What is Hawthorne's ultimate message about humans and/or society in The Scarlet Letter? Is Hawthorne more optimistic or pessimistic about mankind?Is this a story of redemption or of the...

What is Hawthorne's ultimate message about humans and/or society in The Scarlet Letter? Is Hawthorne more optimistic or pessimistic about mankind?

Is this a story of redemption or of the consequences of sin?

Expert Answers
favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hawthorne's ultimate message is that we are all sinners. Moreover, in the chapter entitled, "Conclusion," the narrator says,

Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister's miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence:—'Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!'

When we try to hide our sinful natures from one another, as Dimmesdale has done, tragedy seems to be the result. Further, when we do this—when we hide our sins from each other—we are never really known, nor do we ever really know anyone else. This, too, is tragic.

Hawthorne is pessimistic about human nature as he seems to believe that we are all sinful; however, he is optimistic about our nature in that he doesn't appear to believe that we must be defined by our sins. Hester, because her sin is known to the world, is able to move on and create an identity for herself outside of that sin. People in the town come to think of her scarlet "A" as a symbol of the world "Able" because she is so instrumental and helpful to people in town, especially those who suffer. She has so much power to do good, and she chooses to do it. Both the good and the sinfulness are present in each of us, as they are in Hester, and it is most truthful to acknowledge both.

Ultimately, this a story about both redemption and the consequences of sin. Hester, because she accepts and admits her sin to the world, can be redeemed. However, this doesn't mean that she can escape the consequences of her sin, especially—and perhaps most importantly—in her own mind and heart. That she returns to Boston years after she and Pearl left, despite the fact that she could clearly make a life somewhere else, seems proof of this.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is safe to conclude that Hawthorne's ultimate message about society in The Scarlet Letter is that evil lives in the house of sinners as much as in the house of those who consider themselves to be free of sin. However, he also shows us how the resilience of a mind that is free from guilt can overcome any obstacle- and that is a very positive message.

We see in the characters of Dimmesdale and the rest of the clergymen the typical holier than thou attitude of those who hide behind it. They criticize Hester, threaten to take her child away, isolate her, and refuse to hear any of her arguments. They basically treat her inhumanely. Her punishment does not seem to end. Through this perspective, Hawthorne's view of humanity may seem pessimistic.

Yet, we find Hester to be the epitome of the female warrior who stands by her independent spirit and defends herself until the end. She is what makes the story optimistic and she is what keeps us hoping for the best while seeing the worst: We only tolerate what happens to her because she, herself, can tolerate it.  We only tolerate Dimmesdale because she does. We even fear Chillingworth because she fears him also.

Therefore, Hester is the strongest force that moves the plot of the story. Her strength of character and mind is quite an optimistic view of humanity: We can overcome whatever is thrown our way. In a dark and mean world, we can still survive.

That seems to be the central message about humanity that Hawthorne wants to convey.

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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