The Scarlet letter is a romantic novel penned by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is an American classic that was published in the year, 1850 and the plot demonstrates the 17th century Puritan age of New England. The story revolves around a woman who was publicly disgraced and outcasted for adultery. The act of the lady led to the birth of an illegitimate child.
Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the novel, was made to adorn the scarlet letter ‘A’ with her clothing. The symbol denoted that she has committed a crime and has been punished for the same. However, the character showed a lot of courage even after being looked down on by many. The alienation from society did not affect her, and she went on to become one of the first original actresses of American fiction. Hester did not remove the scarlet letter, ‘A’, even after being accepted in society. Her attitude during that period demonstrated her defiant inner strength.
Characters of ‘The Scarlet letter.’
The prominent characters of the novel ‘The Scarlet letter’ are Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, Mistress Hibbins and Pearl G Bellingham.
Hester Prynne: Prynne is the main protagonist of the novel who was given to wear the scarlet letter ‘A’, which signified that she had committed adultery. In the Puritan community, the scarlet letter ‘A’ signified the commission of adultery. She got married to an elderly scholar named Roger Chillingworth, and after marriage, he sent her to America. Her husband did not follow her and left her alone to live in the city. Hester believed that her husband drowned in the sea during one of the voyages. As per the characterization of Hester, she was passionate and determined. Hester became thoughtful about human nature after being charged with adultery. By the end of ‘The Scarlet letter’, Hester Prynne’s character so a huge change due to the hardships faced by her. She was depicted as an intelligent woman who showed a protofeminist approach towards the community.
Roger Chillingworth: He was not much concerned about humans. As per his characterization basis the novel, he was not a straight forward man. As per the details mentioned in the novel ‘The Scarlet letter’, he was not a good husband and used to ignore his wife, Hester Prynne. He was a self-centred man who wanted love and affection but was not ready to return back the same. He has been depicted as a person having evil intent who was always looking for vengeance and wanted to destroy others for no reason.
Arthur Dimmesdale: He was a young Boston reverend who had an affair with the protagonist of the novel, Hester Prynne. He was the illegitimate father of Hester’s child. After reading ‘The Scarlet letter’, one can easily state that Dimmesdale was an intelligent and emotional person. He was always under the guilt that he could not speak about his sins, and this tormented him. His guilty conscience and torments broke him down physically and psychologically, which resulted in severe heart ailments.
Pearl: She was Hester’s daughter, who was unpredictable and intuitive. She could understand things without having complete information. Her ability to perceive things sets her apart from the rest. Through her character, one could be made aware about the scarlet letter, ‘A’ and how society saw her and her mother. She was much wiser than her age and enquired a lot about the relationship shared by her mother and Arthur Dimmesdale.
Pearl G Bellingham: He was a governor in America who was an elderly gentleman having a lot of wealth. His characterization in the novel ‘The Scarlet letter’ depicts him as an English aristocrat who is very harsh. He strictly follows law and order and makes no compromise with it, but he overlooked everything when it comes to misbehaving in his mansion.
Mistress Hibbins: As per the novel, she is a widow who has been living with her rich brother. Mistress Hibbins was regarded as a witch in the novel ‘The Scarlet letter’ who used to visit the forest along with a black man when it was dark. The puritan society considered her as a hypocrite and evil.
Plot summary of ‘The Scarlet letter.’
The novel is based upon the main protagonist, Hester Prynne, who resides in a Puritan village of Boston. Believing to be a widow, she has an affair with one of the young Boston reverend’s named Arthur Dimmesdale. The affair leads to the birth of an illegitimate daughter. Hester is found guilty of committing adultery. She is made to wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ over her cloth as a symbol of punishment for the act committed by her.
The punishment is pronounced at a public gathering, and Hester is asked to stand on a scaffold for 3 hours. She is exposed to humiliation, and a number of women feel jealous about her beauty and her silence. When Hester is asked to name the father of the child, she refuses to speak out. While standing on the scaffold, she happens to recognize a face; it was her husband.
During this time, Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, who was believed to have died, visits Boston without letting anybody know about his identity. When he sees her standing there on the scaffold, he asks a person what was happening, and then he comes to know about his wife’s crime. He shouts out that the name of the illegitimate child’s father should be revealed, and he should be punished along with Hester. On her refusal to name the other person, Hester is sent back to prison. Chillingworth presents himself as a physician, and the jailor sends him to prison in order to treat Hester and her child. When he finds Hester wearing the scarlet letter, he coerces her to reveal the identity of the person with whom she had an affair. When she refused to reveal her lover’s name, Roger asked Hester never to acknowledge him as her husband in the future. He becomes irritated and starts to search for the guy.
After the release, Hester starts to live in a small cottage located at the end of the town. She started to make her livelihood by doing needlework. Her life was quite simple, but as Pearl grew up, Hester felt difficulty in handling her. When Pearl was young, she got fascinated with the scarlet letter, ‘A’, but she had no idea behind its significance. She was unmanageable and did not consider any rules and regulations. Seeing her change of character, the members of the Church think of separating Pearl from Hester.
Hester hears all the rumours and speaks to the Governor and the reverends. Reverend Wilson asks her some questions, but she refuses to answer them, in turn endangering her guardianship. She is able to persuade reverend Dimmesdale, who convinces others to approve her guardianship. Hester is allowed to keep Pearl with her. In the meanwhile, the health of Dimmesdale deteriorates, and Roger Chillingworth gets appointed as a formers physician. Chillingworth is suspicious that Arthur is the one with whom his wife had an affair, so he started to apply psychological pressure on the latter.
Ultimately, when he learned that Arthur Dimmesdale was the father of his wife’s illegitimate child, he pressurized and tormented Arthur, who fell ill due to his own guilt. However, Hester did not have any repentance about the act done by her. She was not dependent on anybody and considered the action as true love. Although everybody in the community shunned her but with time, she portrayed herself as a protofeminist. This attitude of hers led her to be considered a motherly figure in the community.
Towards the end, Arthur, who fell seriously ill due to his guilt, confesses about him being the father of Hester’s illegitimate child and dies in her arms. After the death of Arthur, it is seen that Hester leaves the Puritan community for Europe with her daughter, who is now 7 years old. She began a new life in Europe, but after many years, she returned back to Boston all alone and started wearing the scarlet letter. When Hester died, she was laid at rest beside Arthur Dimmesdale.
Analysis of the novel
The novel has tried to explain how a letter can symbolize the sin committed. As per the description, the scarlet letter ‘A’ was a golden embroidered badge made by a human, which depicted shame. It was a symbol of violation of law and order. The community tried to follow the old rituals but the act of violation were persistent. The novel established that the people who are considered respectable in society are some of the most corrupt persons, and people who are considered sinners are some of the righteous persons in society.
The novel also reflects the unjust treatment and suppression of freedom. It has been depicted in the novel that Dimmesdale’s health deteriorated due to his inner guilt and torment, but society considered Hester as the main culprit and alienated her from the community. The novel also showcases the determination and self-reliance of an individual in difficult times.
Usage of symbols in ‘The Scarlet letter’
Using symbols in literature is not new; writers have been using symbols to denote certain things or acts as per the plot’s demand. Nathaniel Hawthorne had also used a number of symbols in the present novel, and some of them are:
The rose bush: The writer compares the protagonist and her daughter with red bushes at two places. Hester has been compared with red bushes in order to denote her beauty. Bushes represent her wild nature as she could survive in extreme situations. The second comparison is made with reference to Pearl, the daughter of the protagonist, to show her energetic and high spirited nature.
The prison door: The prison door in the novel signifies the punishment designated by the Puritan magistrates on the criminals and innocents as well. The door symbolizes cruelty. The novel uses the term with reference to the ouster of Hester from the community as a way of punishment. She was forced to live in the forest.
The Scarlet letter: As per Puritan’s the symbol ‘A’ of the scarlet letter signifies shame. Hester wore it for the act of adultery committed by her, but towards the end of the novel, the same letter signified innocence, recompense and motherly figure.
Red color: The color red denotes violence, love and sin, but in the novel, the writer has tried to express lost passion and love with the color.
Pearl: The name Pearl in the novel denoted wild and passionate nature. It also denotes the price that Hester had to pay in return for true love. She was considered a sin as well as a blessing. The protagonist named her daughter Pearl considering her as a priceless blessing.
Dimmesdale and Chillingworth: The name Dimmesdale is synonymous with a person who is likely to fail, whereas the name Chillingworth is synonymous with a person who has no love and is of cold nature. The writer in the novel has used such names as Dimmesdale could not accept his daughter, and Chillingworth did not show any compassion towards his wife and abandoned her after marriage.
The black man: In the novel ‘The Scarlet letter’, Hester uses the term black man for her husband, Chillingworth. She considered him as a person who visits forests. As per her description, he used to force innocents to commit sinful acts. While having a conversation with Pearl, Hester used to refer to the black man, and as per her description, it was clear that he was none other than Chillingworth. She knew that he was tormenting Dimmesdale to speak out the truth about his affair with Hester.
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