Friday, December 23, 2011

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter, authored by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a historical novel based in, and written relatively shortly after early American puritanical times. Its focus is on a bleak New-England village that has crafted a limbo of Judeo-Christian order out of the vast North American wilderness.

The book was Hawthorne’s claim to fame, which he fervently produced after losing his job as a customs official. It is the culmination of his previous works, including short story and poetry, many of which also had philosophical and theological themes. Hawthorne himself was a transcendentalist, a self-actualized post Calvin movement, which he and his wife studied and practiced while living on a commune at brook farm, one of the earlier Utopian societies in America. After publishing the scarlet letter, Nathaniel’s career as a novelist took off, and he published several books before his death in 1864.

Like the majority of his work, in The Scarlet Letter puritan values are the neutral mud from which Hawthorne creates beautiful and articulate ideas from. Thus the story starts off with the village rabble fixing their gaze expectantly on the sturdy prison doors. Through speculation, it is learned that a woman is to emerge and be led to the pillory and be shamed before the village for her crime of adultery. As the doors open, our protagonist, Hester Prynne emerges, her shame evidenced by the babe in her arms and the blazing satin ‘A’ that the officials have fixed to her garment.

In the next scene, where she stands question from her station on the pillory sees most of the influential characters introduced. Her interrogator is Father Dimmesdale, the intelligent, youthful pastor, and opposite him in the crowd is Roger Chillingsworth, an aged, recently returned wanderer from Indian lands. The story is that Hester’s husband sent her from Europe to live in Boston, but that he never followed, and in the meanwhile Hester pursued a more meaningful relationship that produced her bastard child. She refuses to give away the identity of the father, instead taking shame for her own, and a classic whodunit is born.

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The first character to be brought into the light is Roger Chillingsworth. He poses as a doctor and naturalist and is brought to see to Hester in her cell. As they talk, it becomes obvious that he is her estranged husband. Despite the fact that, in this weird little outpost of humanity, he is constantly reminded of the ruin of their loveless relationship and must live in obscurity, it is here that he finds the most connection. He resolves to uncover the identity of her lover, and swears her to keep his identity and motives secret.

Several years later, Arthur Dimmesdale falls ill with a heart affliction, and Chillingsworth moves in with him to see to his medical needs. He finds that his condition is the result of mental and psychosomatic distress and becomes suspicious of a tie between his and Hester’s torment. Then, one day, Roger uncovers a parallel, self-inflicted letter A on Dimmesdale’s breast and the situation becomes clear.

Once all the key facts are brought out in the open, the rest of the book deals with the resolution of this sticky situation, and the character’s true relations to each other are made the clearer to see.

Hester’s struggle was with herself. Before the events of this story, she was a passionate and mercurial woman, full of life and love. It was not a fitting fate that she should be bound to the cold, vampiric Roger Chillingsworth, and indeed she found a way out of it when she met Arthur Dimmesdale. Whatever sin they may have committed, it was wrought out of a pure, complimentary love, and although the mark she wore was meant to symbolize evil and shame, in the end, it was only a mark. Hester acknowledged that her so-called sin was just another chapter in her life, and, understanding it, she embraced and incorporated it into who she was. The only step for her before she could truly move on then was to give her child a father.

Dimmesdale was not so clear and insightful when dealing with the situation. He denied act and internalized the shame, until it grew so great and terrible within him that his body could stand it no longer. But he also learned from and created with the pain, giving his followers original and meaningful spiritual advice to apply to their lives. He then gives one last, ultimate and eloquent sermon as his testament on earth and in the end, he realizes that in order to relieve himself before death he must make things right, and in a moment of braveness he ascends to his rightful place on the pillory beside Hester and his daughter. Pearl kisses him, and he falls into a merciful death.

Roger Chillingsworth is a sad story indeed. The man was twisted and troubled from the moment of his birth, and was never fully able to give and receive in kind. He instead fueled the cold hearth inside himself with the energy of others � he lingered on in this place only to exact revenge on Dimmesdale the adulterer, and was responsible for much of his cycle of denial and pain. But even the Pastor was able to come to peace with himself, and after the loss of Hester and his vengeance; he had nothing to sustain him and succumbed to fate.

This book was a stark account of the dogma, hypocrisy and sexism that too often defined colonial America. It is a story about how unnatural inhibitions and orders hampered what would have been two bright and successful lives. Even in the open township, where everything is supposed to be exposed to the judgment of god much is secret and shadow, and often one finds the essential human strength being locked away in kind. Yet, out of all the pain, and the isolation, and the wrongness that this backwards system did the people a questioning, contemplative way was born. Hester was able to put much constructive thought to the inequities and the problems of the social framework, and was able to help other women along their way, while finding her own place in the world. The conclusion of the book shows that often, the human spirit blazes brightest and clearest in time of trial and that there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain from embracing its innate truth and beauty.

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