Block B English 3 Honors
October 14, 2012
Ignominy in the Puritan Community
The title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter refers to the literal symbol of ignominy that Hester Prynne’s community forces her to wear as a reminder of her sin. Though the word “ignominy” is used in sympathetic passages that describe Hester Prynne’s disgrace as an adulteress and out-of-wedlock mother, its use at the same time reveals an extremely critical description of Hester’s community; Hawthorne finds that what is truly disgraceful is the way the community relishes and exploits the opportunity to punish one of its members. Through powerful diction and imagery describing Hester’s sin and through saintly representations of Hester’s beauty and wholeness, Hawthorne reveals his sympathy toward Hester. The narrator commiserates with Hester when the reader first encounters her walking to her daily public shaming upon the marketplace’s scaffold. He writes, “her beauty shone out and made a halo of misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (50). The word “halo” suggests an angelic, even saintly quality, compared to the sin for which she is being publicly disgraced as punishment, making her circumstance more complex than simply one of punished sin. That she is “enveloped” by disgrace implies that her shame derives more from her surroundings than from her sin; Hawthorne’s use of “misfortune” also demonstrates the narrator’s sympathy toward Hester, again suggesting that her disgrace comes as much from the community’s display of her sin as from the sin itself. Hawthorne portrays Hester sympathetically yet again in her encounter with Chillingworth in the prison. The disguised physician declares Hester to be “a statue of ignominy, before the people” (68). Ironically, Chillingworth, in the role of a healer, here admonishes rather than helps Hester. His words, intended to threaten and punish Hester, in fact, spark sympathy for...
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