AP English Language and Composition (3)
22 January, 2014
Scarlet Letter Essay
The Psychological Aspect of The Scarlet Letter
“Learning is not doing; it is changing what we do” (Skinner, Are Theories of Learning Necessary?). B.F. Skinner believed that behaviorism is a result of development from conditioning. Whatever a person sees continuously occurring in his or her daily lives as children, the person recalls them and alter his or her behavior accordingly. It is evident in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, when various characters behave and respond to certain stimuli because of a specific type of conditioning Skinner coins as operant conditioning, which is a method of institution through punishments and rewards. Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale behave similarly due to their strict religious operant conditioning in the Puritan community, especially with guilt as their strong emotional stimulus. However, Roger Chillingworth’s actions directly relate to his relationship with Hester Prynne, who becomes his stimulus for how he behaves and takes revenge on Dimmesdale, the man who stole his wife. For Hester Prynne, she becomes more conditioned to societal ways due to the Puritan’s way of punishing her by ostracizing her completely. In the beginning of the novel, Hester is emotionally scarred by the intense stares of the people around her as she stands in the middle of town with the scarlet letter, A, which represents “Adultery” in the novel. Hawthorne starts the novel by portraying the literary reality associated with the different aspects of the letter. The scarlet letter represents different ideals to different people and should be given the proper consideration. In the Puritan community, the letter is viewed as a moral obligation to inform others of Hester's sin, one that they feel should be "dragged out into the sunshine" (Hawthorne 43). Shamed and alienated from the rest of the community, Hester becomes contemplative. As compensation for her crime of passion and her refusal to name her lover, Hester is sentenced to wear an embroidered scarlet letter on her bosom. It is this letter, or a secret sin, that becomes the emphasis of the novel and assumes many different roles and even has a psychological role for Hester Prynne. According to Skinner, this is operant conditioning: “the behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organism's tendency to repeat the behavior in the future” (Skinner, The Origins of Cognitive Thought). A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. However, if there is a negative response to the stimulus, then the results decrease the probability of it happening again. Hester loves Dimmesdale and does not regret her actions, but she knows she has done something extremely scandalous. Thus, she tries to rid of thoughts of Dimmesdale by isolating herself, but also continues to reside in the community because she cannot let go of her love. Through the oppressive systems of Puritanism, Hester becomes more obedient in order to live out a peaceful life, and also conceals her outer appearances to blend in with the other Puritans so to not stand out. Hester is also maternal with respect to society: she cares for the poor and brings them food and clothing. But their response is like any other citizen living in that city: disgust. Hester does this because of her need to somehow retribute for the sin she committed. The shame attached to her scarlet letter is long gone. In fact, the meaning of the scarlet letter changes from “Adultery” to “Able” because she is recognized as a strong, independent woman. Hester Prynne does not actually wallow in shame like Dimmesdale has; instead, she does not regret what she has done and takes care of her daughter in isolation. Hester knows that she has committed a capital crime in the Puritan community and becomes more obedient and restrained, which can be...
Cited: Skinner, B. F. (1989) The Origins of Cognitive Thought Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, Merrill Publishing Company.
Skinner, B. F. (1935) Two types of conditioned reflex and a pseudo type Journal of General Psychology, 12, 66-77.
Skinner, B F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Pleasantville, N.Y: Reader 's Digest Association, 1984. Print.
Skinner, B. F. (1950) Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.
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