The Scarlet Letter Analysis
- The Scarlet Letter reflects Hawthorne's fascination with the idea of sin and its place in Puritan ideology. In the novel, he considers seventeenth-century Puritan mores through the lens of a nineteenth-century conception of morality.
- Hawthorne portrays Hester’s punishment as unjust, and her scarlet A can be interpreted not only as a mark of shame, but also as an emblem of free will and individual choice.
- The novel can be considered proto-feminist in that it depicts the injustice of the fact that the blame is placed solely on Hester, who is shunned, while Dimmesdale becomes one of the community’s most prominent citizens.
Last Updated on April 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145
Like all historical novels, The Scarlet Letter is a work that looks back to the past, is anchored in the author’s present, and anticipates the future. It embodies conflicting messages and is open to widely—or perhaps wildly—varying interpretations. Though it takes place in the seventeenth century, it is a nineteenth-century story, a reimagining of the distant past, of a world that had already become long obsolete by Hawthorne’s time. The “Custom-House” introduction is the author’s attempt to provide a window to both present and past merged into one, a microcosm of the New England mind and its everyday concerns as a counterpoint to a mystery from the past.
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Throughout his oeuvre, Hawthorne is obsessed with the concept of “sin” and the centrality it held for his Puritan forebears. His works transmute the belief in humanity as “fallen” beings, overlaying that ancient message with the emerging value system of his own time, which had only partially thrown off the legacy of the past. At the core of The Scarlet Letter and his other writings, there is an ambiguity the modern reader senses in this conflict between traditional morality and the desire to break free of it and create something in its place. If the "ghosts" of the past could see his work, they would view it through their lens, if they could understand it at all, as a simple parable of guilt, punishment, and (possibly) redemption.
Much of his contemporary audience, and even later generations, regarded it similarly: as a lesson in morality that nineteenth-century writers, even in their relative liberalism, could not avoid. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina—the latter with its grim epigraph, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay”—embody the same message. But in these novels and others of the period, the author gives a qualified, ambivalent treatment of that theme. It is as if the “moral” aspect of the story negates itself. Arguably, it is only in today’s age that the ambiguities inherent in The Scarlet Letter, which Hawthorne might not have been fully aware of himself, can be understood. If on the surface the novel is a story of sin and redemption, of transgression and its resolution, it is also a nightmare of destructive and sadistic cruelty. But the real meaning of a story traditionally interpreted in conventional terms as a kind of apocalyptic sermon can just as readily be seen to embody a message not only at odds with the thinking of Hawthorne’s Puritan forebears, but with the morality of the author’s own time and times to come.
The injustice and hypocrisy of Hester’s punishment are clear. Hawthorne does not even need to cite Jesus’s injunction to the mob, “Let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” The crucial question lies in the concepts of “sin” and “evil” at the basis of the story. When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest, she asks him if the act for which they have been punished was not endowed with a “consecration” of its own. In their defiance of religious and societal strictures, the two have asserted their individualism. The scarlet letter is not a badge of shame, but an emblem of free will, a symbol of the human spirit in its ability to do both good and evil. In nineteenth-century America, one could not state this theme openly. Even British and European writers were impeded by the censorship of the time. Hawthorne’s tale of moral ambiguity could conceivably have remained only half understood had the world not eventually crossed into a realm in which “morality” means free choice, self-fulfillment, and kindness rather than sin and punishment.
Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl together, as they stand on the scaffold in the eerie darkness, represent humanity alone against those forces that deny free choice to it—embodied in the ghostly figure of Chillingworth. Dimmesdale’s “sin” has not been his act of adultery with Hester, but his cowardice: his refusal to acknowledge, until the climactic moment, his own “guilt.” Though he has been suffering inwardly, the real punishment has fallen on Hester.
As with other novels of the period, a proto-feminist message is stated, but only in a veiled way. From modern readers’ perspectives, it’s clear not only that the onus of guilt is placed disproportionately upon the woman, but also that the woman understands the situation more fully than the man does. It’s Hester who, as Dimmesdale is dying, expresses the faith that they will be together in the afterlife. The symbolism of the two being buried next to each other confirms this. That Pearl, though separated from her mother, finds success in adult life is a further symbol—beyond that of her name—that the “sin” of Hester and Dimmesdale has resulted in good, not evil. Even Chillingworth, through most of the story the devil incarnate like the dark stranger in "Young Goodman Brown," has been transfigured into a benefactor, making Pearl the heir to his wealth.
As powerful as these elements of the story are, it may be more significant that The Scarlet Letter shows the destructive power of secrecy and concealment. Problems can be solved only if they are talked about openly. Dimmesdale’s sin is concealing his own guilt. Chillingworth’s is carrying out his revenge secretly. And even Hester, in refusing to name Dimmesdale as her lover, has done wrong by any realistic standard, though she herself is the victim. Still, each of them, even Chillingworth, can be absolved of guilt due to the unforgiving social and religious code of their time. Hawthorne alludes again and again to the harsh morality conceived by the English settlers in New England, so different from both the Old World of that time and the New World of his present. But he does not provide any final answer to what motivates such cruelty. That the question is unresolved is perhaps another sign of Hawthorne’s wish to avoid a simplistic message and to challenge the reader with a mystery at the core of human nature that no one has ever fully understood.
The Scarlet Letter is like a dream, a nightmare in which human desire and its consequences are transfigured, made into an awesome, grand-scale abstraction of life in both its beauty and terror. Just as the reader presumably has no way of knowing if Hawthorne is reporting an actual episode of those times, there is no resolution to the question of what, within the story, is real and what is imaginary. The A that appears on Dimmesdale’s breast was perhaps an illusion. Not everyone in the crowd saw it. The ambiguity is not only a comment on the general issue of what constitutes reality, but a final suggestion that the ultimate meaning of the grim story is for the individual to decide.