In Lit and Comp Year 2 we investigate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and you can cut the symbolism with a knife! The scarlet letter Hester Prynne must wear (symbolizing her adultery); a simple rose bush; a child named Pearl; a freak meteor whose path makes the shape of an “A” which shoots through the sky at a climactic moment–these are just some of the enduring symbols which have entered annals of literature through this quintessentially American classic.
What are the results in the lives of those who live in a community–in this case, Puritan-era Boston–which emphasizes justice over mercy, punishment over compassion? What happens to individuals in a society which insists on its members revealing and repenting of their sins in public? Hawthorne invokes innovative symbolism in the spirit of the Romantic literary genre to delve into these questions.
Because an ancestor had been a judge at the Salem Witch Trials, Hawthorne was ambivalent about his own Puritan heritage, and the novel is his letter to the world expressing his angst. In fact, Hawthorne was so shamed by the association that he added a “w” to the family name. His internal conflicts come to life in The Scarlet Letter, as he delves into the question of whether man’s law necessarily represents God’s law, and exactly what the nature of God’s law is, through the lives of the inhabitants of mid-17th century Boston.
In addition to telling a gripping tale, the book is prescient in that it reflects important conflicts and paradoxes yet to come in the American experience, especially the roles of women in society. However, the main theme revolves around the question of freedom of the will. Hawthorne places three adults in a situation where they each have the opportunity to choose their own futures freely, when they otherwise would not have had that option.
The “New World” functions seamlessly as the backdrop for the idea that there is a myriad possibilities, lives, and futures available to us. The three each choose very differently, and the reader can see their inner lives as they live out their choices–how their characters evolve or devolve. In short, the novel presents a psychological and sociological experiment: what are the dangers, benefits, and limits of the expression of the individual’s will? Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of our early American authors, but he qualifies as a forerunner to the psycho-therapist, too, based on content of The Scarlet Letter. If you have never read it, you may want to give it whirl!
Cindy C. Lange, MA