The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is described as a fictional masterpiece by many. The book depicts acts of betrayal, psychological torture, and the internal battle of keeping secrets as well as what is right and what is wrong. Set during the 17th century in a Puritan community located in Boston, a passionate and fierce woman faces the public judgment of her affair whilst her lover's identity remains unknown and her husband sets out for revenge for the betrayal and humiliation he felt.

The central characters in this work are Hester Prynne, her daughter Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. Each person has a unique personality and view on their lives. Their words and actions say more about them than they could say themselves. Each character's physical appearances all serve as a type of representation of their personalities and themselves. We find that who has an unflattering appearance proves to have an equally vile personality, and that who appears fatigued and ill seems to be the most mentally troubled.

Hester Prynne is illustrated as a beautiful young woman. She carries herself with confidence, even after the public scandal she faces and the disdain her neighbors hold for her. "The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexions, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes." (Hawthorne, 51)

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The mention of the darkness of some of her features that still suggested beauty, grace, and light is a representation of how throughout her life she manages to make the best of her dark and grim treatment. This can be translated on to her personality after the numerous occasions in which she holds her ground in a show of independence and does not allow for others to bring her down or make her do something she does not wish to do-- which are graceful and confident actions.

One of the first instances we see of her personality and behavior is of her not allowing herself to be pushed around. This is when the authoritative figures in her community try to persuade her to name the father of her child. " 'I will no speak! Answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognized. 'And my child must seek a heavenly father; she shall never know an earthly one!'". (Hawthorne, 65) Even before the public and people of power, she does not allow for any fear she feels to persuade her to reveal her secret.

At this time it is also partly due to her wanting to protect the father because she knows how much of a negative impact it would have on his life. She proves to be selfless in this sense that she chooses to face the consequence--that is the red "A" defining her sin-- alone. By the middle half of the book we can get a better understanding that Hester is an independent and self-assured woman. This is further proven by her acceptance of the mistakes she has committed which allows her to evaluate the actions of her husband who is bent on revenge. " 'Yes, I hate him!' repeated Hester, more bitterly than before. 'He betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I did him!' ". (Hawthorne, 167)

Her own confidence and self peace leads her to comprehend that even though she did do something wrong, she still does not deserve the mistreatment and interference her husband throws on her. He wronged her by both tormenting the man she cared for and by trapping her in a loveless and distant marriage at a young age. Hester acknowledges that her husband has sins to atone for as well. He is not above her and has no right to be treating her as if he is.

In the final portion of the book that typifies and gives us a glimpse into Hester's personality and inner thoughts is in the moment she rips off the scarlet letter that brands her. This is a power move that shows just how done with that "A" she is. "So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves." (Hawthorne, 193) This is her way of claiming her freedom and individuality.

When she does this she is described to have been once again radiant with her beauty as strong as can be. By removing the letter she is eliminating the rules and standards that others hold her to. She is rejecting the ideals and principles that brand her as a horrible sinner when she herself knows of others that have sinned far worse than she has that are not shamed in the ways she is. This is an action that seems to truly represent Hester's character.

Pearl: Pearl is seen as a fairly intuitive and thoughtful child. She is described to be just as beautiful as her mother, as can be seen in the quote, "We have spoken of Pearl's rich and luxuriant beauty; a beauty that shone with deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown and which, in after years, would be nearly akin to black." (Hawthorne, 95) The description of her can be projected into her nature in the way that her features are described as vivid and bright as well as intense which suggests her personality is that way too.

This is all very true, she is a perceptive and intense child. She often makes observations that most children would overlook. An example of this in the early portion of the novel is when she yearns to know who her father is. Her mother, keeping a secret, refuses to tell her. In her anger, she point out the object that brands her mother- something that should not be taken lightly especially if a child is to understand it's meaning. "But she said it with a hesitation that did not escape the acuteness of the child.

Whether moved only by her ordinary freakishness, or because an evil spirit prompted her, she put up her mall forefinger, and touched the scarlet letter." (Hawthorne, 93) The fact that Pearl points out her mother's letter tells us that she at least knows something about the meaning of it. It is known that she does not socialize with the other kids so it's fair to assume that she may have figured out the meaning of the "A" on her own with clues and piecing words together.

In typical Pearl fashion, she is one to point things out as she sees them. During the middle piece of the story, she once again asks questions that make her mother uncomfortable. "' And, Mother, he has his hand over his heart! Is it because, when the minster wrote his name in the book, the Black Man set his mark in that place? But why does he not wear it outside his bosom, as thou dost, Mother?'" (Hawthorne, 178). Pearl is able to piece together who her father is and does not think it right that only her mother wear the letter that brings her so much shame. This shows she is a person who thinks outside of the box.

Her thoughts are a bit ahead of her age which shows how smart she really is. She is able to understand the injustice that her father put her mother through. While never directly being given any information painting her father in a negative image, she can't help but do so on her own, when she realizes her father is not suffering as her mother is-- considering they both committed the same crime. She views it as a type of hypocrisy on his part. As time passes towards the end of the book, Pearl spends more and more time with her father. Mother, father, and daughter gather at night in the woods in secret.

She becomes more and more aware of this as she realizes that it is never during day. " 'In the dark night time he calls us to him, and holds thy hand and mine, as when we stood with him on the scaffold yonder! … But here in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him!' ". (Hawthorne, 218) She once again calls her father out for his hypocrisy. She parts her own judgement on him. She comprehends that he is not being fair and is not being truthful with himself. At this point it seems she can see it before her own mother. He is denying his family in the public eye yet still expects to have them in secret. Pearl knows this is wrong and wishes her mother would help her understand how she is okay with it.

Arthur Dimmesdale is a troubled and tortured man-- especially after his affair with Hester Prynne. He is portrayed as a nervou- average looking man. "He looked now more careworn and emaciated than as we described himat the scene of Hester's public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain their troubled and melancholy depth." (Hawthorne, 107) His nervousness plays a large part in his immense guilt and susceptibility to psychological torment. In every portion of the work, his guilt and cowardness will be evident and fairly simple to catch.

In the beginning of the book, there is a time when he is essentially asking Hester to reveal he is her lover.. He is asking her because he cannot do it himself. He is a highly esteemed man of the community and a revelation like that would be shocking and damaging to his image and possibly his life-- yet he still wants her to reveal his secret. He feels guilty she will be facing consequences alone as well as for the fact that he is being a hypocrite.

He preaches about sinning having repercussions, therefore; one must ask for forgiveness. Yet, he himself is not admitting his sins or receiving his own 'punishment'. In the middle section of the novel, after the governor is threatening to take away Pearl from Hester. Mr. Dimmesdale prevents it from happening. "'God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements-- both seemingly so peculiar-- which no other mortal being can possess And, moreover, is there not a quality of awful sacredness in the relation between this mother and this child?'"(Hawthorne, 107).

Knowing he's already taken too much from Hester, he does not allow for the last thing she cares for to be taken away. He does this both out of guilt and love he holds for her. This is a typical action of his in the sense that he is being ruled by different emotions. At the end of the book, there are a few parts in which Arthur is wallowing in his self pity and guilt. One of the clearer ones is when he was attempting to convince Hester to flee with him, and he admitted his feelings on his guilt to her. " 'But now- since I am irrevocably doomed--wherefore should I not snatch solace allowed to the condemned culprit before his execution?'" (Hawthorne, 192)

He is attempting to flee from this problems rather than face the effects of his choices. Once again he is acting out of cowardice and fear. He speaks of how he feels positively doomed and complains of the situation even though he himself allowed for his guilt to pile up for so long. He could have dealt with his choices long before, but instead the guilt ate away at him to the point it impacted his health and appearance. Guilt and cowardice are the two most prominent traits within Mr. Dimmesdale.

In a judgemental community, many are not able accept their sins yet still punish those whose sins are known. Hester Prynne is a survivor of the ostracization by that community. She raises a daughter all on her own in a selfless attempt to not tarnish the image of her lover. She faces many misconceptions and each rude experience shapes her into an intelligent, compassionate, independent, and adept strong woman. Her daughter, Pearl is an equally wild and independent child with a personality that is intense to match. She is the intuitive character that always asks the questions that draw the reader in to think deeper about the situations she is involved in.

Roger Chillingworth is the man that is set out for revenge on both Hester and Arthur. His constant actions of malice took over and made him that much more wicked. He is a perfect example of Nathaniel Hawthorne's underlying implication that his unpleasant appearance was very clearly mirrored in his vile personality and intentions. Arthur Dimmesdale held an incredible amount of guilt within himself. His cowardly mannerisms did not allow for him to relieve his guilt. Each character can show us a side to the different types of people that are around us in an everyday environment.

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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (2019, Mar 13). Retrieved from

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