The Scarlet Letter

Published:  02:02 AM, 25 June 2017

A tale of crime and punishment

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Publisher - Ticknor and Fields, originally published in 1850

The Scarlet Letter is considered as a masterwork by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the novel, Hawthorne has explored the puritan attitudes as well as steadfastness of the society of that time. The writer emerges as a psychologist who discovers the inner regions of human mind. There are four major characters namely Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Pearl.  Apart from the major characters there are some other characters too. The novelist analyses the mind of a character, Hester Prynne. The character dominates the plot. 

The Scarlet Letter is a story of crime and punishment, both on the personal and social level. Adultery, one of the main issues of the novel, draws everyone's attention. The act of adultery is a crime against society.  Let us have a look at the plot. Hester Prynne is a married young woman. She is a passionate, sensual type of woman who is able to keep her sensuality under control. Moreover, she has the rare quality that is endurance.

Hawthorne shows Hester Prynne as an ideal woman. On the contrary, her husband, Roger Chillingworth is a physician. He is considered as an ill-hearted man. In spite of having husband, Hester makes an illicit relationship with Arthur Dimmesdale, who is a priest. Their affair gives birth a baby namely Pearl. The society regards it as a crime. Moreover, adultery is a violation of a moral code established by the society. If it can be considered as a romantic way of thinking, it is the willingness of the two parties in a sexual relationship that is monumental. Hester and Dimmesdale must pay for their unholy acts.

Finally, the cruel scene appears before us. Hester's feelings and thoughts are laid bare before us at every step. Standing on the Scaffold and exposed to public disgrace, Hester shows a haughty dignity. In fact, she is deeply hurt by the crowd gazing at the scarlet letter embroidered on the bosom of her gown. She feels a burning sensation in her breast. But she does not have any painful sense of shame because she thinks that she is not troubled by any sense of guilt. She knows that adultery is a serious offense in the eye of society but she somehow feels that she has committed no great sin.

Though she had been suffering she did not disclose the name of Dimmesdale who is also responsible for this crime. So the society does not punish him because society does not know about the sin he has committed. Dimmesdale's hypocrisy saves him from social ostracism. Had society come to know his crime, it would have sentenced him to death. As it is, he is the victim of his morality only. He is all the time haunted by a sense of guilt. On the other side, Roger Chillingworth tries to know the name of the criminal from Hester. Finally, he failed to know. Her husband personifies revenge. He works hand in hand with the puritans so that his wife along with the partner can get the punishment fixed by the society.

Hester has, in fact, triumphed over the punishment meted out to her through her vocation (needle work) and her service to the people and also through her implicit acceptance of the punishment. Yet a space is kept between her grave and that of Dimmesdale after her death, signifying that society might have forgiven them, but their ultimate redemption lies in the hands of God. The Puritan ethic is perfectly carried out in The Scarlet Letter even though the narrative is marked by ambiguity at several points.


The reviewer is a regular contributor to The Asian Age

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