Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Scarlet Letter

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A woman commits adultery and bears a child out of wedlock. A minister sins against his god and his convictions. A jealousy maddened husband seeks his revenge.

Sounds like a soap opera, right? But its not. Its one of literatures greatest classics, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The female lead is Hester Prynne, sent ahead from Amersterdam by her husband to settle in a new town. As time passes and her husband does not appear, it is assumed that he has died in the harsh environment of late seventeenth century New England.

Hesters name comes to mean something entirely different to the Puritan townspeople when she is found to be with child and consequently gives birth to a daughter, named Pearl. Hester refuses to reveal the name of the babys father, choosing instead to take her punishment alone. Her punishment is simple she stands on a scaffold before the condemning eyes of the whole town for three hours, and is sentenced by the town fathers to wear always on her breast a scarlet A, meant to stand for adultery. It is only by the interference of the towns minister, Reverend Dimmesdale, and the assumed fact of her husbands death, which saves Hester from the gallows.

On the day of Hesters release, a stranger comes to the town, calling himself Roger Chillingworth, a doctor. He examines Hester in her jail cell, and we discover that he was once her husband. He agrees to keep the secret of their marriage, as much for his sake as for hers. He also implores her to tell him who the childs father is. When she refuses, he proclaims that he will make it his purpose to discover for himself the childs origin.

Custom Essays on The Scarlet Letter

As the years pass Pearl grows into what Hawthorne calls an elfish child. She seems mischievous and contrary in all things. Also during this time, Roger Chillingworth has attached himself as a doctor and companion to the Reverend Dimmesdale. There is a moment of fright for Hester when she fears the town fathers will take Pearl from her, because they fear that the child will not receive proper religious training with Hester. Through the support of Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester is allowed to retain her child.

While Pearl grows older and more questioning, while Reverend Dimmesdale grows ever sicker and more weak, while Roger Chillingworth grows more twisted and bitter, during all this Hester Prynne gains nearly the status of a saint. Even as they revile her for her sins, the people benefit from her skill with a needle and her willingness to nurse any and all who suffer from ill health. She spends all of her time caring for others, either for the townspeople or for Pearl.

Finally it is revealed that the Reverend Dimmesdale is Pearls father. He has suffered through these years for his transgression, though silently. He and Hester meet in the forest and agree to take a ship across the ocean, to flee forever the shame of New England and start a new life together.

The following day, however, Hester discovers that Roger Chillingworth has secured passage on the same ship, and she knows then that he will never let them be happy. This is also the day that Reverend Dimmesdale is scheduled to give the Election Day sermon, which he does with unprecedented skill. At the end of his sermon, the Reverend seems to weaken substantially, and as he proceeds toward the scaffold of Hesters shame, he calls his lover and daughter to him. They climb the scaffold together, in the eyes of all the townspeople. Here the Reverend reveals to all his sin, and to match the scarlet letter on Hesters chest, he has carved one into his own flesh. Having finally confessed, he dies in Hesters arms.

What follows is all but inconsequential. Chillingworth is denied his revenge by the Reverends disclosure and death, and he dies within the year. Pearl inherited all of his property, and became a rich young girl. She and Hester disappeared. Pearl is never again seen in New England, but many years later an old woman bearing a scarlet letter returned to the town, to resume her good works until the time of her death.

Hawthorne brings us this tale with much intent. He attempts to show us that we dont always see what we think we see. One who is held in high public regard may have the darkest secrets of all, and those held in contempt may have the hearts of saints. No man is fit to judge anothers heart, or to judge his sins. And above all, Hawthorne believes that it is best to bring your shame honestly into the open, to be seen and atoned for. Through seven years of silent suffering the Reverend Dimmesdale show us that no man can be judged as harshly as he judges himself.

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