THE grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bondservant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant Indian, whom the white man’s firewater had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators, as befitted a people among whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders, at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, from Chapter II of The Scarlet Letter
In Chapter II of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, Hester Prynne emerges from prison to an awaiting and scornful crowd. From there she is marched to the Market-Place where punishments great and small are administered for public consumption. In Hester’s case, the punishment is shame. She is made to face the townsfolk, babe in arms with a bright scarlet A attached to her clothes.
Here on Literary Life, we are following a study guide written by Dr. Leland Ryken, professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Here is what he says about Chapter II:
The key to interpreting this chapter is to view it as an expansion of the conflict that was latent in the first chapter. Hester is the engaging and sympathetic figure as she endures the shame of her punishment as a victim of social prejudice. She represents nineteenth-century Romanticism, in the specific form of the ostracized individual set over against a hostile society. Storytelling is an affective art in which the storyteller gets us to feel a certain way toward characters and actions. Initially The Scarlet Letter gets us to feel sympathetically toward Hester as Romantic heroine.
Set over against Hester is the Puritan community. They are “a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical.” We need to keep the issues clear at this point. The Puritan community does not represent Christianity. Puritan behavior as portrayed in Hawthorne’s story is less than Christian, knowing nothing of the spirit of Galatians 6:1–2: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. . . . Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” As the story unfolds, we will see with increasing clarity the wedge that Hawthorne drives between Puritan behavior and Christian doctrine. In the early stages of the book, only two worldviews are evident—the Romantic, which elevates feeling, and the Puritan, which makes law the central fact of life. We need to keep reading before the Christian worldview gradually emerges.
The focus of interpretive attention for this chapter needs to be on characterization. Hester is the sympathetic central character in this chapter, so the first thing to do is go through the chapter and compile a portrait of Hester. By what techniques and evaluative vocabulary does the storyteller get us to sympathize with Hester? Additionally, what things make Hester a Romantic heroine in the nineteenth-century sense of that word? Secondarily, we need to compile a portrait of the Puritan community. What is the essential identity of the Puritans? Specifically, how do they represent a legalistic worldview that elevates law to the highest value? Having done justice to characterization, we should note the patterns of imagery and symbolism by which Hawthorne presents the solitary sufferer and the tormenting community in which she lives.
Literature is the voice of authentic human experience. In this chapter Hawthorne paints a moving picture of suffering humanity and the individual’s rejection by a self-righteous society. The picture of social prejudice in Hawthorne’s story is as up-to-date as the daily news.
L E A R N M O R E
The Scarlet Letter
Author. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
Date of first publication. 1850
Approximate number of pages. 250
Available editions. Probably no work of American literature is more widely available than this work; paperback editions include those by Bantam, Dover Thrift, Norton, Penguin, and Random House.
Genres. Romance novel (with the adjective romance here meaning that elements of the supernatural or marvelous are mingled with the prevailing realism of the story); historical fiction
Setting for the story. Boston in Puritan times (mid-seventeenth century)
Main characters. Arthur Dimmesdale, the Puritan minister of the town; Hester Prynne, a married woman with whom Dimmesdale produced an illegitimate daughter named Pearl, also a leading character; Roger Chillingworth, husband of Hester who arrives belatedly in the town and seeks to destroy Dimmesdale as an act of revenge; the Puritan community as a group. No one of these dominates the story more than the others, but inasmuch as Dimmesdale’s salvation on the scaffold resolves the action, by the story’s end he has emerged as the protagonist.
Storyline. The story opens with the public exposure of Hester Prynne, holding an infant daughter whose father she refuses to identify. In punishment, she is ostracized by the Puritan community and forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her bosom. The father of the girl is the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is too weak-willed to shoulder his share of responsibility for the sin of adultery. Eventually Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in Boston and takes up residence with Dimmesdale. He inflames Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt, and Dimmesdale undergoes a long physical and mental decline. In the climax of the story, Dimmesdale, on the verge of death, mounts the scaffold and confesses his sin, experiencing God’s forgiveness as he does so.
Five misconceptions about The Scarlet Letter. (1) Hawthorne paints a historically accurate picture of the New England Puritans. Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Puritans is part of his satiric design, and writers of satire exaggerate to make their points. Hawthorne’s Puritans have little in common with the original Puritans of Old and New England, and nothing in common with the picture of the Puritans that emerges from their own writings. (2) The fact that Hawthorne portrays the Puritans negatively demonstrates his rejection of Christianity in this book. We need to make a distinction between the behavior of the Puritan community and their doctrine. The book ultimately affirms Christian and Puritan doctrine, while exposing the behavior of the religious community portrayed in the story. (3) This is a completely gloomy book. The spectacle of sin and guilt is, indeed, a sad one, but the story moves toward a celebration of Christian salvation, and the characters win other victories along the way. (4) Hawthorne really did run across a scarlet letter A while working in the local customhouse. The account that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter gives in the preface, entitled “The Custom-House,” of finding a scarlet letter is as fictional as the story that follows. Hawthorne never found such a letter. (5) The story is primarily about adultery. It isn’t. The word adultery does not even appear in the book. The adultery is a past event when the story begins. The focus is on the consequences of that past event. No adulterous passions or experiences are portrayed in the book. The story is not about adultery but about concealment of sin and the guilt it produces. It is also about consciousness of sin and guilt.
Cultural context. Hawthorne was a mid-nineteenth-century author. The dominant world view in the first half of that century was Romanticism, which elevated nature, feeling, freedom from restraints, and the autonomy of the individual to a position of primacy. Hester represents the Romantic worldview. The Christian worldview existed side by side with the Romantic. The central thematic conflict in The Scarlet Letter is the conflict between Romantic and Christian worldviews. We should note in passing that the book adds a third worldview to the mix—Puritan legalism, which elevates law and the moral code to the highest value.
Reception history. The Scarlet Letter is probably the signature book of American literature. Certainly no work of American literature is more famous. The book has been a cultural icon from the time of its first publication, when it was an instant best seller.
Tips for reading. (1) Settle down for a leisurely read. Hawthorne covers a relatively small amount of action, but what he does include is described in full detail. (2) Instead of reading for action, therefore, we need to relish characterization, relationships, settings, and interior psychological action (what is happening inside the minds of characters). (3) We need to keep revising our understandings and assessments of characters and worldviews. Through most of the story we would never guess that Dimmesdale and the Christian worldview that he represents would eclipse Hester and Romanticism as the view that Hawthorne endorsed. (4) A lot of what the book expresses about human experience is embodied in symbols.
The Author and His Faith
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was born into a long-established New England family whose names dot the pages of American colonial history. An ancestor had been a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials, and Hawthorne spent a lifetime distancing himself from certain aspects of his Puritan heritage. Hawthorne was not part of the institutional or churchgoing scene in his day. When we speak in this guide of his faith, it is not a comment on his state of soul but on his belief system and (even more) the religious viewpoint embodied in his fiction.
The religious context. Two intellectual/religious systems of belief were candidates for Hawthorne’s allegiance. One was Transcendentalism, the American version of Romanticism. Hawthorne dabbled with it (even living briefly at a Transcendental commune called Brook Farm), but he did not share the optimism about human nature that Transcendentalism embraced. So he was left with Christianity as the belief system within which he operated. We can say unequivocally that Hawthorne was a theist with thorough familiarity with the Bible and Christian doctrine.
Hawthorne’s religion. Hawthorne’s notebooks are filled with references to God, leading a literary critic to say that Hawthorne was “innately religious” and “more than any other writer of his time . . . a God-centered writer” (Joseph Schwartz). His acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction were so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields). Selected Hawthorne scholars claim the following: as a writer Hawthorne was “freely at home in the Hebraic-Christian tradition” (Amos Wilder); Hawthorne’s theology was a “nameless and indisputatious” Calvinism or Puritanism, “arrived at by experience and insight” (Austin Warren); Hawthorne is a Protestant writer whose novel The Scarlet Letter is the nearest American equivalent to the Catholic novels of the French writer Francois Mauriac (Louis O. Rubin Jr.).
Religion in The Scarlet Letter. Any reader of Hawthorne’s best-known story can see at a glance that the entire frame of reference is Christian. The religious life of characters in the story revolves around practices like churchgoing, sermons, sin, confession, and catechism. Biblical allusions abound. Christian doctrines such as morality, sin, guilt, heaven, hell, and confession are the assumed frame of reference on virtually every page. It is indisputable that Hawthorne (a) knew Christianity well and (b) incorporated it into his fiction. The degree to which The Scarlet Letter moves beyond acquaintance to affirmation will be apparent in the commentary that follows.