Hawthorne’s classic novel The
Scarlet Letter deals with the
punishment faced by Hester Prynne, who wears the letter ‘A’ on her clothes as a
symbol of her adultery. The letter affects the entire community, from
Hester herself to her child to her secret lover, but the intentions of the
magistrates who gave it to her are lost. By the end of Hester’s
life, and because of her long history of selflessness, the letter becomes
symbolic far beyond its original intention.
“The scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s
scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and
looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.”
The letter’s purpose and meaning changes over the years during which
Hester wears it, evolving into something ways the Puritan authority never intended.
stands on the scaffold at the beginning of the novel, the Puritan magistrates desire
to prod her for a confession of her sin, and humiliate her “with continual
reference to the ignominious letter.”
Hester stands strong and calm.
Years later, Hester’s daughter Pearl is seven years old. Pearl does not see the letter like everyone
else does. For her, the letter
identifies her mother as different from the others, and Pearl find them to be “pine-trees,
aged, black, and solemn, and flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on
the breeze,” and “the ugliest weeds of the garden.” For Pearl, the letter is positive, it makes
her mother special. It is something she
associates with her mother’s goodness and difference. In fact, the one time Pearl ever sees her
mother take off the letter, in the forest with Dimmesdale, she refuses to come
to her mother, and she “points her small forefinger at Hester’s bosom!” Without the letter, Pearl’s mother becomes
just like everyone else, and this is very upsetting to her. Pearl has attached the letter to her mother
and her mother to the letter. They have
become one, and for Pearl, this is immensely important.
way the letter ceases to hold its original meaning is the way that the townspeople
view it. In their eyes Hester Prynne has
become a woman known for doing good works.
She helps the sick and the downtrodden, always wearing the scarlet letter
on her breast. Most people in the community accepted her and “many people
refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said
that it meant Abel; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” In the end, Hester will not be shunned. She is strong and kind, and her good works
outweigh her sins. The community begins
to overlook their rigid rules because they like Hester as a person.
The letter makes Hester different not only to her daughter and her
community, but to herself. “It is
remarkable,” mulls the narrator, “that persons who speculate the most boldly
often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of
society…So it seemed to be with Hester.”
She is no longer a child of passion and rebellion who had a foolish affair,
and in the past years when she has worn the letter, she has reflected and found
herself. Even after the scaffold and the
imprisonment, after public scorn and humiliation, Hester Prynne still looks
back and sees that, perhaps, her actions were not made with the purpose of
sinning, she is just a woman who thinks differently than those around her. She begins to understand that, in the end,
the same letter which insulted her also empowered her, and taught her how to
become independent. She can find peace
with herself. Hester “might have come
down to us in history, hand in hand with Ann Hutchinson, as the foundress of a
religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess.” The original purpose of the scarlet letter
has never been met. Far from submitting Hester to the rules of the settlement,
the letter detached her from her insignificant and ignorant surroundings. The
letter taught her how to appropriately measure the influence of other people’s
thoughts, beliefs, and opinions on her life.
For her, “the scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women
dared not tread. Shame, Despair,
Solitude! These had been her teachers,
–stern and wild ones,–and they had made her strong…”
scarlet letter that she wears makes Hester Prynne different, but in a way which
grew beyond shame and ostracism. The
letter became infused with Hester’s identity, a when she decides to wear it on
her own terms, she embraces who she has become.
She is different than the Puritan community which surrounds her, and
Pearl saw this from the beginning. The
scarlet letter altered the stories of everyone it touched, and for the most
part, it did so positively. Hester’s
eyes were opened by wearing the letter, and in the end, she transformed the scarlet letter, it did not transform her.
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