Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is arguably the first classic of American literature. While the language Hawthorne uses is often archaic, this is in fact an astonishingly modern novel in its treatment of its subject matter, and in its construction. While the plot is quite straightforward, and the cast of characters limited, behind this relative simplicity is a novel of huge complexity and subtlety.
The novel is told by an anonymous narrator, who in a long introduction tells us the story on found contemporaneous records. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is set in 17th century Puritan New England, and follows the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman found guilty of adultery. As punishment, lenient given the statute at the time, Hester is required to wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing. Thus is introduced the novel’s most powerful symbol. In an act of defiance, Hester embroiders the letter richly and lavishly, suggesting that the punishment can also be worn with pride. She refuses to hide the letter, and continues to wear it long after it is necessary.
Despite pressure from her judges, Hester refuses to name her child’s father. The paternity mystery is not really the focus of the novel – we are never told how her romance with her lover developed, and there is no great moment of epiphany when the paternity is eventually revealed. Hester’s husband, who has been presumed lost at sea, arrives in Boston just as she is forced to stand on a scaffold and face the condemnation of the townsfolk. He vows to find the father of Hester’s child, but decides to remain incognito in order to pursue his search in secret. He takes the name Chillingworth, and takes up work as a medicine man.
Following her release from prison, Hester settles with her daughter, Pearl, and earns a living with her needlework. Years pass. Pearl is a strange impish child, old beyond her years. She is fascinated by Hester’s scarlet letter. A discussion over Pearl’s care and moral well-being reintroduces the town’s clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale. The Minister’s health is failing, and he is being cared for by Chillingworth, who slowly comes to suspect that the minister’s illness is the result of some unconfessed guilt. At some point this crystallises into the suspicion that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father. Fearing her husband’s suspicions, and that he may reveal all or do his some harm, Hester meets the Minister in the forest. She tells him Chillingworth is her husband, and of his thirst for revenge. The forest setting for this scene is another potent and threatening symbol in the novel. After seven years of suffering and secrecy Hester and Arthur are reconciled, and realise they still love one another. She convinces Dimmesdale to leave America so they can start a new life together. Renewed by this plan, the minister returns to town, and shortly thereafter, just before the day appointed for their departure for Europe, he gives an inspirational sermon. Seemingly Inspired by the impact of this sermon Dimmesdale decides to publicly confess his sin. This seems to bring on a climax in his health, because no sooner does he do that that he dies in Hester’s arms. This melodramatic finale to the novel is followed by a short post-script which tells of Hester and Pearl’s later life.
The scarlet letter Hester wears is a potent symbol which changes its meaning through the course of the novel. Initially it is a brand of shame, but later, as Hester’s charitable woks in the community earn her peoples respect it is said “many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (161) At the climax of the novel, when Dimmesdale bears his breast to reveal, the reader is given what are in effect alternative endings to choose from. Either he has branded himself with a letter A, or a letter has been branded on him by the work of the devil. His words of confession are sufficiently ambiguous to allow of a further interpretation, rejected by the narrator but presented nonetheless and preferred by the Minister’s friends and supporters, is that “there was no mark whatsoever on his breast, more than on a new-born infant’s” (259).
The novel plays with lots of different contrasting ideas: purity and shame, town and forest, old and new England, men and women, settlers and natives, science and religion. Hawthorne is clearly interested in the impact that the settler communities of the 17th century have had on the America of his period, two hundred years later. He is surprisingly non-judgmental about Hester’s sin, which even in 19th century USA would still have been shockingly transgressive, particularly when committed with a clergyman. There is no suggestion that Hester is particularly culpable in the sin, that she seduced the otherwise morally upstanding Minister. There is however a subtle implication that Dimmesdale’s health degenerates because he has caught a sexually transmitted disease from Hester. His health fails slowly, over several years, and he becomes emaciated and pale. There is no known cure for his unnamed affliction.
‘The Scarlet Letter’ is an exceptionally complex, fascinating novel. It is decades before its time – I think it is best read as a very early symbolist novel, rather than a mystery or an historical romance, even though these readings are interesting in themselves. It is also a very brave novel, dealing as it does with issues of sex outside marriage, infidelity, and love. In fact it doesn’t just deal with love, it celebrates it:
“Love, whether newly born or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world”
It is sympathetic towards the fallen woman at the novel’s heart – it is the letter which is scarlet, not Hester. She is a strong, independent and sexual heroine, not a victim:
“Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!”