The Scarlet Letter is now considered by many literary critics as one of the greatest works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this novel, the author explored stressing issues of the then-American society, such as the position of women, the impact of religion in the behavior of community members, moral hypocrisy of some people, who claimed to be virtuous and noble. Apart from that, in this book, he provided thorough insights into the life of a Puritan town, its negative and positive sides, it’s functioning, etc. The Scarlet Letter can be analyzed from various perspectives, yet we may single out such approaches as feminist, psychological, and historical.
In this way, it is possible to reflect all the complexity of this work. Naturally, we may speak about some other critical frameworks, for instance, symbolical, textual, and many others, however, the above-mentioned aspects are the most crucial ones. The main reason why this novel remains so popular is that we can always find some new meanings in it.
Feminist Critical Perspective
The representatives of feminist critics argue that this work primarily focuses on the struggle of a woman against a morally corrupt society. They attach primary importance to the idea that at that time females were practically reduced to the rank of powerless creatures, who had no right to deviate from obsolete rules, established in the country. Furthermore, they state that the then Puritan towns were dominated by sexism (Greene et al, p 123). It should be borne in mind that Hester is publicly condemned not because she committed an act of adultery but because she did not betray her lover and proved to be much more courageous than the so-called stronger sex.
. Hester ponders about her social status and the actions which have contributed to her downfall. She becomes a freethinker and stoic as a result of her misfortunes. Even the narrator seems to secretly think highly of her ideas as well as liberty though he appears to condemn her ideals. Even though she wears an “ignominious letter on her breast”, which symbolizes her sin, this woman can live through these hardships (Hawthorne,1954, p 106).
If Hester is to get rid of the scarlet letter, it will seem as though she endorses the power the scarlet letter has in defining who she has become. Therefore, she decides to continue wearing it to change what it stands for by changing her behavior and still maintaining her self-esteem as a woman. She is determined to change the perception of society by being the one who determines the meaning of the letter. The main character deliberately wears this sign, representing both her sin and “an unflinching courage” (Hawthorn, p 1954, p 334).
She acknowledges that the letter is the true representation of her true past actions and she wants to be the one to interpret her past events. After she arrives from Europe, she starts her life anew despite her unpleasant past. She becomes a representation of feminine subjugation as well as charitable ideals and becomes a self-styled crusader against the immorality society is capable of. The storyteller points out that she “had not sinned alone” but this fact goes disregarded by the majority of people (Hawthorne, 1954, p 162).
Hester’s actions in this case are more or less geared towards reconciliation rather than penitence. As a feminist, she transforms her life to a point whereby the scarlet letter becomes a representation of how she overcame adversity and gained a lot of knowledge instead of the scarlet letter representing failure as well as denunciation. In so doing, she becomes a good example to other women as she is no longer the adulteress that she once was, instead of a paragon of self-empowerment as well as Christian redemption (Hawthorne,1954, p 356).
Hester turns out to be a kindhearted motherly figure as a consequence of what she went through. She completely reforms herself knowing too well that bad and rash conduct could lead to her daughter being taken away from her. She also becomes a motherly figure to society after she starts caring, clothing as well as feeding the poor. In the end, she becomes a shining example to the rest of the women in society. Long gone is the disgrace that was once attached to the scarlet letter she wore. Eventually, all the women came to realize that Hester’s retribution was mainly associated with sexism by their male counterparts in the community.
As a result, women who had undergone similar ordeals came to Hester looking for protection from the sexist behaviors of their men. All through The Scarlet Letter, Hester is depicted as a clever as well as competent woman. However, she turns out to be such an icon among her female counterparts after the astonishing circumstances under which she molds herself into what she eventually becomes.
The analysis from a psychological standpoint
From the psychological point of view, the unwillingness of Hester to depart from Boston since she was not in prison seems bewildering especially after she is disgraced in public and made to put on a badge labeling her an adulterous woman. Any other woman could have easily left town, got rid of the scarlet letter, and started her life fresh, but Hester refused to do all that. To make it worse, Hester is apprehensive after Chillingworth informs her about the idea of those in charge considering to get rid of her letter, (Hawthorne, 1954, p 211).
Hester’s intentions are focused on determining her individuality rather than letting others do it for her. Hester believes running away or getting rid of the letter will be to accept society’s influence over her. To her, it will be admitting the letter is a tag of disgrace which she desires to break away from. As an alternative, Hester remains put, transforming the scarlet letter to be a mark of her personal experiences and personality. Her previous sin is part and parcel of her and to assume it never took place is to deny a component of her inner world, hence, Hester very resolutely incorporates her transgression into her life, (Hawthorne, 1950, p 300).
Dimmesdale also fights back against a socially unwavering identity. Being the society’s minister, he is not just a human being but a role model to his followers. Except for Chillingworth, those near the minister deliberately ignore his apparent distress, mistaking it for sanctity. Regrettably, Dimmesdale on the other hand doesn’t fully know the truth about what Hester has embraced: that personality and strength are achieved through silent self-assertion as well as change, but not through denial of one’s given individuality.
It should be borne in mind that the action takes in the seventeenth century and to some extent, it portrays the life of new settlers who have just arrived at the New World. The atmosphere of Puritan culture is dormant; the narrator attracts our attention to the “dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law” that sometimes even incites people to commit sins (Hawthorne,1954, p 101 ). Hester and Dimmesdale’s occurrence illustrates that a situation of immorality is likely to guide someone towards personal maturity, kindness as well as an appreciation of others. Strangely enough, these behaviors are portrayed to be not in harmony with sanctity.
In the early part of The Scarlet Letter, the narrator writes his adaptation of Hester Prynne’s account. Part of his curiosity in the narrative is personal. It is essential to note that he belongs to the original Puritan settlers of Boston Massachusetts, (Crowley, 1971, p 66).
Just as Hester, the narrator both asserts and opposes Puritan morals. He is motivated to write, yet since he was born and raised as a Puritan. The storyteller finds Hester Prynne not only compelling since she symbolizes America’s past, but also because her episodes mirror his predicaments. Thus, for the author, the idea of writing about Hester turns out to be not only a significant activity but also a means of understanding himself and his social background.
A few days following Hester and Pearl’s coming across Dimmesdale in the woods, a lot of stress is given to the significance of physical surroundings in the narrative which brings to mind the patterns of society against the wilderness. As Dimmesdale strides past Hester and Pearl on the Election Day pageantry, Pearl detects his altered appearance. Hester’s recognition that different rules are implemented in the marketplace than in the jungle has more important significance than she comprehends, making this yet another sarcastic moment in the transcript. (Hawthorne, 1954, p 446).
Hester, first and foremost, wishes Pearl to uphold a sense of respectability and not divulge her mother’s top-secret and the family’s strategy to run away. On the other hand, Hester’s statement implies that plans hutched in the forest won’t survive the community analysis of the marketplace. What is feasible in the woods that is looked at as a place of fantasy, a prospect as well as liberty, is not an alternative in the heart of the Puritan town, where order, prescription, and harsh retribution reigns supreme,
To conclude, the novel The Scarlet Letter throws on the life of the puritan community in the seventeenth century. The main emphasis is placed on the moral hypocrisy of the society that condemns a woman into an outcast and even outlaw just because she dares contradict the stereotypes, deep-rooted in the public opinion. Hawthorne also Hester’s psychological struggle, she is unable to overcome the sense of guilt for her behavior though, in fact, she has to reason to blame herself. Finally, this work recreates the atmosphere of the puritan community with its principle, rules, and values, which were only proclaimed but not practiced.
Gayle Greene, Coppélia Kahn (1985). “Making a difference: feminist literary criticism”. Routledge,.
George Alexander Kennedy, Marshall Brown et al (2000). “The Cambridge history of literary criticism”. Cambridge University Press.
Joseph Donald Crowley (1971). “Nathaniel Hawthorne” Taylor & Francis.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herbert Spencer Robinson (1954). “The Scarlet Letter” Plain Label Books.