The Scarlet Letter
Title page, first edition, 1850
|Publisher||Ticknor, Reed & Fields|
The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, an 1850 novel, is a work of historical fiction written by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is considered his "masterwork". Set in 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, during the years 1642 to 1649, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. As she struggles to raise her rambunctious daughter, Pearl, on her own, the father of her unborn child is revealed and is shown to be experiencing severe guilt. Through the scorn and judgment of the citizens and Roger Chillingworth (Hester's husband), the two decide to remain together. Throughout the book, Hawthorne explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt.
In an extended introduction, Hawthorne describes his employment in the Salem Custom House, and how he purportedly found an old document and a piece of cloth embroidered with the letter "A" in a pile of old papers. This fictitious document being the germ of the story that Hawthorne writes, as follows.
In June 1638, in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, a crowd gathers to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne, a young woman who has given birth to a baby of unknown parentage. She is required to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress when she is in front of the townspeople to shame her. The letter "A" stands for adulteress, although this is never said explicitly in the novel. Her "punishment" (because adultery was illegal at the time) is to stand on the scaffold for three hours, exposed to public humiliation, and to wear the scarlet "A" for the rest of her life. As Hester approaches the scaffold, many of the women in the crowd are angered by her beauty and quiet dignity. When demanded and cajoled to name the father of her child, Hester refuses.
As Hester looks out over the crowd, she notices a small, misshapen man and recognizes him as her long-lost husband, who has been presumed lost at sea. When the husband sees Hester's shame, he asks a man in the crowd about her and is told the story of his wife's adultery. He angrily exclaims that the child's father, the partner in the adulterous act, should also be punished and vows to find the man. He chooses a new name, Roger Chillingworth, to aid him in his plan.
The Reverend John Wilson and the minister of Hester's church, Arthur Dimmesdale, question the woman, but she refuses to name her lover. After she returns to her prison cell, the jailer brings in Roger Chillingworth, a physician, to calm Hester and her child with his roots and herbs. He and Hester have an open conversation regarding their marriage and the fact that they were both in the wrong. Her lover, however, is another matter and he demands to know who it is; Hester refuses to divulge such information. He accepts this, stating that he will find out anyway, and forces her to hide that he is her husband. If she ever reveals him, he warns her, he will destroy the child's father. Hester agrees to Chillingworth's terms although she suspects she will regret it.
Following her release from prison, Hester settles in a cottage at the edge of town and earns a meager living with her needlework, which is of extraordinary quality. She lives a quiet, somber life with her daughter, Pearl, and performs acts of charity for the poor. She is troubled by her daughter's unusual fascination with Hester's scarlet "A". The shunning of Hester also extends to Pearl, who has no playmates or friends except her mother. As she grows older, Pearl becomes capricious and unruly. Her conduct starts rumours, and, not surprisingly, the church members suggest Pearl be taken away from Hester.
Hester, hearing rumors that she may lose Pearl, goes to speak to Governor Bellingham. With him are ministers Wilson and Dimmesdale. Hester appeals to Dimmesdale in desperation, and the minister persuades the governor to let Pearl remain in Hester's care.
Because Dimmesdale's health has begun to fail, the townspeople are happy to have Chillingworth, a newly arrived physician, take up lodgings with their beloved minister. Being in such close contact with Dimmesdale, Chillingworth begins to suspect that the minister's illness is the result of some unconfessed guilt. He applies psychological pressure to the minister because he suspects Dimmesdale is Pearl's father. One evening, pulling the sleeping Dimmesdale's vestment aside, Chillingworth sees a symbol that represents his shame on the minister's pale chest.
Tormented by his guilty conscience, Dimmesdale goes to the square where Hester was punished years earlier. Climbing the scaffold, he admits his guilt but cannot find the courage to do so publicly. Hester, shocked by Dimmesdale's deterioration, decides to obtain a release from her vow of silence to her husband.
Several days later, Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest and tells him of her husband and his desire for revenge. She convinces Dimmesdale to leave Boston in secret on a ship to Europe where they can start life anew. Renewed by this plan, the minister seems to gain new energy. On Election Day, Dimmesdale gives what is called one of his most inspired sermons. But as the procession leaves the church, Dimmesdale climbs upon the scaffold and confesses his sin, dying in Hester's arms. Later, most witnesses swear that they saw a stigma in the form of a scarlet "A" upon his chest, although some deny this statement. Chillingworth, losing his will for revenge, dies shortly thereafter and leaves Pearl a substantial inheritance.
After several years, Hester returns to her cottage and resumes wearing the scarlet letter. When she dies, she is buried near the grave of Dimmesdale, and they share a simple slate tombstone engraved with an escutcheon described as: "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules" ("On a field, black, the letter A, red").
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The major theme of The Scarlet Letter is shaming and social stigmatizing, both Hester's public humiliation and Dimmesdale's private shame and fear of exposure. Notably, their liaison is never spoken of, so the circumstances that lead to Hester's pregnancy, and how their affair was kept secret never become part of the plot.
Elmer Kennedy-Andrews remarks that Hawthorne in "The Custom-house" sets the context for his story and "tells us about 'romance', which is his preferred generic term to describe The Scarlet Letter, as his subtitle for the book – 'A Romance' – would indicate." In this introduction, Hawthorne describes a space between materialism and "dreaminess" that he calls "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbues itself with nature of the other". This combination of "dreaminess" and realism gave the author space to explore major themes.
The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge – specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be immoral. For Hester, the Scarlet Letter is a physical manifestation of her sin and reminder of her painful solitude. She contemplates casting it off to obtain her freedom from an oppressive society and a checkered past as well as the absence of God. Because the society excludes her, she considers the possibility that many of the traditions held up by the Puritan culture are untrue and are not designed to bring her happiness.
As for Dimmesdale, the "cheating minister", his sin gives him "sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his chest vibrate[s] in unison with theirs." His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy. The narrative of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is quite in keeping with the oldest and most fully authorized principles in Christian thought. His "Fall" is a descent from apparent grace to his own damnation; he appears to begin in purity but he ends in corruption. The subtlety is that the minister's belief is his own cheating, convincing himself at every stage of his spiritual pilgrimage that he is saved.
The rose bush's beauty forms a striking contrast to all that surrounds it – as later the beautifully embroidered scarlet "A" will be held out in part as an invitation to find "some sweet moral blossom" in the ensuing, tragic tale and in part as an image that "the deep heart of nature" (perhaps God) may look more kindly on the errant Hester and her child than her Puritan neighbors do. Throughout the work, the nature images contrast with the stark darkness of the Puritans and their systems.
Chillingworth's misshapen body reflects (or symbolizes) the anger in his soul, which builds as the novel progresses, similar to the way Dimmesdale's illness reveals his inner turmoil. The outward man reflects the condition of the heart; an observation thought inspired by the deterioration of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Hawthorne "much admired".
Another theme is the extreme legalism of the Puritans and how Hester chooses not to conform to their rules and beliefs. Hester was rejected by the villagers even though she spent her life doing what she could to help the sick and the poor. Because of the social shunning, she spent her life mostly in solitude, and wouldn't go to church.
As a result, she retreats into her own mind and her own thinking. Her thoughts begin to stretch and go beyond what would be considered by the Puritans as safe or even Christian. She still sees her sin, but begins to look on it differently than the villagers ever have. She begins to believe that a person's earthly sins don't necessarily condemn them. She even goes so far as to tell Dimmesdale that their sin has been paid for by their daily penance and that their sin won't keep them from getting to heaven, however, the Puritans believed that such a sin surely condemns.[dubious ]
But Hester had been alienated from the Puritan society, both in her physical life and spiritual life. When Dimmesdale dies, she knows she has to move on because she can no longer conform to the Puritans' strictness. Her thinking is free from religious bounds and she has established her own different moral standards and beliefs.
It was long thought that Hawthorne originally planned The Scarlet Letter to be a shorter novelette, part of a collection named Old Time Legends, and that his publisher, James Thomas Fields, convinced him to expand the work to a full-length novel. This is not true: Fields persuaded Hawthorne to publish The Scarlet Letter alone (along with the earlier-completed "Custom House" essay) but he had nothing to do with the length of the story. Hawthorne's wife Sophia later challenged Fields' claims a little inexactly: "he has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She noted that her husband's friend Edwin Percy Whipple, a critic, approached Fields to consider its publication. The manuscript was written at the Peter Edgerley House in Salem, Massachusetts, still standing as a private residence at 14 Mall Street. It was the last Salem home where the Hawthorne family lived.
The Scarlet Letter was first published in the spring of 1850 by Ticknor & Fields, beginning Hawthorne's most lucrative period. When he delivered the final pages to Fields in February 1850, Hawthorne said that "some portions of the book are powerfully written" but doubted it would be popular. In fact, the book was an instant best-seller, though, over fourteen years, it brought its author only $1,500. Its initial publication brought wide protest from natives of Salem, who did not approve of how Hawthorne had depicted them in his introduction "The Custom-House". A 2,500-copy second edition included a preface by Hawthorne dated March 30, 1850, that stated he had decided to reprint his Introduction "without the change of a word... The only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor ... As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives".
The Scarlet Letter was also one of the first mass-produced books in America. In the mid-nineteenth century, bookbinders of home-grown literature typically hand-made their books and sold them in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of The Scarlet Letter, 2,500 volumes, sold out within ten days, and was widely read and discussed to an extent not much experienced in the young country up until that time. Copies of the first edition are often sought by collectors as rare books, and may fetch up to around $18,000 USD.
On its publication, critic Evert Augustus Duyckinck, a friend of Hawthorne's, said he preferred the author's Washington Irving-like tales. Another friend, critic Edwin Percy Whipple, objected to the novel's "morbid intensity" with dense psychological details, writing that the book "is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them". English writer Mary Anne Evans writing as "George Eliot", called The Scarlet Letter, along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1855 book-length poem The Song of Hiawatha, the "two most indigenous and masterly productions in American literature". Most literary critics praised the book but religious leaders took issue with the novel's subject matter. Orestes Brownson complained that Hawthorne did not understand Christianity, confession, and remorse. A review in The Church Review and Ecclesiastical Register concluded the author "perpetrates bad morals."
On the other hand, 20th-century writer D. H. Lawrence said that there could not be a more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter. Henry James once said of the novel, "It is beautiful, admirable, extraordinary; it has in the highest degree that merit which I have spoken of as the mark of Hawthorne's best things—an indefinable purity and lightness of conception...One can often return to it; it supports familiarity and has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art."
The following are historical and Biblical references that appear in The Scarlet Letter.
- Anne Hutchinson, mentioned in Chapter 1, The Prison Door, was a religious dissenter (1591–1643). In the 1630s she was excommunicated by the Puritans and exiled from Boston and moved to Rhode Island.
- Ann Hibbins, who historically was executed for witchcraft in Boston in 1656, is depicted in The Scarlet Letter as a witch who tries to tempt Prynne to the practice of witchcraft.
- Richard Bellingham, who historically was the governor of Massachusetts and deputy governor at the time of Hibbins's execution, was depicted in The Scarlet Letter as the brother of Ann Hibbins.
- Martin Luther (1483–1545) was a leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
- Increase Mather, (1639, 1723) a powerful leader of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was a Puritan minister involved with the government of the colony, and also the Salem Witch Trials.
- Sir Thomas Overbury and Dr. Forman were the subjects of an adultery scandal in 1615 in England. Dr. Forman was charged with trying to poison his adulterous wife and her lover. Overbury was a friend of the lover and was perhaps poisoned.
- John Winthrop (1588–1649), second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
- King's Chapel Burying Ground, mentioned in the final paragraph, exists; the Elizabeth Pain gravestone is traditionally considered an inspiration for the protagonists' grave.
- The story of King David and Bathsheba is depicted in the tapestry in Mr. Dimmesdale's room (chapter 9). (See II Samuel 11-12 for the Biblical story.)
- John Eliot (c. 1604–1690) was a Puritan missionary to the American Indians whom some called “the apostle to the Indians." He is referred to as "the Apostle Eliot" at the beginning of Chapter 16, A Forest Walk, whom Dimmesdale has gone to visit.
The following are symbols that are embedded in The Scarlet Letter:
- The Scarlet Letter A: In the beginning of the novel Hester's letter A is a representation of her sin and adultery. However, as time progresses, the meaning of the letter changed. It now represented, to some, able. It states “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathize—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength” (129).
- Meteor: The meteor shaped as an A serves as another symbol in the book. To Reverend Dimmesdale the meteor is a sign from God who is revealing his sin to everyone and causes him to be ridden with guilt. However, others perceived the letter to be a symbol for angel.
- Dimmesdale's name: Dimmesdale's name itself also holds symbolism. His name contains the root word "dim" which evokes the feeling of faint, weak, and gloom. This represents the constant state Dimmesdale finds himself in. His life has dimmed itself every since his sin causing his light of life to fade and dim.
- Pearl: Pearl symbolizes the embodiment of her parent’s sin and passion. She is a constant reminder of the sin her mother can't escape from. It is mentioned she "was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed in life” (84).
- Rosebush: The rosebush is mentioned twice within the course of the story. At the beginning, it is first viewed as natures way of offering beauty to those who leave and enter the prison as well with a glimmer of hope to those who inhabit it. The rosebush is perceived as a symbol of brightness in a story filled with human sorrow. 
- The Scaffold: The scaffold is mentioned three times throughout the novel. It can be viewed as separating the book into the beginning, middle, and end. It symbolizes shame, revelation of sin, and guilt for it is where Hester received her scarlet letter as punishment and where Dimmesdale experience his revelation through the meteor. 
Adaptations and influence
The Scarlet Letter has inspired numerous film, television, and stage adaptations, and plot elements have influenced several novels, musical works, and screen productions.
- Badge of shame
- Boston in fiction
- Colonial history of the United States
- Illegitimacy in fiction
- Whore of Babylon
- Angel and Apostle, a possible sequel or companion novel
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- Kennedy-Andrews (1999), p. 8–9.
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