The Scarlet Letter Analysis
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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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.

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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, the relic of a bygone age, which chance allows him to discover and to interpret.

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, have regarded it similarly: as a lesson in morality, which 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 later.

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, their will to a kind of power that is the greatest gift bestowed on humanity. The scarlet letter is not a badge of shame, but an emblem of free will, a symbol of the human...

(The entire section is 6,057 words.)