Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one of the most popular novels in American literature. Hawthorne is wordy, but his lengthy descriptions help construct the key symbolic additions to his plot and characters.
I enjoy Hawthorne’s parallelism between his characters’ personality and their looks. His descriptions and meticulously-built characters fuel the reader’s suspense and turn a romance novel like The Scarlet Letter into something akin to a horror novel. It vividly describes the terror and torture people experience by lingering in the past.
Hester Prynne is his main character. Puritan society forces her to wear the letter A on her chest for the rest of her life due to her crime of adultery. She must also raise the resulting child alone. Her community isolates and harasses Hester for years. They throw stones at her, call her bad names, and force her to live at the edge of civilization.
Hawthorne writes, “From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callous, it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture.” However, he also describes her as beautiful. Knowing Hawthorne’s style of matching the internal with the external, we can assume Hester is a good person. The reader sees evidence of this throughout the book. Hawthorne writes about Hester that “none [were] so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty.” This kindness changed the town’s outlook of Hester over time.
Seven years after her release from the prison and public shaming, Hawthorne writes that men of spiritual rank would say, “‘Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?… It is our Hester—the town’s own Hester—who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comforting to the afflicted!’“
Hawthorne says the A on her chest “had the effect of a cross on a nun’s bosom.” Despite her eventual nearly complete acceptance from the town, Hester still bore the immense grief of her crime. Hester refers to her A as “burning her chest” or as otherwise painful. Hawthorne also refers to her daughter Pearl as a reminder of her sin—wild, “devilish,” bullied, and isolated with her. Constantly by her side, Pearl is both a reminder of and a victim of Hester’s sin. This causes Hester additional grief. However, her life is not all bad. Hester embroiders her letter so elaborately and skillfully that others hire her to make their clothing. She treasures Pearl and elaborately dresses her in the same fine embroidery. She takes her wherever she goes for all to see. But Pearl, described often as a devil’s pawn or demon, haunts Hester as a reminder of her mistake.
Hester’s sin is with her until it comes to the light through Arthur Dimmesdale, her former lover. Only when he admits his fault in public and pledges his companionship and loyalty does she feel this burden lifted. When Hester removes her letter, Hawthorne writes that the light fell on Hester (where before the literal shadows would chase her); her heart felt joy and light; she shouts, “The past is gone!” The haunting stopped. When she takes up the burden again later, her elation vanishes and her temperament returns to grief and fear.
Hawthorne expresses Arthur Dimmesdale’s haunting from the same sin in how his guilt severely declines his health. He describes him as “pale,” “haggard and feeble,” “betraying despondency,” and so sick he needs a cane to walk, despite his relative youth and lack of any physical injury. Arthur tries to relieve his torment by scourging himself, holding vigil for extended time periods, fasting, and other means. He even tries standing on the scaffold at night, simultaneously terrified and hopeful of discovery. Toward the end of the novel, Dimmesdale finally expresses his clear torment.
He says, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! Had I one friend—or were it my worst enemy!—to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me! But, now, it is all falsehood!—all emptiness!—all death!”
His pain and guilt haunt him to where he feels isolated. Worse, he feels the additional pain and guilt of hypocrisy since he is a cleric. He covers his heart with his hand whenever confronted with a shock or strong emotion, a parallel made with the badge Hester wears on her heart. At the end of the novel, when Arthur reveals his sin to the crowd, he rips his priestly garment to reveal his chest. The crowd is shocked. The reader can assume he inscribed an A upon his chest. Dimmesdale finds relief only when he collapses dead on the scaffold beside Hester and Pearl, finally free from his secret.
Dimmesdale’s physician Roger Chillingworth is secretly Hester’s husband. Dimmesdale doesn’t learn this for a long time, but the reader knows Chillingworth is out for revenge on Dimmesdale, having realized him as Hester’s former lover. Chillingworth is deformed, a hunchback. His overwhelming obsession with revenge worsens his deformity and appearance. Hawthorne, in chapter 8, writes, “A change had come over his features—how much uglier they were—how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen.” Later, Hawthorne writes, “Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale…. was haunted by Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth.” His desire for revenge consumes him until Dimmesdale admits the truth. Chillingworth then withers up and vanishes because “there was no more Devil’s work to do.” He dies less than a year later. Chillingworth, an agent of haunting and also haunted by his own feelings of inferiority, dies with nothing left for him to feel.
The past haunts all three characters. Even Chllingworth admits the guilt he feels for marrying Hester in the first place, recognizing their lack of love for each other. Hester and Dimmesdale both experience peace when they rid themselves of their past by finding companionship with each other and recognizing that dwelling in the past is harmful. They admit their guilt and move on from it. Chillingworth does the opposite by seeking revenge. When the past vanishes before him, he shrivels and dies with nothing left to live for. Here, the past haunts, and moving forward in humility is necessary to escape it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here: https://mamahoodmemoirsblog.wordpress.com. Feel free to take a look!