“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
The red letter “A” is engraved on the clothes of a woman called Hester. She must carry her sin with her through the alleyways of a small Puritan Town of 17th century Boston, settled by the newly arrived colonists from Europe. This symbol is The Scarlet Letter. Its choice of colour – red perhaps is to emphasise on the demonic origins of the mark that is forced on to Hester. Hester is a walking reminder to the Puritan town that any transgressions amount to social annihilation. No woman should follow in Hester’s footsteps if she desires any position within the society.
The Plot – a tale of chastisement and shame
The Scarlet Letter is a historical fiction by Nathaniel Hawthrone. The book was published in 1850, first in America. It recently featured at number sixteen spot on Guardian’s list of The Best Novels Written In English.
The Scarlet Letter follows the story of a woman called Hester Pryne and her illegitimate child Pearl. In the townspeople’s eyes, Hester is a married woman awaiting her husband, who is believed to be lost at sea. However, in her long wait, she becomes pregnant with a child deemed a product of Hester’s infidelity. The only punishment for such a sinful act of passion is banishment. Hester’s circumstances do not deter her. She is a committed mother to Pearl and lives life on her own terms, undeterred by societal perceptions of her, except in matters concerning Pearl.
Also read: Book Review: The Good Girls By Sonia Faleiro
Corollary to Hester’s story is her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale’s, whose identity as Hester’s lover remains unidentified till the end of the book. Dimmesdale is the town “Father“. He is young, charismatic and exceedingly revered by the people of his parish. However, Dimmesdale’s health fails incrementally throughout the book. His deterioration is linked to both – his secret “sin” with Hester and the doctor Roger Chillingworth who wishes to pry on Dimmesdale. He, unknown to the townspeople, is the “jilted” husband of Hester.
Nathaniel Hawthrone – the author and his private influences
Nathaniel Hawthrone, born on 4 July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, was an American novelist and short-story writer known for his emphatic use of allegory and symbolism as effective literary tools in his writing. With its puritanical background, The Scarlet Letter may owe its existence to the strong Puritanical character of his ancestors. Hawthrone’s 17th-century ancestor William Hawthrone, a magistrate, sentenced a Quaker woman to public whipping and was a staunch advocate of Puritan Orthodoxy. One of William’s sons, John Hawthrone, was also among the three judges in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The trials were the result of mass hysteria and belief in supernatural phenomena that ultimately led to the execution of around nineteen women who were accused of witchcraft. Almost hundred men and women either escaped or suffered persecution in the form of these trials. Clearly, family history was a strong influence for this layered story on Puritanism and its practice in a new land.
The book anchors itself on four major characters.
Hester Pryne, the “lustful seductress“, the resilient mother, the loyal lover and above all, a woman of grit.
Pearl, between being the “elf-child” and “demon off-spring“, is perhaps the most reflective of all characters. Society’s treatment of Pearl, on the one hand, shows the superficial nature of Puritanism’s charities and love. Pearl’s unrelenting inquisitiveness on human relationships makes her a symbol of both – Hester’s adulterous transgression and Arthur Dimmesdale’s immorality, evident both in his act of passion with Hester, unsuitable to his office and his abandonment of Hester and Pearl in a society that constantly mocks them and keeps them on the fringe.
Arthur Dimmesdale is perhaps the only major Puritan Character – he is an ordained minister. However, his character paints the conflicting rigidity and inflexibility of Puritanism and the emergent consuming guilt that envelops us. He is suffocated by his “sinful” transgressions with Hester. After all, he is only a human. However, his religion and, more so, his profession forces him to be devoid of his humanity. His frailty is his most striking feature; it seems clouded by his outward charms as a minister. His sins are his own, and yet he has no way to claim them and redeem himself.
Roger Chillingworth is an entitled and unavailable husband. He demanded a monopoly of Hester’s love when married. When Hester transgresses marital norms- he is not just a jilted husband, but a vengeful one too. However, Chillingworth’s vengeance doesn’t come from his love for Hester, as much as it seems to come from his own fragile ego and sense of self, that is rooted in feeding off and monopolising another person’s vulnerability; whether it’s Hester’s affection or Dimmesdale’s guilt.
The book then has four running themes that intertwine to produce a unified experience of truth. Hester’s life represents one lived in ever-loyal love; Pearl is symbolic of life – not only in her youthful vigour and force but also in her reflectivity and tendency to upturn the status quo. Dimmesdale’s life represents guilt’s all-consuming nature and how it corrupts and distorts one’s essence. Chillingworth is a leech, pure evil. He only serves one purpose – a reminder of what becomes of evil men, but also what allows evils to thrive.Finally, all these facets coalesce into truth. Truth is multi-faceted. There can never be the truth, only truths.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the truth.”
Feminist Flavours and Relevance
Hester’s act of having a sexual partner outside of marriage may not be a vindictive feminist act. In fact, it tantamounts to infidelity, which in most societies is immoral. Yet, Hester’s act is infused with a feminist vigour, for it happens against the backdrop of a soul-sucking marriage and occurs with the awareness that the transgression will only bring shame and dishonour.
However, the novel’s strength does not merely rest on Hester’s transgression of a socially mandated code of conduct but also in her prideful ownership of it. Despite her limitations, what the world sees as Hester’s badge of shame becomes an ornament for Hester. She refuses to abandon the living and constant reminder of her “sins” – Pearl. She takes ownership of her and leaves no stone un turned to retain her guardianship. Hester’s love for Pearl is not blind affection, like a mother’s love is often portrayed. She is aware of the trade-off and knowingly makes one, as the author notes “purchased with all she [Hester] had—her mother’s only treasure!” because “in giving her existence a great law had been broken.”
Finally, Hester never abandons the Scarlet Letter. She prefers her identity to define the letter rather than her being defined by it. In this contradiction, the “shame” of Scarlet Letter comes to stand for “Able” – Hester’s resilience against all odds makes it so.
Also read: Book Review: The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath
Hester’s story is not just a story of 17th century Boston, filled with religious Puritans. It is also a story that will resonate and recast itself always as long as women continue to live in a society shaped by the moulds of patriarchy and religion – both mutually reinforcing institutions. One only has to look around and see how we all, like Hester, are with each decision that we make, becoming either complicit in this kind of subordination or leading the way in breaking such moulds.