The Scarlet Letter Literary Criticism

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne offers a bird's-eye view of Puritan life. In this lesson we will discuss how the effects of sin on society, as well as the individual, are considered. We will also critique Puritan beliefs and the condemnation of the treatment of women.

A Little History

One of the amazing things about The Scarlet Letter, which puts the concept of sin front and center, is that since it first hit the market in 1850 it has never been out of print. The demand for Hawthorne's ideas and thoughts on Puritan life and the treatment of women is as interesting today as it was then.

In this novel, we see Hawthorne's craft at work. He is concerned with the ethical problems of sin, social identity, and humanity, especially among the Puritans who lived by strong moral and ethical codes. In The Scarlet Letter we are asked to look at what impact guilt and anxiety have on humans. In this novel we can see that Hawthorne may be working out his own issues regarding his ancestral Puritan background. Hawthorne wants us to understand that while it is true that society is moving forward, toward new ideas and concepts that will forever change attitudes and practices, it is important to never lose sight of your own history and roots.

Hawthorne used his tools as a historian to respond to changing lifestyles in the nineteenth century, a time of decadence that he found unsettling. Hawthorne had plenty of personal experience with the Puritan life since he came from a long line of Puritans. He used The Scarlet Letter to address issues of the time that he found unacceptable: the treatment of women, slavery, the indifference to poverty, and his feelings about the church. All of these feelings came tumbling out in the characters he developed who helped exorcise his demons.

The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter

The Concept of Sin

Hawthorne uses Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingsworth to explore the concept of sin in The Scarlet Letter. While Hester is clearly made to show her 'sin' on her clothes with the letter A, she is the one character in the book who has reconciled herself with her difficulties. She is fine with God, and she believes that God is fine with her.

She spends her days working to make needy people in the town feel better, and they, in turn, come to view her as someone who gives back to society. They see her with more compassion than some of the townspeople, 'Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty, nay more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin...but of her many good deeds since.'

Hester is at peace with herself and with life. She has come to terms with who she is, and she is happy to give to those around her. She understands the concept of sin, and it does not stop her from showing compassion to others who cross her path. She understands humanity and she is comfortable with her sense of social identity in ways that others are not.

Arthur Dimmesdale, who is the father of Hester's child, Pearl, suffers greatly with his secret guilt. He is a pastor who cannot look God in the eye, because his shame is so great, and he has a difficult time facing his parishioners and ministering to them. His guilt is immense.

Hester stands and confesses her 'bad deeds,' but he remains silent and continues to preach while the people continue to praise him. This fact haunts and eats at him. 'He longed to speak out from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell his people who he was.' In this character we can see the destructive force of keeping shame and guilt inside rather than making it public and allowing reconciliation to take place. The outcome is destructive, as we see when his life ends.

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