I wish I had read this book with my book club, or in a class setting, because the different themes expressed throughout this entire book I found fascinating, and would have been fantastic to discuss throughout reading it.
The following passages give plenty of info about the story, so if you haven’t read the book and don’t like spoilers, you should probably stop reading now.
A quick plot guide: In an early American Puritan society, Hester Prynne is held for public scorn with her new baby in her arms. She refuses to release the name of her accomplice in sin, but he stands in front of her and the public as a revered minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Her older husband appears back on the scene, and, though he holds no ill against her (he realizes he never should have convinced a pretty, passionate, able bodied, young thing such as her to marry an older secluded man like himself), he swears to discover her accomplice and seek revenge on him. Unknown to the community, he takes on the persona of a one Roger Chillingworth, and settles there as an apothecary. Pearl, Hester’s little girl, is a perplexing creature. Hester puts the child’s oddities and wayward behaviour to the result of being born from an erroneous sinful passion. Seven years go by, and we see the effects of this one mortal sin on all four parties involved.
Hester’s punishment is to forever wear a scarlet letter “A” on her breast. She becomes an outcast, and settles just outside of town with her daughter, Pearl (aptly named for being of great price, purchased with all Hester had). Hester has a skill for sewing, and makes her living with it. But the years of her circumstances as a result of her sin wear an effect on Hester that she otherwise would not have known.
Knowing no love from others, she sees the life before her as her penance for her sin. She gives to others, receiving nothing in return. She becomes a help, a servant to those who persecute her. Over time, her persecutors view turns to a kind of appreciation for her abilities. The Scarlet Letter “A” becomes a symbol of her calling, a beacon of comfort to those who require assistance. “…With nothing now to lose, in the sight of mankind, and with no hope, and seemingly no wish, of gaining anything, it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had brought back the poor wanderer to its paths. …None so ready as her to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty…She came not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble; as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled to hold intercourse with her fellow-creatures…There glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort in it’s unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token of sin, it was the taper of the sick-chamber…In such emergencies, Hester’s nature showed itself warm and rich; a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world’s heavy hand had so ordained her…The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her – so much powder to do, and powder to sympathize – that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength…the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enables her to walk securely amid all peril…”
Hester’s knowledge of her sin and the affects it has on herself, her daughter, and the man, humbles her somewhat choleric nature, giving her an understanding and sympathy for fellow creatures. But at the same time, it strips her of her natural beauty. She does not care for others out of love, but rather out of penance. Her outward beauty disappears beneath a cold, harsh front. “The effect of the symbol […] on the mind of Hester Prynne herself, was powerful and peculiar. All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline… Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone a similar change…austerity of her dress…lack of demonstration in her manners…her rich and luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a single lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine.
Her natural femininity evaporates as the reality of her sin releases itself. With the disappearance of her outward beauty, so too her inward beauty is lost. She no longer possesses the tender feminine affection looked for in a woman by child and man to love and comfort them. In a sense, she ceases to be woman. She becomes a creature of ash, numbingly plodding along in her tasks, unaffected by others, unable and undesirous of loving others as a woman is meant to. “…there seemed to be no longer anything in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon; nothing in Hester’s form, though majestic and statue-like, that Passion would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in Hester’s bosom, to make it ever again the pillow of Affection. Some attribute had departed from her, the permanence of which had been essential to keep her a woman…”
Having committed a grievous sin against purity, arguably a woman’s most valiant virtue, Hester slowly ceases to be woman in the soulful sense of the name. All the beauty and other virtues of woman are “crushed so deeply into her heart that it can never show itself more”. Woman are meant for love in tenderness and affection, to nurture others, self-sacrifice. In return we are to be cared for, cherished, and loved. When woman goes through a trial of such harsh elements of scorn and lack-of-love, her feminine heart is crushed within her, leaving not a woman at the surface, but a shadow of what once was a woman. It only takes a touch, a true whisper of Love to draw her femininity back out, so she may once again be woman as she is called to be.“…Such is frequently the fate, and such the stern development, of the feminine character and person, when the woman has encountered, and lived through, and experience of peculiar severity. If she be all tenderness, she will die. If she survive, the tenderness will either be crushed out of her, or […] crushed so deeply into her heart that it can never show itself more. The latter is perhaps the truest theory. She who has once been a woman, and ceased to be so, might at any moment become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to effect the transfiguration.” – ch. XIII
Arthur Dimmesdale’s punishment is to suffer through the silence of his sin. No one knows of his sin but Hester and Roger Chillingworth (who discovers his victim through observing Arthur’s interior turmoil). His sin causes interior anguish, a depressing loss of hope, as well as a deeper passion for truth, which is brought out in his sermons. As he gains esteem in his ministers position through the eyes of his parishioners, he is also tormented by his falseness towards them because his sin with Hester goes unknown by those who hold him in such high regard. He is disgusted with himself, not because of his sin, but because of his lack of owning his sin to others. He sees Hester suffering alone and longs to suffer with her, but he believes himself too much a coward to own his grave sin, and instead suffers the more for his pride in position. Being a thoughtful and faith filled man, he becomes pathetic for his lack of hope and courage. “…To the high mountain-peaks of faith and sanctity he would have climbed, had not the tendency been thwarted by the burden […] of crime or anguish, beneath which it was his doom to totter. It kept him down, on a level with the lowest; him, the man of ethereal attributes, whose voice the angels might else have listened to and answered! But this very burden it was, that gave him sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs…when poor Mr.Dimmesdale was thinking of his grave, he questioned with himself whether the grass would ever grow on it, because an accursed thing must there be buried! It is inconceivable, the agony with which public veneration tortured him! It was his genuine impulse to adore the truth, and to reckon all things shadow-like, and utterly devoid of weight or value, that had not its divine essence as the life within their life. Then, what was he? – a substance? – or the dimmest of all shadows? He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell the people what he was…a pollution and a lie!”
Arthur tortures himself interiorly, and clasps as at the scarlet letter “A” burned into his own heart. He lives with a constant weight of sin upon him, unable to release himself of it. He takes to physical penance, flagellates himself until bloody, and fasts until his body weakens under starvation. His sleep is tremulous, he suffers diabolic influence, haunted by vision of demons and his loved ones turning away from him and his sin. “His inward trouble drove him to practises…In Mr.Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom […] to fast […] rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance…He kept vigils […] night after night […] with a glimmering lamp […] viewing his own face in a looking-glass…he tortured, but could not purify himself. […] his brain often reeled, and visions flit before him […] now a herd of diabolic shapes, that grinned and mocked at the pale minister and beckoned him away with him […] now a group of shining angels, who flew upward heavily, as sorrow-laden, but grew more ethereal as they rose… now came the dead friends of his youth…his white-bearded father with a saint-like frown, and his mother turning her face away as she passed by…and now […] glided Hester Prynne, leading along little Pearl, in her scarlet garb, and pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast.
Arthur’s falsehood takes away his truth of being. Presenting himself to the world falsely, (or so he believes), his tangibility disappears. He is reduced to merely a creature of pain and turmoil, having no reality but the knowledge of his sin and the effects of it. His physical health diminishes with his mental health. He struggles to hope, thinking himself merely the shadow of the man he used to be, incapable of growing back into a man of integrity. […] at any moment, by an effort of his will, he could discern substances through their misty lack of substance, and convince himself that they were not solid in their nature…But, for all that, they were, in one sense, the truest and most substantial things which the poor minister now dealt with. It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit’s joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false – […] – it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist. The only truth that continued to give Mr.Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect. Had he once found powder to smile, and wear a face of gayety, there would have been no such man! – ch. XI
Roger Chillingworth, a man of thought and study, befriends Arthur Dimmesdale and devotes his time to manipulating and careening Dimmesdale’s soul to deeper and deeper levels of turmoil. In his quest for revenge, hatred’s grasp grows tighter and tighter on his own soul, until his fiend-like being is consumed entirely by it.
Hester sees this once respectable intellect transformed into a creature of darkness. She encourages him to forgive, and withdraw from the evil that has so consumed him. But Roger Chillingworth has grasped the talons of evil so willingly and so tightly, that he no longer believes he is a free soul, to forgive and ask forgiveness, to live with peace and contentment as he once did. Do not many souls so far down the path of sin do the same thing? When someone says they’re “going to hell anyways” with a chuckle, I shudder. Does the reality of hell not scare you? Do you look forward to eternal torture with beings so evil that God Himself cast them out of heaven? Despair is what opens hell’s gate to you. As long as we have hope, there is a chance to turn from evil. Roger Chillingworth allows himself to be consumed by evil, and in return, consumes evil himself. It is a vicious cycle, only to be broken by a ray of hope, shining a thread of good into the soul.
“…for the hatred that has transformed a wise and just man to a fiend! Wilt thou yet purge it out of thee, and be once more human? If not for his sake, then doubly for thine own! Forgive, and leave his further retribution to the Power that claimed it! I said, but now, that there could be no good event for him, or thee, or me, who are here wandering together in this gloomy maze of evil, and stumbling, at every step, over the guilt wherewith we have strewn our path. It is not so! There might be good for thee, and thee alone, since thou hast been deeply wronged, and hast it at thy will to pardon. Wilt thou give up that only privilege? Wilt thou reject that priceless benefit?”
“Peace, Hester, peace!” replied the old man, with gloomy sternness. “It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as thou tallest me of. My old faith, long forgotten ,comes back to me, and explains all that we do, and all we suffer. By thy first step awry thou didn’t plant the germ of evil; but since that moment, it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend’s office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man.” – ch. XIV
There are so many themes in this book, I should have kept notes as I read. It is a very interesting look into sin, it’s affects on the sinner, it’s victims, and over-all repercussions. Male vs. female reactions to the same sin, different personally types reaction to the same sin, how sins against purity affect the child, how human interaction, genuine affection and care, can encourage atonement and hope. Finally, how sin, whether visible to the world or not, is indeed on each one of us. No one is free of it – save the Blessed Mother. How you respond to your sinful nature affects your life, and afterlife.