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Archetypes in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In ''The Scarlet Letter'' by Nathaniel Hawthorne, many of the characters are familiar archetypes. In this lesson, we will learn more about the characters and the archetypes that define them.

Archetypes

What do you picture when you hear that someone is a 'princess?' Typically, we think of a young, beautiful, spoiled-rotten girl. An archetype is a familiar character type that is common in literature. These character types share traits that make them familiar to us. Common character types are the villain, the hero, or the best friend. Let's learn about some of the archetypes that Nathaniel Hawthorne used in The Scarlet Letter.

The Martyr

Hester Prynne was an ordinary girl from a good family who never could have pictured herself in this predicament. As she is stood on a scaffold to be scorned by the townspeople, she thought, 'Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!--these were her realities--all else had vanished!' Her husband had disappeared over a year ago and left her alone in a new village. He had been abducted by Native Americans, but Hester assumed him dead.

After bearing an illegitimate child, Hester sacrificed herself to protect her lover, Reverend Dimmesdale, from facing the same fate. She raises the child on her own in the outskirts of town where she is isolated and ridiculed by the others in her town. When her husband reappears, she keeps his identity a secret to protect him. She manages to make a living for her daughter and herself as a seamstress, but spends most of her time making clothing for the poor. Hester is a strong woman who endures unbelievable heartache and abuse. While she makes a mistake by giving in to her love for Dimmesdale, she remains a good person at heart and is determined that '…the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.'

The Outcast

Like all mothers, Hester longs for her daughter's happiness. Hester would have loved to watch Pearl laugh and play with other children. 'But this could never be. Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.' Beautiful and energetic, but lonely, Pearl plays in nature. She plays chase with the sunshine, picks wildflowers, and speaks to the brook. When other children come near her, she throws stones and screams at them . The governor nearly removes Pearl from her mother's care because she is such a difficult child. By the end of the story, Pearl inherits all of Chillingworth's money. She and Hester use it to leave town to begin a new life where Pearl will not be persecuted because of the circumstances of her birth.

Unable to fit in with her peers, Pearl turns to nature for companionship.
girl picking flowers

The Saint

Reverend Dimmesdale is a young, well-respected priest, who also happens to be the father of Hester's illegitimate child. Lucky for him, Hester is willing to accept the shame for both of them and keep his secret. But over time, he begins to realize that his shameful secret is making his life unbearable. As a result of his guilt, his sermons become amazing. The congregation relates to him when he calls himself a sinner. 'The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine!' the people say. Dimmesdale's squeaky clean image earns him a spotless reputation within the community, but the truth destroys him from the inside out.

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