Forms of Violence in the Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Violence carries several meanings. It is commonly defined as an action causing pain, suffering or destruction, but can also refer to a great force, or an injustice, a wrong. Actually, violence is not only physical, it may also imply a moral dimension. In other words, it plays both on the field of the outer and inner worlds. In all cases, violence stages a relation between domination and subjection which are entangled in it. In The Scarlet Letter, violence seems to be the leading string of the plot: Hester Prynne has to undergo the ordeal of penance in a Puritan society that harshly condemns adultery. One can see here the atmosphere of violence she is plunged into. More generally, or rather more specifically, violence is present on various levels in this story: it manifests itself in the Puritan society, to which the notion of gaze is intimately connected, but also in the very minds of the characters who are haunted by their guilt, or even in Pearl's character in its complete opposition to the stern and strict principles of Puritan society. The question of the relation between the sinful Hester Prynne and the highly religious society she lives in illustrates notably the conflict, on a greater scale, between the individual and the group, the we and the I. This very theme would be most likely to represent violence in all its forms. And the most surprising fact in The Scarlet Letter is that though Hester is not forbidden to leave this society, she yet decides to stay, even though it hurts her. Accordingly, it would be then interesting to study how the relation between the individual and society is depicted in The Scarlet Letter, and in what way on can consider it as a inevitable conflict? I will first concentrate on the main features of Puritan society, which is actually a metonymic feature of society as a whole before analyzing the effects it has on its people. I will finally focus on the individual's possibilities of resistance in the face of society.

First of all, the oldness of society is a theme Hawthorne, through the persona of the narrator, constantly explores in The Scarlet Letter. Whether it be in the Custom House or in the Scarlet Letter, the characters live in a society where decay and the ancient are always underlying, more or less clearly, throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, in The Market Place, the narrator refers to Hester's life in the New England colony as “a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn material” (44). The illustration of oldness is even more violent since the illustration is here one of rottenness of the big institution of society. In the Scarlet Letter, oldness is most relevantly embodied by the Puritan characters in the portraits of Governor Bellingham's house, who are said to gaze with “harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men” (71). Here, the oldness of society is depicted through the question of the Puritan genealogy, whose ancient representatives are judgmental about the acts of the people of the present time. Thus, in Puritan society, there is a great importance regarding the past and its traditions that must be kept. In keeping with this idea, society is thus deeply rooted in its traditions (that is, the keeping up with oldness) and is consequently oppressive: it is given a forceful and fateful aspect, just as in the Custom House where the narrator is in a society of tough men where they pass on their jobs from father to son. In addition to this idea of oldness, society is given a very impressive aspect. Its power can be seen through the swords and halberds of the prison keepers, or Bellingham's armor, which is a representation of Puritanism's military and missionary aspect. There is an idea of conquest, of crushing the others who disagree. The persecution of Quakers, Indians and witches is quite revealing of the Puritan's society wish for domination. Also, the way a Puritan colony would be built is also significant of the importance...
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