Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter


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One could say that Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a tale of transformation. The main characters' personalities shift with their environment; the scarlet letter takes on a new light. Hawthorne's view of what is going on changes, as does our own. The book is dynamic in a sneaky sort of way. If the reader isn't careful, a character can be changed dramatically in two or three pages, and no one is the wiser as to how they got there. Pearl, Minister Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth are just a few of those characters.
From the second she is born, Pearl is a can of worms—or is it a Pandora's box? When we first see her, she is just a babe, cradled in the arms of her mother. She seems like your average child, crying out at a loud noise and cuddling with her mother. Not for long. As Pearl gets older, she becomes more and more unusual. First, she is merely a mischievous toddler with a callous disregard for the rules. She is compared to a nymph for an elf-child. Hawthorne takes a very Dionysian approach with her, describing her beauty and vibrant nature, as well as her relentless pursuit of fun. She is willing to do anything for a good time, regardless of whether or not it is perceived as "moral" by Puritan society. Her fascination with the scarlet letter upon her mother's chest is constantly causing Hester grief. It seems that as time goes on, Pearl becomes more and more obsessed with the letter, until she actually begins to think that it is a permanent characteristic of her mother, or indeed is her mother (The Child at the Brook-side, p. 198). Pearl continues to mature, and shows signs of knowing exactly what the letter means, despite her mother's desire to keep her in the dark. She wants Dimmesdale to appear with her and her mother before the entire town, but he refuses to do this. Her refusal to give him kisses after such answers shows a manipulative side. Finally, in the conclusion, we see that Pearl's fiery personality has resolved itself into a warm glow as she sends her mother letters and gifts.
Dimmesdale is an odd character. As the story begins, we see him as a tremulous young man, filled with the Word of God. He seems to be incredibly innocent. Nothing bad can touch him or come of him.

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He is a saint to the people of the New England. Although the public's perceptions of him do not change throughout the novel, we are made privy to his most private thoughts and worries, and we learn that he is not nearly the person the townsfolk think he is.
The Minister is a man haunted by a sin. He seems to be getting by despite this tremendous burden on his soul. Then, the character of Roger Chillingworth is introduced, and things go downhill for the young theologian. Dimmesdale's evolution is spurred on partly by his own self-torture, and partly by Chillingworth's cunning infliction of mental agony. In the beginning, Dimmesdale's guilt is very private. However, as time goes on, he begins to look for ways of outing himself. He ventures to the scaffold at night, almost hoping that someone will catch him. He tells his devotees that he is a bad man, and has sinned much. They just won't listen. Metaphorically speaking, Dimmesdale has the rare gift of "the Tongue of Flame" (p. 132). He is misfortunate enough to be charismatic.
As Chillingworth cuts away at his soul from one side, Hester and Pearl do so unwittingly from the other. Their little talks, as well as Pearl's mysterious affection towards him, are pushing Dimmesdale to tell the truth. At one point, he comes close to losing his mind, entertaining fantasies of being rude to town elders and virgins, and even teaching swear words to children. It seems that Dimmesdale longs to be free of the burden of being pure and good all the time. Although part of him has realized this, another part refuses to relinquish control. So Dimmesdale carries on with his false identity until the day of his big speech, when he tears open his shirt to reveal the letter A for all to see. As he lays there dying, he seems appears to be truly human and free of worry for the first time in the novel.
Despite his somewhat lesser role in the story (after Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale), Roger Chillingworth's transformation is one of the most gruesome and fascinating. When we are first introduced to him, he retains an almost kindly aspect; he is a man lost at sea returning to his wife. Upon learning of Hester's situation, a slow change begins to take place within him. Given a choice of roads, he picks the one that leads to revenge. From that time on, he is always at Dimmesdale's side, sucking away his energy. It seems that Chillingworth chose to do this to get some sort of satisfaction, but it doesn't work. As the story progresses, he becomes possessed by his vengeance. Even he realizes this, whilst talking to Hester (Chap. 14, Hester and the Physician) by the seashore. In his zealous pursuit of the minister, Chillingworth loses himself. When Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth's perceived reason for existence dies with him. It is not surprising that he dies soon after, much as many old people do after they retire.
Hester evolves, too, but in a more transcendental sort of way. Hawthorne's changing view of her seems to hint and his impressions towards all women evolving. At the beginning of the story, she is foolish and young. There is a certain resolve in her personality that she later passes down to Pearl. It seems as if Hester doesn't believe she is wrong, and is infuriated with Puritan society for punishing her as it has. The ornately decorated scarlet letter is her silent protest.
The letter seems to grow on her, though. She finds a way to live with it. She overcomes the obstacle with a quiet sort of strength, showing to the world a façade of grace and careful power that many women seem to possess. She is so good at this that the people of the town forget the reason for the letter. Her dignity is easy to see. Others see the self-respect and return their own. Hawthorne speaks of all the soft spots in her heart being burned away, leaving behind a woman with an incredibly tough skin
At the end of the novel, after everything that has happened, Hester returns to New England. She once again pins the letter upon her chest. She is determined to serve her penitence. Before this point, Hawthorne seems to hint at woman's dark yet beautiful nature, kind of like the whole apple in Eden scenario. It is as if Hester has reached the pinnacle of her evolution. She has the strength to do what she knows is her responsibility, unlike some men we won't mention.
Hawthorne makes many points in his story; lesson stacked upon lesson could be mined from this treasure trove of a book. However, one very clear one, to me at least, was that sin is in the eye of the beholder. While the townsfolk saw a stigma in the act of sex before marriage, Hester did not. One questions whether it was a sin at all in her eyes. It certainly was in Dimmesdale's; he fought to hide it, knowing that it was wrong. Who is the greater sinner here, anyway? The one who doesn't think they've done wrong and doesn't mind standing up for their actions, or the one who feels they are committing a sin, and is afraid to admit it?
Another point brought up by the book is that one must stand up for one's own actions, or one will eat oneself from the inside out. Lying to yourself will hurt you more than others. This is better said within the book itself in the conclusion: "Be true! Be true! Be true. Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!"
While there are myriad other messages in the book, those were the two that were most significant to me. Hester Prynne's ordeal served to show just how misguided a society can be in its decisions of what is right and what is wrong, and how to deal with those that have gone astray. Thank God Hawthorne found those diary pages in the attic.


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