Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter offers an extraordinary insight into the norms and behavior of the 17th century American Puritan society. He uses this setting to shape the demeanor of his main characters. Hawthorne uses Puritanism especially its moral and social code to symbolize a wedge in the behavior and personalities of his major characters, such as Hester Prynne.
His characters are split between the need to conform to Puritan societal demands and the yearning to express their own personal desires, and by doing this, Nathaniel Hawthorne creates an all-encompassing conflict that exists between the characters that uphold the laws of the moral Puritan society and those who defend and live their lives through the ungoverned emotions of the human heart. Hester Prynne however does not fit into either one of these extremes.
Hawthorne instead creates a bizarre equilibrium where on the surface we see both visually and ethically, that Hester tends to lean towards restriction and orthodoxy but at the same time internally she continues to believe in the expression and recognition of the desires, needs and powers of one’s personal self. Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts Hester Pyrnne as a sinner and a recluse in the Puritan society and uses her sin and reclusion to show her abidance to the Puritan moral and social code and her tendency towards restriction and orthodoxy in the external aspects of her life.
Hawthorne establishes Hester Pyrnne as a sinful woman, despite the fact that she has sinned “less” when compared to her hypocritical lover and vengeful husband. Hawthorne positively affirms this when he describes Hester as “a woman stained with sin” (177). In the traditional Puritan setting that Hawthorne wrote about, Hester’s sin was both eternal and immutable and would forever damn her to hell. To further this idea, Hawthorne established the scarlet letter, not only as a symbol of shame but also as a symbol of Hester’s identity, which is established when Hester says, “Recognize me not, by word, by sign, by look! (52). Hawthorne writes this to further describe how the scarlet letter had become the very embodiment of Hester’s character and personality.
He portrays the scarlet letter as also representing Hester’s acceptance of society’s moral and social code. Even though Hawthorne readily points out that there was “no restrictive clause of her [Hester’s] condemnation” (56), “Hester Prynne … did not flee” (57) but instead decides to stay in Boston and suffer daily, which to Hester becomes the scene of her “penance” (57).
By choosing to stay in Boston, Hester herself chooses to live a life where she is restricted in all facets of society due to the ignominy of the scarlet letter. Hawthorne here shows Hester’s almost complete conformity to the Puritan societal demands where Hester chooses to suffer continually for her sin and thus seek some form of earthly forgiveness. Hawthorne brilliantly illustrates Hester’s orthodoxy through vivid contrasts in the descriptions of Hester’s visual appearance.
In the beginning of the novel, Hawthorne describes her hair as “dark and abundant” (39) and “so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam” (39), her beauty due to her regularity of “features and richness of complexion” (39) and added that her beauty “shone out” (39). However in course of ten chapters, Hawthorne describes what he himself calls “a sad transformation. ” Hawthorne portrays Hester’s luxurious hair as “been cut off or … ompletely hidden by a cap” (112), her face as lacking anything “for Love to dwell upon”, he describes her form as “nothing” (112) and finally says that “she who has once been woman, ceased to be so” (112). Where the Puritan people are symbols for society’s law and moral code, Hawthorne by depicting Hester conforming visually to such standards, brings out clearly her acceptance and compliance to the Puritanical society, a society that emphasizes both restriction and orthodoxy.
Hester in the beginning of the novel we see was almost a misfit in the Puritan society, differing much in her appearance from the other townspeople. But in a few short years, Hawthorne shows how she is transformed and has lost almost all the qualities that made her unique. She now has become just another conventional member of society. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne openly condemns Hester Prynne as a sinner and an immoral member of Puritan society, he at the same time has glorified Hester’s idealism, independence, and her courage to freely express herself.
Even though he has used Hester’s sin to illustrate her submission to the laws of behavior fundamental to a moral society, he also uses it to show the exact opposite – the ungoverned, natural basic emotions of the human heart. In stark contrast to the orthodox life of restriction that the scarlet letter symbolizes, Hawthorne now calls it “her [Hester’s] passport into regions where other women dared not tread” (136).
He also ingeniously illustrates how the scarlet letter, while serving as an omnipotent symbol of shame and sin is also a window into the human condition and this allows Hester to “speculate”(113) about the Puritan society and herself more “boldly” (113) and past the strict limitations that society had placed on independent thinking. Questions like “Was existence worth accepting? ” (113), statements regarding the role of “women” (113) and feelings that “society [should] be torn down”, all make Hester Prynne well ahead of her time but in addition allows the author to emphasize Hester’s independence and freedom of expression.
The “hungry dream of knowledge” (53) is a very abstract theme in The Scarlet Letter but nonetheless a very important one. Knowledge in one sense is a very crucial quality in the Puritan society and it is connected directly with power, which can be seen from how Roger Chillingworth became a vital part of society due to his medical knowledge, and how all the leaders in the Puritan society are people with great theological knowledge. However, at the same time, knowledge in Puritan society was stagnant and limited by strict interpretations of the law and extreme orthodoxy.
In this regard, Hester’s attempt to venture ‘outside the box’ of Puritanical thinking is an excellent indication of her independence from society’s demands. Nathaniel Hawthorne is also able to provide a major contrast between the severe social laws of society and the natural emotions of Hester. Hawthorne symbolically represents this concept in the beginning of The Scarlet Letter when he contrasts the prison door with the rose bush.
The prison door, which is described as “beetle-browed and gloomy” (35), an “ugly edifice” (35) and an “antique” (35) part of society, becomes a perfect representation of society with its restrictions. Beside the huge prison door, grows a wild rose bush that becomes a symbol of the unrestricted part of society and it is rightly described as a “sweet moral blossom”(36) and a representation of “a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (36). Following Hawthorne’s vivid description of the two symbols, he interjects a small conflict between an “autumnal matron” (38) and a “young wife holding a child” (38).
The matron says, “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? ” (38) while the young woman responds by saying, “Do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart” (38). The young mother in contrast to the matron and the rosebush conflicting with the prison doors are all representations of Hester versus society. Hester is essentially guilty of sin, of unrestricted emotion and is punished accordingly by the restrictive nature of the Puritan society.
The conflict between personal identity and societal demands are revealed explicitly in The Scarlet Letter, especially when Nathaniel Hawthorne elaborates on the behaviors of major character in the novel. With Puritanism playing such a pivotal role there is no doubt that conflicts between societal good and the individual play a major part in developing the themes of The Scarlet Letter. Hester Pyrnne was not blindly rebellious against society but instead tried to live according to the restriction placed upon her by the orthodox society.
At the same time she goes past the moral law of society to a higher law of the individual where she wanted to become “the prophetess” of a more liberal morality, which accepts independence, unrestricted emotions and freedom of expression. Nathaniel Hawthorne by combining society and individualism in such a brilliant manner in the character of Hester Prynne, has accomplished to create an individual that is the very embodiment of all what The Scarlet Letter stands for and therefore very obviously suggests a reconciliation of the two forces: one wanting to conform to society’s demands and the other the desire to satisfy their personal impulses.