The Scarlet Letter

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The Vintage edition of The Scarlet Letter

“The Scarlet Letter” is a novel that set in a seventeenth century puritan settlement in Boston. In the book the story of Hester’s life is told by a narrator after two hundred years later. The story revolves around Hester, who committed adultery and give birth to a little girl that she has to raise by herself. The story examines the hypocrisy and the destructive power of intolerance for sexual disobedience based on the norms of society and the hegemony that the norms of society inflict on women relinquishing their sense of self vis-à-vis their identity of being Women. The book also examines the influence of institutions on the organization and structure of family, norms, and society. Other important characters in the book are Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth is Hester’s husband who seeks revenge on the man that seduced his wife. Dimmesdale in the other hand seeks penance for the sin he committed. In many ways the book questions the rules and norms set by the institutions that restrict people from creating their own identity and expressing themselves.

There’s No Place Like Home

Hawthorne writes in the mid-19th century where the private sector emerges as a crucial part of society. During this time period, urbanization, immigration, and industrialization all played major roles in separating the home, or private sector, from the working, public sector. Life outside of work, specifically life at home, was given a private discourse carried out only by only the family. Work life, on the other hand, took place in a public sphere where actions would be discussed and mistakes criticized. No matter how much scrutiny one received at work he could return home to his privilege of privacy at home and escape constraints establishing and advocating social norms. The Scarlet Letter is set in a time where the veil of privacy is given to those who stay within the laws and norms of society. When anyone steps beyond these boundaries their faults and punishment must be conveyed completely in the public domain.

A Woman's Rightful Place

Opposite to Hester, who is always alone without any friends, the two men, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, are always each other's company. Hawthorne did not like what were called "domestic novels" that he thought his contemporary women writers were producing, so he tried to be different from them, separating Hester from the men and leaving her alone outside the social norms and boundaries. Hawthorne's feminism is apparent at the end of the novel, when Dimmesdale dies and Chillingworth dies too after a short while. Hester is the one who survives through the turmoil, and after this tragic event, she leaves the town with her daughter Pearl. She seems stronger and rougher than the two men are, which represents how different she was from other usual 'domestic' women characters in the contemporary novels that Hawthorne tried to challange.

Hester Prynne is almost the only female character in the novel. Through her isolation from the community, and the norm that is represented by the community, she becomes a very unique figure. Hawthorne's sympathy for her is evident throughout the novel. By making her alone with the letter A, Hawthorne recreates her characteristic which is very different from those 'normal' and 'domestic' women's within the community. Hester is desexualized when she is wearing the letter A, but at the same time it is what makes her stronger and helps her to overthrow domesticity and submissiveness. By being outside the norms, Hester reaches social freedom that other townspeople are not able to have, making them envious. At the same time, she emphasizes the existence of 'norms' by being outside of it, thus establishing the norm in her own way as an outsider.

Taking a Stand

In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault’s ideas of truth about sexuality moving between lines of public and private designating the power roles describes the actions of all the characters in The Scarlet Letter. The law of marriage regulates sexuality while norms regulate the manner in which Puritan Boston society acts and moves in the world. Forced to publically confess, Hester not only loses her identity as a female, but also is controlled by both the law and society. No matter how much she contributes to the community, the public profits from her isolation by creating a norm that her actions do not fit in. Through the creation of the norm, the institutions enforcing it, such as the law and the church, have power over Hester; those with the privilege of secrecy and those carrying out the discourse of her actions and sexuality also hold a power over her. Gossip allows the public's crimes to be overlooked or kept secret through the continuing discourse of the adultery that took place years ago.

Free Lovers

Mary Gove Nichols, Victoria Woodhull, Angela Heywood, Lois Waisbrooker, and Lillian Harman are among nineteenth-century reforms known as “Free Lovers”. Free Lovers in the early 20th century undertook to challenge the norms and structures of their societies. These women refused to conform into society norms and challenged the code of Victorian sexual norms by providing encouragement to those who are outcasts of society, similar to Hester. They were not libertines who wanted to reform social ridicule but rather sought to educate the socially uninformed members of society through public awareness. The Free Lovers are recognized for their contribution to transform society. Despite the Comstock Act, they discussed the emotional and erotic experiences of men and women in the press.

Women did not have the initiative to question the social norms unless they were forced to reside outside the social norm. But the Free lovers are unique in that they strived to change the norm without feeling the burden. Free lovers sought to liberate women from the insidious sexual desires of men.hey made a conscious decision to liberate their own sexuality and gender. The Free lovers voluntarily took on the role of being “moral outsiders”. They urged women to defy social conventions, take back their bodies, the church and state seem to own but what’s rightfully theirs. The Free Lovers advocated for women to break away from Victorian sexual and marital ideology which assumes the existence of a separate sphere.

The A in Agency

Hester's place ment into the public eye gives her insight into other’s private sectors; she is given the opportunity to have a view of the privileged secrecy given to others. Many in the Puritan society envy her because, as an outsider, she can think and act outside of society’s constraints, almost defining her as a creature of superiority. Those inside of the norms use gossip to carry the story and as a way to isolate and control Hester in an attempt to conceal their own transgressions.

An Open Book

In the chapter “The Interior of a Heart” the narrative moves from the public sector, through gossip, to the private sector where Dimmesdale’s anguish, caused by secrecy and his desire for a public punishment comparable to Hester’s, shows itself through his actions of remorse and self punishment. His truth is conveyed in his final speech before his death, but the written style of his confession causes it to serve as a public discourse, and further as a chance for the townspeople to think for themselves. Dimmesdale’s strange speech changes from first to third person, signifying as Michael Gilmore says, that he almost seems to be speaking of someone else. Separating him from the crime, his speech allows him to die unquestioned and seemingly absent from the ‘crime’ and confession altogether. By not specifically associating himself with the crime and leaving the public questioning the truth Dimmesdale preserves some power which Hester, the verified center of the controversy, never receives. By basing his novels in the Puritan society, where the public sector defines and determines how people live their lives, Hawthorne creates a connection between the public of Puritan Boston with Americans of the nineteenth century. Michael Gilmore shows this connection specifically through Dimmesdale’s final speech where the townspeople are left to decipher their own meaning to his confession and by relating this to the individualized thinking of his time. The presence of personal ideas and thoughts set in a time and place where only the public view is accepted establishes them as forerunners of modern people, thinking, and discourse, which leads to a private sphere. Gilmore elaborates by describing the three main characters of the novel, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, as modern characters who, in their secrecy, develop the private sector valued greatly in Hawthorne’s time and even in current times, making them truly modern characters.

The Scarlet Letter through The History of Sexuality

Who does the speaking?

In the Scarlet Letter an unnamed narrator who writes some two hundred years after the events he talks about took place, he tells the story of Hester. The narrator seems to know too much about each character and with clear intention of making Hester Prynne a heroine. The narrator asserts his own interpretation and opinion on the events that he describes. Readers can identify in the narrators tone that he is critical of the community and their norm. He compares their way of living to communities in the Frontier and Europe to emphasize their flaws. They the story is told it seems that the narrator is trying to promote change in people’s view of gender roles, structure of family, and societal norms. Also the way he introduces Hester and talk about her life is through the town's people and the authority figures that judge her for her sins. It is interesting that though Hester’s life is told through the people that condemned her for what she did, she was not portrayed in bad way. This story could have been told from Hester’s or Dimmesdale’s point of view but I don’t think it would have the same effect on the readers. The narrator allows the reader to look at Hester’s life from the outside in perspective to her relationship with other characters, her position in the community and mainly her relationship with her daughter and Dimmesdale.

What Institutions prompt people to speak?

The church and the government authorities prompt Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale (Hester’s partner in crime) to own up to their sins. In the Providence there was no separation between church and state—both the bible and the statute book were used to govern the town. This allowed the church to have a moral authority over the people and forced them to confess to their sin in order to receive forgiveness. The government has the ability to punish those who violate the law and norms of the society in correlation with the church’s rule. For committing adultery Hester was forced to stand in the middle of the market place for three hours and wear the scarlet letter on her bosom for the rest of her life. Hester was not interrogated by a lawyer when she was in the market instead she was asked by the minister to confess her sins in front of the whole town this shows that Hester’s sins were a matter of the church rather than a legal matter that concerns the state. It also reflects the power of the church to influence how the community construct it norms and values.

What are the positions and viewpoints which they speak?

The church and the state as institutions that promoted people to talk about Hester’s sexual transgression, they were expected to fix the damages caused by Hester’s action by making an example out of her. The People in the Providence used Hester’s sexual transgression as an excuse to talk about sex. They gossiped and talked about Hester’s past, present, and future as a consequence of her action. The women were outrage by her action; they took it very personally as if her action represent and shamed all the women in the town. One of the women even suggests death as a possible punishment; “this woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!” (56). They were afraid once women start acting upon their pleasure rather than obligation; the whole structure of the society will fall apart. Hester’s sin was discussed in public and in private something that was not done before—it allowed them to establish boundaries on social norms, sex, and family. The subject of sex was confined to the bedroom of husband and wife and because of Hester everyone now discussed it. The church and state try to maintain their authority on the people by punishing Hester and condemning her action—that did not keep the people from talking about sex. The scarlet letter A help to keep the discourse of sex from going back to the private sphere.

How has the family established a system for including or excluding individuals or groups based on race or class?

In “The Scarlet Letter” the institution of family also promoted people to speak about Hester’s sins and was able to bring the discourse of sex and sexuality to the public. The institution of family also established a system for including or excluding individuals based on their status in society. Hester was a sinner and she was excluded from the institution of family. Because she was excluded her ability to raise her daughter—Pearl—was questioned by the church and the state. In her part the exclusion allowed Hester to raise her daughter in a way she wanted—she was able to create a family that did not match the standard set by the community for the structure of family. In the story Hester’s exclusion gave her an insight in the lives of the other characters. Because of her exclusion from the family Hester was liberated from the norms that limited people’s role in the society. For example because Hester was excluded from the family she was able to create her own identity, provide for her family, and be able to keep her head up though she was wearing a letter of shame. Hester was not ashamed of the scarlet letter; she embraced it and gave it a different meaning. At the end of the book the people in her community were quoted saying the A stand for “angle”.

Works Cited

Lora Romero : “Homosocial Romance: Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Home Fronts: Domesticity and its Critics in the Antebellum United States. London: Duke UP, 1997. 89-105.

Michael Gilmore. "Hidden in Plain Sight: The Scarlet Letter and American Legibility". Studies in American Fiction. 29.1 (2001): 121-28.

Jesse F. Battan. “‘You cannot fix the scarlet letter on my breast!’: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America. Journal of Social History 37.3 (2004): 601-625.

Gayle Rubin. “The Traffic of Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Woman. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. 157-185, 198-200.

--Erinhoff 00:20, 29 May 2008 (EDT)