.. ays some unexpected dividends. Sin strengthens Hester. It humanizes Dimmesdale.
Hawthorne, departing from his Puritan ancestors, considers the possibility that sin may be a maturing force. If sin is an encompassing shadow in the The Scarlet Letter, redemption is, at best, a fitfully shimmering light. Chillingworth never seeks redemption at all. Hester looks for it in good works, and fails to find it. Dimmesdale alone undergoes the necessary change of heart to find a doubtful peace.
THE HEART VS. THE HEAD Is there really a war waging inside us between our emotions and our reason? Hawthorne thinks so, and he’s pretty sure which side he wants to win. The heart leads Hester and Dimmesdale astray, but the intellect- untempered by feeling, mercy, humanity- thoroughly damns Chillingworth. Hawthorne comes down on the side of the heart.
THE PUBLIC AND THE PRIVATE SELF Hawthorne’s Puritan New England is a world which encourages duplicity. So much is forbidden that almost everyone has something to hide. Hawthorne’s characters walk around in daylight with pious and sober expressions on their faces. But once they get home at night and lock the door, they pull out their secret thoughts and gloat over them like misers delighting in a hidden stash of gold. SYMBOLISM Let’s talk a little bit about what a symbol is.
The common definition says that a symbol is a sign or token of something. A lion, for instance, is a symbol of courage. The bald eagle is a symbol of America. A white bridal gown is (or used to be) a symbol of purity. We take symbols like these pretty much for granted.
They are a part of our everyday experience. In literature, matters are a little more complicated. Literary symbols usually don’t have instantly recognizable meanings. Rather they take their meanings from the works of which they are a part.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives us a symbol, a red letter A whose meaning has to be deciphered. What does the scarlet letter mean? It is a question repeated by almost every character in the novel who is confronted with the blatant red token and who has to deal with it: by Hester herself, as she sits in prison, decorating the emblem with golden thread; by Reverend Wilson, who addresses the crowd at the scaffold with such terrifying references to the scarlet A that it seems to glow red with hellfire; by Pearl, who asks about the letter so often that she threatens to drive her mother (and all of us) mad. The symbol’s meaning is hard to pin down because it is no passive piece of cloth, but a highly active agent. The scarlet letter provokes hostile feelings in the citizens of Boston, who shun Hester and insult her as something tainted and vile. Society’s response to the letter, in turn, affects Hester.
On the surface, she becomes a patient and penitential figure. She looks like someone seeking to live down the sin that the scarlet letter represents. But beneath the surface, rebellion is brewing. Society’s insults make Hester angry and bitter. She becomes a scornful critic of her world.
Hester takes the letter to herself. She becomes in fact the renegade she is labeled. Hester breaks free of conventional ideas and, as we see in the forest scene, she opposes Puritan truths with some devastating truths of her own. The point Hawthorne is making is that our lives are inevitably shaped by our past actions and by the signs of those actions- be they medals or badges of infamy- which we wear. Symbols like the scarlet letter shape our perceptions and our temperaments. They determine the kind of people we become.
Over the years, the scarlet letter and its wearer blend into one. The letter, whatever it means, is the summation of Hester’s life. But a letter is a remarkably ambiguous symbol. It can stand for any word beginning with A.
Does the A stand for Adulteress, surely the intention of the magistrates who imposed it in the first place? Does it stand for Able in recognition of Hester’s devotion as a nurse? Does it even mean Angel, with the consequent suggestion that Hester has risen above the society which condemned her? There is danger and excitement in the uncertainty. If we knew for sure that the A stood for Adulteress, we would have Hester neatly pegged. We would know we were supposed to condemn her. But Hawthorne is not content to let the matter rest at that. He asks us to look at Hester from other, very different, viewpoints. We are never altogether sure whether we should condemn Hester or admire her.
STRUCTURE The Scarlet Letter began life as a short story. (Hawthorne was advised to expand it into a novel, which he did.) In many respects, it retains the characteristics of a short story. The Scarlet Letter has the tightness and the economy we generally associate with the shorter fictional form. Hawthorne’s novel has only one plot. There are no subplots- no secondary love stories, for instance, such as you find in the novels of Jane Austen. It also has only one setting: Boston in the 1640s.
Although Pearl and Hester eventually sail off to Europe, the reader is not invited to follow them there. The Scarlet Letter has only four main characters: Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl. All the other characters are really part of the historical tapestry against which the action takes place. Perhaps most important of all, The Scarlet Letter has one predominating mood. For this, the lighting is largely responsible.
We move in a world of darkness which is relieved only occasionally by a ray of light. (The darkness sets in early, with the beadle’s presence obscuring the sunshine in Chapter 2. It continues to the end of the novel, with the legend on Hester’s tombstone: so somber.. and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light, gloomier than the shadow.) Since Hawthorne’s novel is such a spare and unified work, it is curious that readers disagree about its heart or structural center. Some critics believe that the heart of the book’s structure is the scaffold, or penitential platform, to which Dimmesdale finally brings himself to stand by Hester’s side.
According to this view, the scaffold scenes alternate with the pivotal forest scenes, where the lovers confront the critical choice of escape from society or return to it. But no less an authority than Henry James (the novelists’ novelist and the acknowledged master of form in American fiction) disagrees. James dismisses the forest scenes- and indeed, any of the scenes where Hester plays a major part- as secondary. The Scarlet Letter, James says, is no love story. It is the story of retribution. And its center is the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, the guilty lover and the sinister husband whose sole purpose is to keep that guilt alive.