Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter is a story of adultery in the 17th century’s Puritan Boston. As its basic settings suggest, the novel is a razor-sharp manifesto against the moral and social standards of that time. Moreover, as discussed thoroughly in this paper, Hawthorne’s work invites the reader to investigate a wide array of micro-level matters, in particular the perception of the self, the woman and the conflict between one’s emotional world and reality.
This paper aims to provide a comprehensive critical analysis of The Scarlet Letter. To do so, the analysis reviews several themes and characters from three critical perspectives, namely the Feminist, the Psychological and the Historical Critical Perspectives of literature. The three sections, each one focuses on one of the three critical perspectives, combines examples from the novel itself, critical analyses of leading literary scholars, and the author’s own critical views on the matters in question.
Analysis from a Feminist Critical Perspective
Is The Scarlet Letter a Feminist Work?
By the time he wrote The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne was fully aware of the developments in the 19th century’s feminist movement and, as argued by Baym (2005), held continuous literary conversation with the movement (whose first major convention was held just two years before The Scarlet Letter was published) and its values. Thus, although the novel deals with “a woman who rebels against patriarchal authority” (Person, 2007, p. 23) in the context of the 17th century’s Puritan Boston, Hawthorne’s support for ideas of women liberation is stated loud and clear. Moreover, Hawthorne expands the discussion on the classical role of women in 19th century’s literature, which focused on “female stereotypes, especially the familiar opposition of Fair Maidens and Dark Ladies,” and created Hester Prynne as “a heroine who is as much a nineteenth-century feminist as a seventeenth-century Puritan heretic” (ibid.).
Nevertheless, the question of whether The Scarlet Letter should be viewed as a masculine support to feminist ideas has no clear answer. On one hand, the novel criticizes the Puritan offensive relations towards women, including the witchcraft against quasi-powerful feminine characters. However, Hawthorne, who argued in 1855 that “America is now wholly given over to a d—–d mob of scribbling women” (Barlowe, 2000, p.32), arguably demands a new role for American women not as a supporter of the feminist argument of his times, but as a natural part of his general social criticism (Person, 2007). Either way, Hawthorne seals The Scarlet Letter with a short manifesto, in which Hester comforts the women who come to her cottage by expressing “her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (1850, p. 321).
Female Characters in The Scarlet Letter
Hester is the protagonist of the novel, who wears the scarlet letter (a piece of cloth in the shape of an A, which signals the disgrace of Hester’s adultery). When her husband, Roger Chillingworth, is in Europe, Hester has an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale and gives birth to a daughter, Pearl. Hester is a passionate woman, who does not regret for her sin, which is considered as a crime under Puritan law. Moreover, she is depicted as intelligent, independent, caring mother of Pearl and has extremely strong personality.
Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne, who must carry the shame of her mother, being her illegitimate child. The reader quickly learns that Hester “named the infant “Pearl,” as being of great price, — purchased with all she had, — her mother’s only treasure,” (Hawthorne, 1850, p. 106) meaning her virginity. Pearl is beautiful, but due to her origin she is considered in the prevalent narrative as community to be a child of Satan. In accordance, she is uncontrollable, hyperactive and isolates herself from the other children. Her affection towards nature and disgust from the community leads her to leave America, as she believes that the true nature of man cannot be respected in this land.
Based on a real figure (as many other elements of the plot), Mistress Hibbins is “Governor Bellingham’s bitter-tempered sister, and the same who, a few years later, was executed as a witch” (ibid., p. 139). Although she offered Hester to join her to the forest to attend a witch group, Hibbins represents Hawthorne’s criticism on the Salem witchcraft (see below). Judging the personality and actions of Hibbins from a feminist perspective, though, it is evidently clear that the Hawthorne “tags” the unpleasant woman as a witch because of her unpleasant personality, as if women are not allowed to behave this way within the society in question.
Analysis from a Psychological Critical Perspective
Guilt, Punishment and Hypocrisy
The Scarlet Letter asks more than a few questions about the ways we justify our actions. Throughout the whole novel, Hawthorne shares his views regarding the border between the inner guilt – that is, the guilt that someone feels – and guilt and punishment as determined by society. When Pearl continuously inquiries “What does the scarlet letter mean?” (pp. 217, 219, 220, 227) she refer to her mother’s sign of Cain, as well as requesting us to reflect on the title of book (Person, 2007), in the sense of “What does this book mean?”
Hawthorne’s emotional and moral manipulation is clear: after reading about two-thirds of the book, his readers have probably already developed a negative attitude towards the Puritan values and regret Hester’s tragedy. However, when the psychologically unstable Pearl, the creation of Hester’s sin/crime, keeps asking us the same question, we should reconsider the line of though that has lead us so far. Can Hester set her own values? Are we not also hypocrite when we justify Hester but criticize exceptional ways of life? Or are we just those men and women who seek revenge through punishment?
As discussed in the next section, the Puritan values were no longer dominant in American society. Hawthorne has therefore the opportunity to examine how this culture had fallen apart from different perspectives, notably from the weakness of the group. In The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan society is not only the group of reference for the individual (as any other normal society), but it seems that it actually needs its sinners to justify its existence and to find common grounds for its disciples (Zhao, 2007). In this context, Hester provides burning materials to fuel this fire; not only because of her adultery, but also through the way she handles the society’s attitude towards her.
For example, when Hester “stood fully revealed before the crowd,” she is expected to “conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress” (Hawthorne, 1850, p. 62), that is, her scarlet letter. But instead, “she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors” and presents her letter A, which is “ surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread […and] was so artistically done, […] that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.” (ibid, pp. 62-3). Hester, whose letter A may also imply other words, such as artist or author (Barlowe, 2000), chooses to confront the norms instead of accepting her role as the scapegoat of her society. Pearl chooses a different way, by isolating her running to the woods as a child, and leaving the group altogether later on.
Analysis from a Historical Critical Perspective
In his introductory section to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne (1850) discusses the historical position of the author, arguing that “when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates.” (p. 1-2). However, the understanding of the novel and its author differs within and among eras, just like the perceptions on the novel’s themes. Instead of repeating the historical occurrences and their depiction in the novel, this section briefly two opposing critics of The Scarlet Letter from the original publish era. Doing so, it is possible to deal with one of the major elements of the Historical Critical Perspective, namely the means in which the literary work is accepted among eras.
In a 1850 critic in the Boston Daily Times, Charles Creighton Hazewell “praised the accurate depiction of the Puritans and declared Governor Bellingham and other characters to be drawn with ‘eminent fidelity’ to history.” (Wright, 2007, p. 213) Though “Hawthorne did not claim his writings were ‘historical tales’” (ibid.), the latter’s introduction leaves very little room for doubt regarding his willingness to open the past from a critical perspective. This very same tendency to discuss sensitive issues from the origins of the US, particularly in the context of Puritan priests, was criticized by the Episcopal bishop Arthur Cleveland Cox. In his 1851 review, Cox defined the (now highly-celebrated) book as “made to the market” (ibid.) and a degrading work for American literature.
The Scarlet Letter is arguably one of the most important American literary works of all times. In addition to its literary merits, this historical novel has became so important thanks to its ability to thoroughly discuss two major points of conflict in American society: The Puritan heritage and the question of the correct relations between the collective and the individual.
These two dilemmas, which stand at the locus of the novel, were also very dominant in the author’s own life. Born in Salem, MA, Hawthorne’s ambivalent relations with his ancestors’ involvement in the witchcraft and other faces of the “Puritan justice system” took a major role in his writings. Hawthorne himself admits the affection of Salem and its past his feelings and thoughts, and so are many of his views: reflective, not always coherent and constantly plays between the social and the personal points of view (Person, 2007). The reader of The Scarlet Letter should be extremely cautious: as discussed above, Hawthorne lived in and wrote about times of great dilemmas at all levels, and as such, his accounts often entails contradictory views, emotional manipulations and correspondences with his contemporary as well as past events.
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