The portrayal of Hester Prynne’s predicament against a Puritan community depends largely on Hawthorne’s historical, moral and psychological background. The concept of sin occupies a considerable amount of space in people’s lives in the base time of the novel, and this concept is skillfully handled by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was brought up in a community similar to that presented in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s imagination mingled with his biography gives life to four major characters in the novel, who are in one way or another sinful. It is not possible to list the characters’ names in order of importance. Yet, what we can call the traditional triangle of a woman, her husband and her lover exists in the novel. However, what makes their situation rather outstanding is the common opponent which they all have to confront one by one, and that is Puritan society.
All four characters are equally indispensable and equally important. They act and speak for themselves which means there is no character who is introduced in the novel for the sake of subordinating the other. However, if one tends to declare Hester as the chief figure among them, it is because of the perpetual misgiving and pity that arouses in the reader while witnessing her predicament.
Hester Prynne is depicted as a strong character in almost all the scenes -- from her portrayal in prison to the market-place where she stands on a high platform holding her illegitimate child facing her secret lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, her long absent husband, Roger Chillingworth, and also the puritan society, whose religion and law are almost the same. In her silence, she voices her reaction to the assembled community who act and decide harshly even at their most merciful moments. Hester becomes a total stranger, not because she detaches herself, but because she is detached by the society who put on blinkers given to them by the Puritan rules. After she is set free, she moves to a deserted house on the outskirts of the town. This is a sterile place, the earlier owner of which abandons it, as the soil is not convenient for cultivation. Hester starts a new life with her unlawful child in such a place, but earns her living on her own, without making futile complaints which will make everything worse for her. Instead, she makes ample use of her art – the needlework – which fascinates everybody and becomes the fashion among members of the society who punish Hester severely for her sin, and make her wear “the scarlet letter.” On the other hand, for Hester the scarlet letter is only the sign of her sin which she maturely accepts as a reality, just like Pearl. With her artistry she tries to survive; moreover helping those who are in poverty, and in desperate need for help keeps her busy. Hester continues to live with the sin she committed and never looks for an escapist solution, like going to another European country or declaring Arthur Dimmesdale as her fellow-sinner.
Arthur Dimmesdale is incapable of such bravery and act of loyalty like his lover. He cannot be so courageous as to tell the truth, and prefers to live a life of hypocrite. The most significant moment in Hester’s life, when she faces the crowd with her baby in her arms on the pillory is marked by Arthur Dimmesdale’s words who ironically demands Hester to reveal the baby’s father. His words carry pathetic overtones of a man who is torn between his sin and his honorable position as a minister in a Puritan society. “Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart” (Murfin 68) saves the poor man’s life, but causes his eternal suffering. Arthur Dimmensdale hides his secret in his heart till the last day in his life, only confessing his sin just before he dies. Hester’s passive role in Arthur Dimmesdale’s punishment is given to her by old Roger Chillingworth, who seeks revenge and avenges himself on Dimmesdale no harsher than the Puritan society that punishes Hester because of her sin.
Chillingworth finds no fault in Hester and if he finds her guilty he knows that she is already punished by the society. He approaches Hester first as a physician who merely thinks of helping his patient, and as her old husband who puts Hester into his heart’s “innermost chamber” (72). Hester never breaks her promise and does not tell Chillingworth the name of the baby’s father, upon which Chillingworth takes on oath to find out the man, whom he thinks has wronged both Hester and him. He also makes Hester promise not to recognize him when he shows up. His words scare Hester who feels helpless and alone. Chillingworth makes one thing clear before he leaves Hester and her child alone in the dungeon they are imprisoned: While giving a soothing message to Hester that he will not give any harm to her and the child, he makes some threatening remarks for “someone” whose soul will be ruined by him. Chillingworth’s vindictive thoughts and later deeds make him the greatest sinner. Acting like an omnipotent being he committed one of the deadly sins – pride. Thus, he becomes the most tragic character in the novel. Both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale come to recognition in the end, and they undergo a kind of change. Both of them become aware of what they did and achieve individuality at the end of the novel; however, Chillingworth carries his revenge till the end.
Pearl, the fruit of the unlawful relationship between a man and a woman, is also worth mentioning, as she is created by a wrong done by two adults. This extraordinarily clever girl later becomes an elf child. Although she is the product of a potential sin, she is doomed to be a sinner herself. Her reactions towards the scarlet letter that her mother wears, her surprisingly wise questions and her outstanding physical appearance with her dark eyes distinguish her from the other children brought up in the same community.
The Puritan society Hawthorne presents in The Scarlet Letter is the one he does not approve of. He shows the prejudices of a society which cause the downfall of a man and a woman who act according to their instincts. Hawthorne gives a lesson to this readers by taking this society as his example. After all, they are created by the norms of a Puritan society and have to live according to the strict rules set by puritanism. Hester is presented like a flower that is cultivated in a barren soil, and her child becomes a creature in between her mother and the society around her. Pearl, the precious stone, as her name suggests, becomes a totally strange being who cannot even be recognized by her own mother.
The desirability of the Puritan society is questioned by Hawthorne, through Hester Prynne. Although the greatest sinner seems to be the society, all the characters discussed above are sinful in one way or another. They are the products of the Puritan society, but still with their individual responses to various situations, they differ from each other, also from the people living in society. Hester’s sin is sexual, as she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The child grows up to be an independent, an unsociable person. Insociability is also considered to be sin by the Puritan society. Like her mother Pearl is isolated. She does not have friends except the doll that is made by her mother and used by Pearl in a kind of witchcraft in one of her solitary moments. Her striking independence as a little girl and surprising questions about her father and the letter “A” on her mother’s breast alienates her from society. According to the Puritan society she inherits her mother’s sin, and most probably will become a person like Hester.
As for Arthur Dimmesdale, his sin is twofold: Apart from his act of adultery, his withdrawal like a coward when Hester faces the harsh society whose prejudices turn the life of all four characters into tragedy, adds to his crime. He pays the debt of being a hypocrite very bitterly, both to Roger Chillingworth and to society, but Hester and Pearl are the most injured characters. The decision of Chillingworth's hiding his secret and living a life of a hypocrite causes no pity or fear on the side of the reader. He commits another crime by keeping quiet.
Roger Chillingworth, on the other hand becomes the most tragic character by committing one of the Seven Deadly Sins — pride. He acts like a judge and using the authority of a judge punishes Arthur Dimmesdale severely, just like the society punishes Hester Prynne. His obsession of taking his revenge as the ex-husband of Hester Prynne turns him into a god-like figure as he carries his vindictive thoughts and deeds till the end. Therefore, the concepts of sin and the sinner are handled in The Scarlet Letter, yet in different forms. The four main characters are sinful and they encountered the Puritan society, which seems to be the greatest sinner in the novel.
BibliographyAll references to the text of The Scarlet Letter are from Ross C. Murfin, The Scarlet Letter (Boston: Bedford Books, 1991)
Dr. Gül Kurtuluş