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Written in 1849 and published in 1850, the novel The Scarlet Letter by American Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864), delves deeply into the concept of sin, the awareness of guilt, and the effects that religious fanaticism can have on human communities and individuals. The intention is to reflect on these aspects on the basis of the character of the main protagonists of the work, Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl. The main theme of this novel is guilt since the Puritans followed every ruling that religion said because of the belief that not behaving properly, people would go to hell. “Let her cover the mark as she will, the pang if it will be always in her heart” (Hawthorne, 46). This quote shows how, regardless of the fact that Hester had to carry that mark on her chest of embarrassment, that wasn’t necessary for her to feel the guilt from that sin and fear of going against her religion.
The historical context and the religious-spiritual climate in which the story takes place have a more than remarkable importance in the development of the facts and in the evolution of the characters, whose lives take place in very specific historical circumstances, perfectly known by the author of the novel. Firstly, the geographical place where the events take place: in Boston, in the colony of Massachusetts, between 1642 and 1649. That is, in the territory of New England. This story tells us of a young woman named Hester, who arrived in the new lands of America, where she met her ‘true’ love, but the prejudices of the people and the church would not allow her to live with it. One day she was given the sad news that her husband had died and as a way of consolation she decided to go and make love to the reverend, and as a consequence they had a daughter who is considered a bastard. Hester was judged and almost mistreated, but she was released having to pay a price in return: to carry the letter ‘A’ which means adultery for the rest of her life. Every day the reverend could not bear to see her in such conditions. In the end a war breaks out between the Indians and the settlers and he gives up and claims to end this guilt.
What stands out in this novel is the pity felt for the child, since Pearl was so young and could not have a normal childhood. Although later on becomes no longer an angelic child, but rather a martyr elf, with a changing character and a much wider vision of things than what could be expected from a child of her age. For example, when Pearl says to her father: “Thou wouldst not promise to take my hand, and mother’s hand, to-morrow noontide!” (Hawthorne, 143), and when her father refuses Pearl laughs and insults him. And at that time was only 2 years old and was also rare and out of the Puritans ideals. Not only is this the case with the rest, but with her mother Pearl also behaves strangely, as if he likes to martyr her by talking about herself as the fruit of sin and could well have been conceived by a demon. Sometimes it’s a bit of a drag, but it can be the mother’s imagination, or simply the effect of having been brought up in isolation.
Hester Prynne, even today, stands out as an icon of sacred femininity; precisely because her lover – the Reverend Dimmesdale – the one who has defended her body and honour, never presents himself as a hero; not even as a man who intends to rescue her from humiliation, but who reduces himself to the category of a rodent, a coward and a calculating man, moving in the shadows until finally guilt leads him to take his own life. The readers might think that this woman’s silence redeems her from any indiscretion which might have committed, and that this sinister scarlet letter, designed to mark the sin of the other, ends up being a symbol of greatness which at the end of this remarkable novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne is inscribed on Hester Prynne’s grave.
The message that this novel leaves is that one should not follow a belief only because it is dictated by superiors or society, everyone has the right to express one’s thoughts and feelings. Just as people should not judge other people for their actions. The Scarlet Letter also helps to open the eyes of its audience by showing how no matter how many people, it takes only one to make a person like Hester suffer infinitely.
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