What is Hawthorne’s ultimate message regarding conformity and individual identity?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

My personal response is directed at the power and persecution visited by a one group upon the members of another group—and that it is done so with overwhelming hypocrisy.

The Puritans fled to the New World to escape persecution at the hands of the aristocracy in England. Ironically, when they arrived, they proceeded to do the same to others. We see this in The Scarlet Letter and in The Crucible, as well.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is a member of a Puritan community and, having "lost her husband" some time before, finds herself pregnant, obviously not from time spent with her husband.

Hester is ostracized and forced to wear the scarlet "A" (for "adultery") which forever brands her as an adulteress. She never names the father and suffers silently, even after her child is born. However, with the need to survive, she stays with the community, and after many years, is accepted by the community for the good works she does and her skills with sewing.

I believe that Hawthorne sees that conformity within a society is necessary to survive in the wilderness in which these people live, but that the enforced conformity contradicts the very nature of the God these people believe they are serving: they see Him as an angry and vengeful God, whereas Hawthorne seems to argue for a more Christ-like acceptance of the sinner, in this case Hester. For she is certainly not the only sinner in their midst: truthfully, they are all sinners, but they act as if her sin is worse than other kinds of sins.

In terms of individual identity, I believe Hawthorne is saying that conformity is healthy only to a certain extent; at a certain point every person must look within that conformity to find and nurture their individual identity. What makes Hester such a memorable character is not her sin, but her willingness to accept her individuality—even as an outcast—to be the best person she knows how, to be a good mother and neighbor, and show forgiveness and tolerance that those around her have lost sight of.

For Hawthorne, conformity is necessary to an extent, but the gifts and strengths of the individual are lost if conformity of a society becomes more important than the individual traits of its members. Hester's goodness, in her individuality, sets the best example to this hypocritical group that is so ready to censor her.

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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