather, their violation of a law and how they deal with it puts them in conflict with themselves.  Both Arthur and Hester deal with this differently.  Arthur deals with it by not dealing with it and faces the consequences many years later.  Hester faces it quite differently.  It is clear that she know she has violated a law of their community and accepts the isolation and scorn that comes from that violation.  But, unlike Arthur, she does not feel that she has violated her selfhood ("What we did had a consecration of its own.")

You may argue that their society was too black and white, too strict, too Puritanical or just not like them, but their law and religion were the same thing, and that law had been broken.  What remains in the story is how each person deals with the consequences of that action.  Hester, through her acceptance of her own actions (and freedom from real personal guilt) becomes the Angel; Arthur, with some help from Chillingworth, almost literally eats his heart out and dies.  But it's not a consequences of his war with society; it's his war with himself, accepting part of the realilty of his life that he just could not deal with.

I know this doesn't directly answer your question, except by suggesting that you're looking in the wrong direction.  Others may disagree --- that's what e-notes is for :)

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