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The struggle between conformity and individuality is highlighted in The Scarlet Letter. Since the Puritan government has strict laws, all Puritans must work hard to appear pretty in order to blend in. Hester, the novel's lead villain, is an adulterer, who is against Puritan rules. The Puritans seek Hester's obedience because her disobedience endangers their faith and protection. Hester, on the other hand, refuses to comply and faces the repercussions of her decisions. The townspeople punish, shun, and humiliate her. Hester gradually becomes a lesson for the town, as she is used to frighten everyone with the intention of violating Puritanism's social morality. Hester remains unshakable and believes in herself, her devotion to her daughter and her love for Dimmesdale all of which empower her to resist the enforced Puritan rules (Hawthorne 133). Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter argues that is imperative to embrace individuality rather than focusing on strict conformity to societal standards.
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Hawthorne employs Romantic characteristics as a Romanticist to portray the Puritan values and standards. As a critic of the Puritan society, Hawthorne believes in the strength of individuality and the human heart. As a result, he disapproves the Puritan punishment bestowed on Hester with an intention to put her to public shame. Hawthorne, therefore, uses Hester’s perspective to showcase the societal attempt to correct sin through the struggles of an individual. The Romantic feature of dark versus light is put forth by Hawthorne when he states that, "It was only the darkened house that could contain her. When sunshine came again, she was not there. Her shadow faded across the threshold." (Hawthorne 134) This portrays that as Hester carries the burden of her sin through grace, he is yet to achieve salvation. Her beauty, lightness and purity are overshadowed by her adulterous behavior.
Hawthorne employs symbolism in his Romantic ideals by using Pearl as a reminder to Hester of her mistake (Hawthorne 91). Moreover, Pearl has a dual nature towards Hester by showing her playfulness as a sign that she is a child who tries to "catch the sunshine" (Hawthorne 153). Hawthorne is a strong believer of Romantic ideas regarding the dark side of man, the relevance of the human heart and the individual power. The Scarlet Letter has symbols that exemplify philosophical aspects in the novel. Hawthorne uses these symbols to develop a social commentary regarding the flaws of the Puritan society alongside the severity of their punishments. The Scarlet Letter is considered a Romance with constant interactions between the imaginative and the real. Hawthorne uses symbolism and imagery to tell the tale about Hester’s sin and the consequential punishment. The Scarlet Letter itself is a symbol as it represents the different layers Hawthorne wishes to express using Hester’s plight. Hawthorne (135) marks Hester out in terms of being an adulterer to symbolize her sin. The symbol ‘A’ is the red letter or the scarlet letter that neither the reader nor Hester are allowed to forget. The letter ‘A’ will either have a disturbing or evil significance for Hester. Hester is aware of the stigma in her bosom which symbolizes that the sin she committed broke the commandments of the Puritan belief even if she does not see herself as a sinner. She is even considered a social outcast more so that the scarlet letter gives her bosom a burning sensation.
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Hawthorne uses the imagery of the heart to explain the character of Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale’s hand is always over his heart and he is rumored to have an imprint of letter ‘A’ on his heart. Chillingworth has had a glimpse of this letter whenever Dimmesdale is asleep. Some people also see it on his breast when he dies (Hawthorne 212). The letter is shaped as a meteor that flares across the sky whenever Dimmesdale takes his place on the scaffold with Pearl and Hester. Hawthorne uses the imagery of a meteor to symbolize Dimmesdale’s remorse as a minister and a mark of punishment towards Hester. The townspeople consider it a symbol of Angel which Governor Winthrop becomes after he dies (Hawthorne 209). People in distress owing to Hester’s punishment render the letter ‘A’ an acronym of able.
Hawthorne uses point of view in The Scarlet Letter as a way to undermine the mood. Chillingworth is considered a noble physician, which lightens the tone since the point of view arises from the townspeople or anyone without any knowledge of him (Hawthorne 145). The point of view is a lense in the novel that enables the reader to view the book. The scaffold as the tale begins is where Hester faces hostility from the townspeople, hence its crucial role in The Scarlet Letter. Consequently, the same scaffold is where minister Dimmesdale was compensated. This was done under vigil on the ark night and when he climbed the scaffold to confess of his guilt in relation to Hester’s struggles. Hawthorne uses point of view to ensure the reader sees how Dimmesdale takes full responsibility of the sin he committed after watching the way the society demeaned Hester. He imprints the letter ‘A’ on his chest to constantly remind him of his sin and guilt.
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Hawthorne uses figurative language by incorporating the forest and the marketplace in The Sacred Letter. The forest is a place of sin which Mistress Hibbins considers her domain while Chillingworth takes a stroll around there frequently. Pearl was also possibly conceived there hence the forest is not just an evil place but also a place of freedom whereby one can flee public judgment. Dimmesdale and Hester have frequent meetings in the forest to discuss their future. The last time they visit the forest made Dimmesdale refreshed, enlightened and vivacious since he felt free (Hawthorne 63). The marketplace is Puritan’s location during the day where they enact harsh laws and pass judgment. It is at this marketplace where Hester is coerced to take her punishment each day. Despite the serene deportment, Hester went through her ordeal until she came to some sort of scaffold at the extreme western part of the marketplace.
The Scarlet Letter encompasses ambiguous characters that Hawthorne has used to symbolize the scarlet letter itself. Ambiguity in the novel provides a common understanding that some bad and good things happen to us as extremely intermixed human affairs. Although failure may be involved in a different way, Hawthorne puts forth that the same failure could be a kind of triumph. Hawthorne uses Pearl’s dynamic character to portray ambiguity in the novel. Pearl constantly reminds Hester of her sin including Dimmesdale who portrays it by compressing his hands on the chest (Hawthorne 149). Pearl is attracted to the scarlet letter, which is the color of her dress. Hawthorne (88) notes that "But the first object of which Pearl seemed to become aware was the scarlet letter on Hester's bosom... the infant's eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter and, putting up her little hand, she grasped it..." This signifies that Pearl is a child of great worth and value whose extraction from the ocean depends on great labor. Moreover, she was a result of her mother’s public condemnation hence her presence in the world as a constant reminder.
In conclusion, Hawthorne employs literary and rhetorical devices in The Scarlet Letter to give the reader a perspective of individuality and conformity. The author being a Romanticist condemns the punishment that Hester is given for being adulterous. Despite her sinful nature, Hawthorne feels the ordeals she goes through at the marketplace is inhuman and pushes one towards resistance of societal values and norms. The Sacred Letter is undoubtedly a symbolic novel that puts into context Hester’s struggles in gaining conformity to Puritan values.
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Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Modern Library, 1950.
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