The Scarlet Letter

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ENG 102

What lies beneath?
Nathaniel Hawthorne employs varying levels of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter to convey his messages about sin, guilt, women’s liberation, and the definition of love. Hawthorne relied on personal experience and convictions to support these ideas. Many of the thoughts and symbols are thought to be traced back to Hawthorne’s childhood and even into his early adulthood. He is haunted by his past and the guilt from the fact that he descended from Colonel John Hawthorne, one of the judges in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. He even changes his last name by adding the “W” to even further distance himself from his ancestors. How Hawthorne weaves the guilt from his past into the book is brought to the surface by John E. Hart in his thesis “The Scarlet Letter – One Hundred Years After.” Hart states “Hawthorne seems to have drawn the attitudes expressed by these two characters from his own experience” (Hart 97). Hawthorne feels hatred for his past, even though those acts were not of his own doing. He carries his shame in silence, much like Dimmesdale did in the book. The story of The Scarlet Letter is told through the eyes of a narrator. Did Hawthorne use this method as a way to set forth his own views and values of the society of his day? In the attic of the Custom House, the narrator finds the scarlet letter accompanied by the story of the letter. Note that the scarlet letter has survived hundreds of years after Hester Prynne and the Puritans have perished. The symbol endures even after those who created it have vanished (Hawthorne 30-32). Did Hawthorne want to show that even over time the consequences of one’s actions or sins will be forever known much like his past? The narrator describes the rose bush as sitting on the threshold of the story he plans to tell. He then plucks one of the rose blossoms and offers it to the reader. He describes the gesture and the blossom as a symbol of the moral that the reader might learn in reading his “tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne 48). One moral of The Scarlet Letter is that people must accept and forgive their own and other people’s worst qualities. To deny those qualities, as the Puritans did, is to deny one’s identity. The Puritans, who are supposed to be opposed to sin, actually thrive on it and are fascinated by the punishment of these “sins.” This separates them from the sinner and makes them feel superior. Hawthorne had some of the same feelings or alienation as Hester because of his financial difficulties, which left him no choice but to borrow money from a friend. Hubert H. Hoeltje tells us in “The Writing of The Scarlet Letter,” that “these embarrassments were the more irksome as they became the subject of public gossip” (6). Hawthorne would feel the same disdain towards the man who started the gossip as Hester would towards the town folk who bestowed the gossip and accusations of her situation. Hawthorne carried his own scarlet letter, but instead of an “A” for Adultery, he wore a “P” for Poverty. The letter is meant to shame Hester, but she takes her own spin on the punishment. On her chest, Hester wears a scarlet letter “A,” embellished with beautiful embroidery that strikes some women in the crowd as inappropriate. The narrator describes the letter in detail, noting that its “fertility” and “gorgeous luxuriance” pushed it beyond the Puritans’ boundaries of acceptable dress. By embroidering the letter, Hester transforms a badge of shame into a symbol of individuality. (Hawthorne 53).” The narrator connects the scarlet letter to nature with the word “fertile.” Many people of the town want to punish Hester for her crime, but in fact, the plan backfires. She becomes more isolated as she moves to the outskirts of town. Her sin drives her to isolation, but at what cost? Hester takes this isolation and becomes even stronger than she was before her conviction. The same people that still shun her after three years now employ her as a...
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