The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was written in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the book has been considered a masterpiece of American literature ever since. In his novel, the writer discussed many problems and questions that are still relevant in modern times. The main character of the novel is a woman named Hester Prynne. The protagonist lives in a seventeenth-century puritan community in Boston. Having a child outside marriage, she is condemned and rejected by society and has to learn how to live on her own and deal with her stigma. The relationship between the moral authority of society and an individual is one of the central themes of the novel. Hawthorne shows a nuanced attitude towards this complicated question, endorsing the challenge to unfairness and flaws of the system, but not rejecting it in its entirety.
The author’s opinion of the leading heroine starts to become apparent from the very beginning of the book. Hawthorne turns to symbols and metaphors to send his message to the readers. In the very first chapter, the writer describes a wild rosebush that is growing nearby the prison where Hester is put to serve her sentence for adultery. It is clear from the text that the author uses the symbol of rosebush to represent the main character. The writer contrasts the beauty of the flower with the ugly and depressing surroundings and emphasizes the glimmer of hope and comfort it provides. The wild rose bush is also an embodiment of the qualities that best characterize the heroine, which is her grace and untamed natural passion.
Although the author admires the protagonist, he also emphasizes the contradictions that are intrinsic to the character. In his book, Hawthorne shows both Hester’s sin and her virtue. Exceptional honesty of the woman exists alongside the deception and secrets the characters of the book have to live with. The author also describes Hester at the same time as accepting the humiliating outcast position and challenging the system of moral authority, defining herself, as opposed to being defined by others. The symbol of the scaffold that appears in different parts of the text serves as an embodiment of this ambiguity. The scaffold can be seen as a metaphor for guilt, shame, and humiliation, and that is what it was designed for. On the other hand, it might be perceived as a symbol of revelation and absolution. Moreover, standing on the scaffold, Hester is raised above the crowd, which might represent her superior moral character and the ability to stand out and take responsibility for her actions.
Ambiguity and contradictions inherent to the description of the events in the book and the protagonist herself are a hint to understanding the author’s opinion on Hester’s challenge to the system of moral authority. Hawthorne discusses different aspects of the relationship between an individual and society and shows how complex and nuanced it is. The writer does not entirely reject the moral system but emphasizes that it, by no means, should be seen as perfect. The events of the book describe how conformance and blind obedience to rules might result in tragedy, suffering, and ultimately ruin the lives of people. The fact that every person is an individual, but also a part of the state and society raises a question of how we should act. It can be derived from the book, that this question can be resolved only by acceptance of individual responsibility.
The example of the character of Hester Prynne is used to illustrate this idea. Hawthorne describes in detail the relationship of the protagonist with the puritan society where she lives and the attitude towards her position. A big part of the book is dedicated to the description of the heroine’s life and the way she raises her daughter and treats other people. The author again turns to symbolisms to implicitly indicate his position on the matter and stimulate the audience to think and develop their own opinion on this complex problem.
The scarlet letter Hester is obliged to wear that gave the name to the book plays a big role, providing insights into the author’s ideas. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist is forced to attach to her dress a letter “A” that stands for adultery. This mark is supposed to stigmatize her and make the women feel guilt and shame for what she has done. Hester does not try to avoid wearing this symbol and, even though she does not feel guilty, accepts the fact that people disapprove of her action. The young woman puts on the letter, but unexpectedly and to the frustration of puritans, she makes it look elaborate and elegant, thereby redefining the symbol. This shows the very complex attitude of the character towards her fate and society. Hester shows respect to the community and compliance with the rules, but at the same time reserves her right to define herself and be who she is.
The heroine challenges the flawed moral system not by rejecting or opposing it, but by keeping living her life virtuously despite her unfavorable position and providing an example of alternative behavior. Although she was rejected and stigmatized by people around her, Hester did not become hateful, resentful, or faith-departed. On the contrary, she accepted the situation and took responsibility for her own life and the raising of her daughter. By working hard, showing sincere compassion towards people, and living intact with her values, the young women regained the respect of the community.
It has been a long time since the book was written, but it is still relevant in modern times. Although moral standards now are very different from both the time when the novel was published and the puritan society where the story takes place, the question of the relationship between individual and society is eternal. People have always lived in groups and are social by nature, but conformance is dangerous. It is even more important to understand it in the twenty-first century, when freedom, opportunities, and access to better education make every person much more capable compared to people in the past. Progress in society depends on the collective effort of all individuals. In order to ensure that the social system we have built works properly in a constantly changing environment, we need to update and improve it. The best way one can contribute to it is by improving him or herself and taking personal responsibility. Hawthorne shows it to us in his book by endorsing the challenge of the heroine to the unfairness on the moral system with virtues behavior and strength of character.
Hawthorne, N. (2015). The Scarlet Letter. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.