The novel under the name
of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ written by Nathaniel Hawthorne introduces us to the
life and customs of the Massachussets Bay Colony during the 17th century. The rigid
puritan society presented in the novel is a strict and confiding one as
puritans merged their religious beliefs with the law. The main story follows a
woman named Hester Prynne who committed the terrible and unimaginable sin of
adultery. Her husband has been missing for two years and Hester got pregnant
and gave birth to a baby girl named Pearl.
The townspeople decided that the best
punishment for such an awful crime would be making Hester wear a scarlet letter
‘A’ on her chest so she could be publicly humiliated and recognized by everyone
as a sinner. The letter should also serve as a warning to others that the
puritan rules should not be broken and if they were, there certainly followed a
devastating punishment to teach the sinners a lesson. Hester and Pearl become
exiles and live in the forest nearby because the townspeople try to avoid
Hester and her daughter at any cost.
The father of Hester’s
child is reverend Arthur Dimmesdale which makes this whole situation more
complicated. Hester’s ex-husband, who has been gone for two years, suddenly
returns but under a false name of Roger
Chillingworth and with no intention of helping Hester. Instead he begs Hester
to tell him who the father is so he could pursue his ultimate goal of torturing
him and getting his revenge.
Hester faces public
humiliation for her deeds that she herself considers to be appropriate
punishment for what she has done. She proudly wears the letter on her chest and
even embroids it as to say that she is aware of what strong meaning this has.
”On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate
embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter ‘A.’ It
was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of
fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the
apparel which she wore; ”(citat knjige)
One of the main themes in
this novel is hypocrisy. Whether it’s the townspeople or the main characters
themselves, hypocrisy is expressed in many different ways.
Arthur Dimmesdale, who
committed a terrible sin, even worse than Hester because of his position, is
hypocritical. He doesn’t want to be held accountable for his actions but the
guilt is stronger than himself. He is presented as the holiest man among them
all, the one who preaches moral values that everyone should adhere to when in
reality he is the one with a dark secret. Even though he doesn’t wear a visible
mark of any kind on his clothing, the guilt is trying to reach out through him.
He bears a letter A on his skin which burns everyday as a constant reminder. Dimmesdale
is aware of his actions and is trying his hardest to achieve penance but to no
avail. His soul is finally at rest when he publicly admits that he is Pearl’s
father and her acceptance rids him of the guilt that was plaguing him.
”The opening public
condemnation of Hester, in which Dimmesdale stands with the Puritan patriarchs,
is to be contrasted with the night scaffold scene in which Dimmesdale is
condemned by his conscience and Hester steps up to comfort him. Both scenes
then offer in the final scaffold scene two overlapping dialogues- one to the
congregation and one to Hester alone- which together dramatically reveal the
pastor’s hypocrisy.” (citat the scarlet letter second edition)
The townspeople’s hypocrisy
is also very blatant. When Dimmesdale gives his most passionate speech, the townspeople refuse to believe that a man
like him could’ve actually been talking about his own mistakes and how the
consequences haunt him, causing him to lead a miserable life of lie.
”Would not the people
start up in their seats, by a simultaneous impulse, and tear him down out of
the pulpit which he defiled? Not so, indeed! They heard it all, and did but
reverence him the more. They little guessed what deadly purport lurked in those
self-condemning words. “The godly youth!” said they among themselves.
“The saint on earth!”(citat knjiga)
They are always ready to
judge and go out of their way to shame people who made mistakes as if they
don’t make them themselves. When the people were trying to decide on Hester’s
fate, among the recommended options was even a punishment by hanging.
Hester’s husband Roger
Chillingworth is hypocritical as well. At the beginning of the novel no one
would suspect that Chillingworth has done anything wrong. Despite his
disappearance, he seems to have spent his absence to study medical procedures
that he now employs to help people when needed. He forgives Hester for adultery
and in return only wishes to know the name of the child’s father. From that
moment on, Chillingworth’s relentless desire for revenge completely changes his
After he finds out that Dimmesdale is the
father, he fakes a friendship and spends his days by his side watching him
getting eaten out alive by guilt. While Dimmesdale thinks Chillingworth is
spending his time trying to find a cure for his illness, Chillingworth simply
lives to watch him suffer and derives some sort of a sick pleasure from doing
On the outside however,
he acts like nothing has changed just so no one would notice what he was doing
the whole time. His soul becomes corrupted and his emotions take over to turn
him into someone who doesn’t recognize himself anymore.
Finally, Hester Prynne
herself expresses hypocrisy. In this society, Hester is fighting battles of her
own. She has to raise and provide for her child all on her own. Both of the men
in her lives didn’t help her in any way, if anything they were a burdain.
She is strong because of the way she is
dealing with the stigma that was placed on her by everyone. Despite all of the
hate and disgust she has received from the community that she once belonged to,
she manages to turn her situation around for the better.
Hester does not in fact
believe she has sinned. Although she accepts the scarlet letter as a form of
punishment, she does not think that she committed a crime. She claims that
because of her not ever truly loving Roger, they were in fact never married. Therefore,
being with another man is not considered adultery.
”All in all, Hester’s
some ideas and thoughts are admirable and appraisable, but if we put them with
Hester’s seemingly honest appearance and her behavior in trying to obey the
rules that she was disguised together, some of her superficial belief and the
nature of her behavior are abundantly revealed.”(citat http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.656.8159&rep=rep1&type=pdf)
She is trying really hard
to become the member of society once again by doing good deeds but that is
completely opposite of what she believes in.
Hawthorne’s characters are hypocritical even if at first they do not appear as
such. Hypocrisy is easily overlooked when put in contrast with other, stronger elements
that define this story and make it what it is. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ shows us
that things that we needn’t judge others so harshly for their actions because
we all make mistakes and that’s what makes us human.