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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
We are all humans, so sometimes it is okay to do something wrong every once in a while or to make a simple mistake. But at other times, one might do something so terrible so that the rest of that person’s life will be lived in shame and gloom. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne commits adultery and finds that after she commits sin, her life, along with other lives, will never be quite as it used to be before. Soon she will learn that the earlier actions she performed earlier will cause other people to think and look at her differently, as well as treat her differently and with more caution. Hester will also seek hope with ones whom she loves, but eventually she will realize that there is no way out of sin and that it is extremely difficult to recover from the effects of it. At first, she will come to be less of an outcast in society and will gain strength through her actions, but then she will fall back into despair and darkness as events take place that she cannot help. Primarily, Hester believes that the only matter she will have to worry about is being a social outcast, but later she discovers that she also must worry about the grief and sorrow of the unpleasant memories of events that she experienced.
The beginning chapter of the novel describes a rather uninviting prison in Boston, Massachusetts. Prisoners are led there in sadness and despair. Beside the prison, there is also a wild rosebush that symbolizes the single thought of hope and happiness despite all of the horrible things that have been done. It is the hope that is left in Pandora’s box, the tiny thread that keeps one going when at times of agony, and the small bits of happiness in life. As Hawthorne warns the reader that his own novel is “a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (56), he still assures the audience that there will be a point in time when the characters will have determination to make amends and to fix what has been done.
Immediately after Hester Prynne refuses to announce the father of her child (named Pearl), she becomes an outcast in society and is cast away on the outskirts of Boston. People start to treat her differently and look at her differently, tending to avoid her and Pearl, but at the same time gossiping about them continuously. Chapter five, “Hester at her Needle”, shows Hester in deep distress. “The chain that bound her here [Boston] was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken” (93). While unable to escape, Hester doesn’t feel like a part of society, and is convinced that she never will be. Having only Pearl as company, Hester is lonely and at times doesn't even find comfort in her child. The effects of being cast out of the community both mentally and physically makes her “feel the innumerable throbs of anguish” (99), revealing that she is weak inside and very insecure.
Readers can also note that when Hester is first introduced, she quickly attempts to hide the letter on her bosom, which shows that she is ashamed of it and almost wishes she hadn’t sinned in the first place because of society’s eyes upon her. Hester also becomes extremely nervous when she sees her husband in the crowd while standing on the scaffold, suggesting that she lacks the confidence to stand up to him. She is almost unable to contain herself and in a “state of nervous excitement” (81) when she goes back inside the jail.
Throughout the novel, Hester’s thoughts and feelings are shown through Pearl, as Pearl is a child and therefore able to do the things that Hester could not but wishes she could. “Pearl saw, and gazed intently, but never sought to make acquaintance...If the children gathered about her, as they sometimes did, Pearl would grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations” (109). Pearl tends to throw things more than a typical child, particularly at her own mother’s scarlet letter on her bosom. This might suggest that Hester wishes to destroy the letter, though she cannot. Through Pearl, we can see how much Hester suffers from the results of her sin and from wearing the wretched scarlet letter for all to see and shy away from.
By the time Pearl is seven years old, Hester has developed and changed as a person through her actions, and she is accepted more in the society. People decide to make the letter A stand for “able”, not “adultery”, and consider her a very strong woman. This serves as a little bit of the hope described earlier, as Hester has more of a place in the community. However, Hester feels weak inside and doubts whether she or even Pearl deserves to be alive. Others at this point call the child a blessing, but Hester disagrees in her mind. Some have “forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty” (193), but it seems like Hester hasn’t quite forgiven herself. The actions that she chose to do seven years ago are still impacting the way she thinks of things and of herself. The fact that Hester is still uneasy about what she did a long time ago immediately shows the reader that sin stays with you for an extremely long time and it is not easy to recover from it, if at all. We can learn from her that although she has gotten past the worry of being a social outcast, she now has other matters such as depression to worry about - which might even be worse.
Nevertheless, Hester has become stronger in her actions. She performs lots of charity work and even attempts to stand up for Dimmesdale to drive Roger Chillingworth away from his motivation of revenge. After doing so, she meets up with Dimmesdale and confesses that she knows who the “physician” really is. In this scene of plotting to flee the country, Hester takes off her scarlet letter along with the hat that covers her hair and beauty. At once, she feels “exquisite relief” (243), and her beauty returns to her once more. Nature comes into play, and the sunshine falls on her, symbolizing her innocence and distance from sin. From this the reader can see that the “burden of shame” (243) that she has been carrying was so great that everything felt better once she got past it. The reader can also take into account that this is another glimmer of hope that Hester receives while desperately struggling to recover from her previous decisions.
Despite this relief, Hester finds that her situation gets far worse when Dimmesdale decides to confess to the community that he is Pearl’s father. Knowing that he is dying, he shouts out that he “had been lost forever” (307) from the torture of living with both hidden sin and one who wants revenge on him. Dimmesdale’s death is told as a noble one because he finally lifted his own burden off his shoulders by confessing his sins. He shows the audience that living a life of lies and a deep secret destroys you.
Chillingworth dies as a result of the sin, too. Since he has no more purpose in life after Dimmesdale dies because “there was no more Devil’s work on earth for him to do”, Chillingworth’s death is described in comparison to a withering plant. Even the ones whom you sin against will be affected and might even sin themselves, too. This is how Hester’s sin has spread to other people and has caused them to have negative outcomes.
Hester continues on with her life, gloomy and depressed. Although she becomes one of the wiser ones of the community from experience and difficult times, she still must live with the memories of all that has happened. It is almost hardest for Hester to survive the sin because she must live on and suffer more with the thought in her head that the sin that she committed resulted in the death of two people who she had been closely connected to. Hester dies a depressed woman because of these unhappy thoughts.
The sin that happens before the novel even starts ends unpleasantly. Even though another thread of happiness is shown through Hester’s bright scarlet letter on her grave with a black background, the general ending of the novel is not a happy one. The reader might recognize the book as a well-written one, but not one with a preferable or light conclusion. Throughout the novel, the audience can pick out the bits and pieces that form together to tell one of the main messages of the author - sin doesn’t usually turn out positively. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope. Hawthorne discusses the parts of hope and happiness that turn up, and he is not implying that all sin ends badly. But he wishes to alert the audience that after one commits sin, his or her life, along with other lives, will never be the same again.