Alienation in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter' is rife with alienation. Sometimes it is overt, sometimes less so, but it is pervasive and a central focus of the story.

All Alone Together

Is it possible to be in a room full of people and yet feel completely alone? Such is the case in the Puritan society Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts in The Scarlet Letter. This culture is governed by such strict and severe Puritan guidelines that it seems all members of society suffer from alienation of some kind.

Alienation is the sensation of being isolated or separated. If the Puritans' strict rules weren't enough to make one feel alienated in this society, one also had to labor under severe penalties for breaking those rules (which most people inevitably did at one point or another). Transgressors would endure harsh punishments and be ostracized from society. Alternatively, people would hide their guilt inside and worry themselves away with it. All this and more is at play in The Scarlet Letter.

Hester Prynne

Hester Prynne, the main character of the novel, is perhaps the most obvious example of alienation. She is branded from the beginning of the story by a large red 'A' to be worn always on her bosom as a punishment for the sin of adultery. She cannot escape this marking -- it is there for all to see. Thus, she is marked and labeled as 'different' in her society, which opens her to much scorn and subsequent alienation.

Despite Hester's significant involvement and participation in her society, thanks to this indelible mark, 'there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it.' Her fellow citizens treat her in such a way that 'every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere.'

Pearl

Pearl, Hester's daughter from her adulterous relationship, is ostracized like her mother. We learn that even the Puritan children (whom Hawthorne refers to as 'the most intolerant brood that ever lived') treat Pearl and Hester as though they were shady characters who did not belong. We are told that even these children 'scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues.'

Pearl responds to this treatment with fiery impudence, however, lashing out at these children in a fit of anger if they ever approach her. Despite this and despite how unpleasant this must have been for a child, we learn that 'Pearl wanted not a wide and various circle of acquaintance.' Instead, she was content to amuse herself with her own imagination, and was content with her mother's companionship.

Arthur Dimmesdale

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the town minister and the person with whom Hester committed adultery, experiences another kind of alienation. He is always thronged with people who love and admire him. Everyone praises him and thinks him to be the best sort of person they've ever known. No, he is not alienated by other people as Hester and Pearl are. Instead, his alienation comes from within.

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