Conflict In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Length: 1241 words (3.5 double-spaced pages)
Human nature, while impressively complex, also has various poor qualities. Often these imperfections result in conflicts which are in turn depicted in works of literature. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, set in an old Puritan community, is centered on several conflicts of human nature that result from the adultery and punishment of Hester Prynne. There are three major conflicts each for which Hawthorne created a specific main character to illustrate: Pearl, Hester's illegitimate daughter, depicts the conflict purity versus sin, Roger Chillingworth, Hester's former husband, depicts good versus evil, and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who sinned with Hester, depicts the conflict love versus hate. Each of these characters has distinct qualities and actions that Hawthorne uses to establish and elaborate conflicts of human nature in The Scarlet Letter.
Pearl, while an extremely pure at heart child, came into existence as the result of Hester's impure and sinful act of adultery. Therefore, Hawthorne uses Pearl to depict the conflict sin versus purity. Pearl, on one hand, is the picture of innocence and purity. She is almost a part of nature, playing and finding company in the wild things of the woods. She also provides the only joy for Hester, while they live in isolation. Very perceptive, perhaps more so than her mother and other adults, Pearl asks innocent questions about the world around her, concerning herself especially with the scarlet letter on her mother's bosom and her father. Pearl, while very innocent and pure at heart is also a living reminder of Hester's adultery and sin.
Consequently, Hester pays for her sin not only with the forced bearing of the scarlet letter but just by Pearl's company. Pearl's constant repetition of the questions, "What does the scarlet letter mean?" and "Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?" cause Hester much concern (Hawthorne 178). Even when Hester attempts to get a lift from the burden of the scarlet letter by tearing it off in the woods, little Pearl's reaction is stunned and almost scared. It is almost as if Pearl realizes the letter's significance in their lives and ultimately how it affects her mother.
Pearl embodies the conflict of sin versus purity and even changes her behavior as the conflict comes to a close. During the seven years the father's identity was kept a secret and the scarlet letter was a dominating force, Pearl acted and appeared otherworldly being described as "a wild and flighty little elf" by her mother, and considered strange by other adults in the community (Hawthorne 112). After the confession that resulted in Dimmesdale's death, Pearl grew out of her elfish behavior signaling a resolve to the conflict sin versus purity.
Another major conflict is good versus evil, which Hawthorne portrays distinctly through Roger Chillingworth, whose actions against the other characters are the only truly evil ones in the novel. Chillingworth, Hester's former husband, became enraged when he found out that Hester cheated on him with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and their sin resulted in Pearl. His anger grew in to an all-consuming malevolent evil that dominated his life. He devoted his all his time to pursuing Dimmesdale as a scientist would, luring him in with his intelligence and an interest in learning that was appealing to the reverend. Chillingworth does not take into account the nature of Dimmesdale's sin, love, and shows no human compassion. It is this that makes him diabolical and a greater sinner than Dimmesdale or Hester.
Their sin was unintentional and only came about because of love and passion. There love actually could have been considered good if it were not for the confines of strict Puritan society. After Hester was punished for her sin by the Puritan community, she and Pearl lived a peaceful life and were a benefit to society. Hester was especially noted for her beautiful needlework and never tried to gain revenge on the Puritan community for punishing her so harshly. Slowly, Hester grew out of her shame and became stronger and more independent, kindly caring for and raising Pearl. In fact, "Many people refused to interpret the scarlet letter by its original signification. They said it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength."(Hawthorne 148) They did not recognize her for her faults but instead, her strength and courage.
Chillingworth, however, became more and more twisted and evil, his deformed shoulders paralleling his distorted soul. He wore down more and more on Dimmesdale's health, bringing him closer to his death in his attempt for revenge. He even admitted his evilness to himself stating to Dimmesdale, "I have already told you what I am a fiend!" (Hawthorne 158). The ever growing corruption and evil inside of Chillingworth collided with the good that Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl were bringing into the world. Hawthorne hints the innate nature of the good and evil of both sides towards the end of the novel, by describing that Chillingworth is viewed badly by the town but Dimmesdale and Hester are viewed as good people. It is in this way that Roger Chillingworth's specific use in the novel is to portray the conflict good versus evil.
The evilness wrought upon Dimmesdale by Chillingworth was only part of what kept him weakened and frail. He, in fact, faced a constant inward struggle with his immense guilt of having sinned with Hester. Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale to represent the conflict love versus hate in that Dimmesdale does both. He has a great deal of love for Hester and Pearl, and even the people he preaches to. However, due to his overactive conscience and his desperate struggle for salvation in the afterlife "above all things else, he loathed his miserable self," for committing what the Puritan community believed to be a terrible sin (Hawthorne 141). Throughout the novel, Dimmesdale self- inflicts suffering in the form of extreme fasting and whipping on his shoulders and back. His self hate even goes so far as to carve a letter A' into his chest, to represent the embroidered scarlet letter on Hester's chest. These destructive tendencies greatly weaken his health and also contribute to his death.
Even though he loathes himself for his sin, he shows tremendous appreciation for Hester and Pearl. He planned to run away with them, away from the Puritan community and its harsh judgments. The fact that he planned this showed that his love could stand the wear of distance and time. Even though they never got the chance to go through with this plan due to Dimmesdale's death, his prior confession also showed a great deal of love. Dimmesdale, on the very same stand Hester was convicted on, asked Hester and Pearl to "Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!" (Hawthorne 140). It is obvious that Dimmesdale loved them and realized all three of them rightfully belonged together, as a family.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a story about human nature, and the conflicts that arise from it. Hawthorne created each character as a specific illustration of the conflicts in the novel. Pearl was a depiction of the conflict purity versus sin, Roger Chillingworth was a depiction of the conflict good versus evil, and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale was a depiction of the conflict love versus hate. Ultimately, Hawthorne shows that through conflicts difficult to overcome, the true nature of individuals breaks through the surface and shows itself to the world.