Culture October 29, 2016
Hester Prynne is a social pariah; she lives independently, has sex outside of wedlock and then gives birth to an illegitimate child. And to be quite honest, she isn’t ashamed of it.
Set in seventeenth century Puritan Boston, “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the story of a woman who should have been chastened by society, but instead resigned herself to her circumstances and lived the life she wanted.
When the town finds out that she committed adultery, Hester must don the scarlet “A” representing the sin of adultery and stand on the scaffold for three hours as a punishment. The women in town are angered by her beauty and the quiet dignity which keeps from giving up the name of her child’s father.
While on the scaffold, Hester is surprised to see her long-lost husband, who she thought was lost at sea. Angry, he vows to find the father of his wife’s child so he can be duly punished. When Hester and daughter Pearl settle in a cabin together, the town resents Pearl’s wild nature and suggest she be taken away.
Meanwhile, the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is hiding a secret from everyone else. The act of keeping the secret is taking a toll on his health. Hester’s estranged husband, disguised as a physician, suggests that it is because he hasn’t revealed his untold guilt. Now Arthur must choose between honesty and painful guilt.
The story of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale hails back to the story of Adam and Eve. Both commit a crime that leads to their expulsion from society. At the same time, this expulsion doesn’t come without knowledge that is often painful, much like the knowledge from the tree of life.
The story of Adam and Eve isn’t the only religious discussion of the novel. Hester and Arthur are living in an intensely religious society and the Puritans are ruthless in their condemnation of sin. Hester is sent away to live outside the city and while she is there, she comes to the realization that the rules of the church aren’t everything. She learns about her own convictions and that earthly sin doesn’t mean you are condemned. Her thinking is free from the religious bonds of the society in which she was raised.
While the novel is very much an exploration of public scandal, its most important elements are the ones that take place in private: the secret touches between lovers and the inner turmoil of dealing with the consequences of your actions.
Outwardly, Hester repents for her sins; she is publicly ridiculed at the market and even wears her scarlet “A” as a permanent mark of her shame. But when she’s not in public, Hester is a wild, independent and rebellious spirit.
“The Scarlet Letter” was well received when it was first published, however, the citizens of Salem didn’t appreciate their treatment in the opening essay at the “Custom House.” It was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States, and it sold its initial printing of 25,000 copies within ten days. Without doubt, this novel should be on your list of good books to read.
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