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A study of the theme of oppression in The Scarlet Letter

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has committed adultery, and her subsequent bearing of an illegitimate child has cast her beyond the pale of polite society. It is difficult for us, in the late twentieth century, to comprehend exactly what this means. She is permitted to remain in Salem, and to work among the townspeople and interact with them. But she is never to be allowed to forget for a minute the enormity of her sin. To reinforce this, she is obligated to wear on her chest a huge embroidered “A” at all times. This may, on the surface, seem like a peculiar punishment; everyone in town already knows Hester’s story, and with Pearl in tow it would be difficult for Hester to act as if the thing never happened. But the wearing of the “A”, and more generally the way Hester is required to live, shows the extent of the religious oppression under which the Puritans lived.

Initially it would help to understand something about the background of the Puritan movement. The separation of the Puritans from the mainline Anglican church began in England in the late sixteenth century. Although England was nominally a Protestant country, the Anglican church had been created for political reasons, not religious ones, and the church established by the English monarchy was very similar to the Roman Catholic one they had just left. Carroll and Noble point out that many fundamentalist minded Protestants felt that Henry and Elizabeth’s reforms had not gone nearly far enough: “The Protestant dissenters objected to the ‘popish’ practices in the established church and hoped to further the reformation by eliminating such ‘impurities’. In particular, they wished to simplify the religious service by curtailing certain ceremonies, and they advocated the removal of higher church officials such as bishops and archbishops” (Carroll and Noble, 30).

All of these dissenters wished to purify the church, although not all wanted to separate from it. Carroll and Noble continue: “The Puritans, more moderate and more numerous than the Separatists, believed that the Church of England was a true church even though it desperately needed reformation. The Separatists, on the other hand, insisted that the established church was beyond salvation and felt that a believer who worshipped in that church would be contaminated by its sins” (Carroll and Noble, 30).

Both groups, which in America soon became virtually indistinguishable, were strongly influenced by the teachings of sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, who believed that God selected a few saints as His chosen people and condemned the remainder of humanity to eternal damnation. “Whether one was saved or damned depended not on human action or the quality of one’s life but rather on the inscrutable will of God. The Lord, according to the adherents of Puritanism, imputed His grace into the souls of otherwise corrupt people, thereby confirming their eternal salvation. This act of conversion became the central aspect of Puritanism, the single event that separated the saint from the sinner for eternity. Although in theory, a belief in these principles of predestination freed the saints from specific moral obligations in this world, Puritans expected believers to live godly lives on earth as a way of preparing for the comforts of heaven” (Carroll & Noble 30-31). And Edmund S. Morgan in his Visible Saints: A History of the Puritan Idea, observes that “A church, the Separatists insisted, must be composed entirely of persons who understood and accepted the doctrines of Christianity, submitted voluntarily to the church, and led lives free of apparent sin” (Morgan, 53).

Officially, Puritans were willing to acknowledge that occasionally even godly people fell from grace, possibly not as dramatically as Hester, but at least a little bit. They felt, however, that in order to return to communion with God’s saints, a public confession, not only of sin but also of repentance and abject subjugation to the will of God and the church community, was required. Edmund S. Morgan notes that among the Separatist churches, “in cases of adultery, the church refused to forgive unless the offender publicly expressed his repentance before the church. So attentive were the Separatists in their exercise of discipline that they finally found themselves maintaining that the failure to punish a single known offense was sufficient to destroy a church” (Morgan, 52). Looking at this in the context of Hawthorne’s novel, we can see that this is what the elders were seeking from Hester in Chapter 3, when Governor Bellingham says to Dimmesdale, “It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof” (Hawthorne, 64).

What they claimed to want was the name of the child’s father. What would this have accomplished? Certainly it would have ended Dimmesdale’s career, and subjected him to the same type of treatment given Hester. On this point, the Puritans were no supporters of the double standard. And, except for allowing Hester to remove the letter “A” from her chest, identifying the father would not have helped her at all if in fact she does not believe that confession will save her immortal soul.

Craig Milliman has written an entire article for the magazine The Explicator on Hester and Dimmesdale’s veiled meanings when they address each other in this scene. Dimmesdale is caught between a rock and a hard place; the Governor has ordered him to try to get Hester to identify the father of her child, who, of course, is Dimmesdale himself. To have Hester confess this would ruin him; therefore he phrases his words in such a way that they sound good for the general public, but contain an entirely separate level of meaning for Hester alone (Milliman, 83). He speaks, Hawthorne tells us, in a voice “tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken” (Hawthorne, 65). The audience perceives this as reflecting the depth of his pastoral feeling for the young sinner. It certainly reflects his depth of feeling for Hester, he loves her, but it reflects just as much his terror at the situation in which he finds himself, and his fear at what she might say.

Consider his words: “If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne, 65). What he is hoping is that she will decide that ruining his reputation would in no way add to her soul’s peace. He twists the knife by pointing out that not only is he a fellow sinner with her, but he is a fellow sufferer as well. He concludes his speech with: “Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!” (Hawthorne, 65). Again he is speaking on two levels, trying to say what a caring pastor would say on the one hand and trying to get her sympathy on the other. He is saying, “Your part in this is out in the open, manifested in the presence of the child. What good would it do you to involve me, who has not the courage to involve myself? Can’t you see I’m suffering with you as it is?” She apparently buys this argument, because she refuses to tell the crowd his name, and keeps her letter “A” with pride. In Mara Dukats’ words, “Hester transforms the sign into a complex and ambiguous symbol, one that signifies both Puritan control and domination, and the refusal and delegitimation of this control” (Dukats, 51).

John K. Roth notes that “The Puritan intention of bringing the sinner into submission has the opposite effect upon Hester, who, with a pride akin to humility, tenaciously makes a way for herself in the community. As an angel of mercy to the suffering, the sick, and the heavy of heart, she becomes a living model of charity that the townspeople, rigidly enmeshed in their Puritan theology, are unable to emulate. Hester’s banishment hardens her pride until, as she says to Dimmesdale in the forest, their act has ‘a consecration of its own.’ The adultery, in short, achieves a validation quite outside the letter of the Puritan law” (Roth, 78). As Roth points out, in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne presents Puritanism as an extreme form of legalism: a reduction of moral values down to a list of do’s and don’ts. Hester, on the other hand, finds her own moral guide in the witness of her heart.

We could ask why she does not move out of town to a place where she is not known, somewhere she could simply set herself up as a widow with a small child and continue living the virtuous life she would have led under normal circumstances anyway. Admittedly, there are several important strikes against her making such a move. To begin with, she is a woman, and it was unheard of and probably suicidal for a woman to travel alone unaccompanied; in addition, it is unlikely that there would have been any settlements nearby where her reputation would not follow her in very short order. Nonetheless, she shows herself to be a woman of great ingenuity and recourse, and it would seem that with some assistance she certainly has an ally in Dimmesdale; a covert relocation to another colony could have been managed.

However, Hester gives no indication that she wants to leave. On the contrary, she seems to feel that her presence there makes some sort of moral statement to the townspeople. She has found a method of making a stable living, doing fancy needlework for ceremonial and ritual use, which allows her to support herself in a respectable fashion. As busy as her clients keep Hester, however, Hawthorne tells us that she still has time to put her needle working to personal use as well. The two things she chooses to ornament with such intricate embroidery are significant: the letter “A” she is forced to wear on her chest, and Pearl’s little clothes.

On the surface, it may seem odd that Hester should embroider with costly gold thread the scarlet letter she is forced to wear as a badge of her shame. That she does so shows that in fact, she does not wear this letter as a badge of shame at all, but as a badge of pride. The adulterous act gave her Pearl, the being she loves most in all the world and, it should be noted, she also dresses flamboyantly. By adorning her “badge of shame” with the type of embroidery normally reserved for magistrates and proscribed for plebeians, she is quite deliberately setting herself apart from her society, just as she reminds the community of her presence there.

And why is it so important for Hester’s presence to be obvious? Because by her virtuous behavior she casts shame on the society that cast shame on her. She will not accept Salem’s religious oppression, but she will not allow herself to be chased out of town, either. Just because she has borne a child out of wedlock does not make her bad, or even fallen; she is, on the other hand, imbued with a very special grace. But it is a grace she has forged herself, rather than a grace extended to her by Puritanism. Hester lives within, and yet “beyond the pale” of, the oppression of Puritan society because by her very presence there she is setting an example of self-actualization, and that is the loudest statement she can make.

Works Cited

Carroll, Peter N. and Noble, David W. The Restless Centuries, Burgess Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1973.

Dukats, Mara L., The Hybrid Terrain of Literary Imagination: Maryse Conde’s Black Witch of Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, and Aime Cesaire’s heroic poetic voice. (Third World Women’s Inscriptions)., Vol. 22, College Literature, 02-01-1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, Aerie Press edition.

Milliman, Craig A., “Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter.'” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)., Vol. 53, The Explicator, 01-01-1995.

Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1963.

Roth, John K. American Diversity, American Identity. Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1995.

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