Nathaniel Hawthorne’s legendary novel, The Scarlet Letter, gets a bad rap.
It’s set in the Puritan town of Boston, Massachusetts in the 1640s, a time during which the church dictated literally everything about society: not only public policy and government, but also private morality. Hawthorne introduces his main character, Hester Prynne, as she begins what will be a lifelong punishment for the sin of adultery—public condemnation via a scarlet letter ‘A’ worn on her breast.
Since her dalliance produced a child, she is jailed until her daughter, Pearl, is born. Pearl’s first glimpse of the world outside the jail is the faces of her community, lined up to bear stern witness to the horror of her mother’s sin and cleanse her with their disapproval. The object of this ceremony is simple: they require Hester to name her lover so that he can take his place alongside her on the scaffold and submit to a similar sentence. Readers know the lover as Arthur Dimmesdale, the town’s pastor and the one standing alongside the officials administering Hester’s punishment. But Hester stares him and the rest of the town in the face and steadfastly refuses to snitch.
Quite a set-up, eh? A tribe of unforgiving Pharisees condemning a defiant young mother, while her hypocrite of a lover looks on and lends his pastoral blessing in support of the verdict.
The rest of the story takes place over roughly seven years as Pearl grows into a precocious child. All the while Hester keeps her secret, refusing to betray Dimmesdale to his parishioners. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale harbors the guilt of his sin, torturing himself physically and emotionally over his hypocrisy.
Finally, unable to bear the pain any longer, he confesses before the public in the town square and expires on the scaffold, going to his eternal rest and leaving Hester to finish out her lonely life in shame.
It’s easy to look at this story and make a couple of quick thematic assumptions:
1. Hawthorne thought very little of Christian morality. After all, that which keeps Hester apart from her lover, and her daughter Pearl apart from her father, is merely the intolerance of a puritanical, moralistic society.
2. Hawthorne must be elevating passion above morality and advocating adultery, or at the very least supporting a lenient view of punishment since our protagonist refuses to accept that her adulterous love was, at its heart, wrong.
3. And lastly, since the ultimate freedom comes not from the townspeople’s attempts to legislate morality, but instead from Hester and Dimmesdale’s own actions, Hawthorne is surely exalting the individual, and denigrating the role of the church community in a person’s Christian walk.
It’s hard to see how any vision of “Truth” or “Morality” can be upheld in such a story—Hawthorne seems so bent upon tearing down the church, the law, and Christians themselves.
As I said above, however, this story gets a bad rap. I do not believe we are intended to read this as a cautionary tale, warning readers to be true to themselves or to reject moral judgment as hatred. You see, the more one looks deeply into the heart of Hester Prynne, the more one sees a stiff neck, refusing to acknowledge her sin. Hester is not cast out by her community, but rather by her own bitterness and pride.
Perhaps the most potent evidence of this fact lies in the scarlet letter itself, and in its incarnate symbol, Pearl. Early in the story, on the very steps of the jail, Hawthorne describes the letter which Hester has been forced to create for herself. It is, in a word, resplendent. Not only has Hester chosen gaudy and luxurious silk as her medium, but she has further embossed the ‘A’ with golden thread, so that it shimmers and catches the eye. The defiant tilt of her jaw as she walks, chest out, into the sunlight implies that Hester has created a new, haughty image for herself. This letter will not define her—or at least if it will define her it will be a lavish and winning facet of her persona. Put simply, Hester’s letter points back at the people who stand in judgment and defies them to force shame upon her. They can make her wear this badge, but they cannot make her accept its meaning in her heart.
This unyielding attitude is even more apparent in Hawthorne’s description of little Pearl’s garments. Hester is a seamstress, and one of remarkable talent. While she wears nothing of bright color on her own person, save her scarlet letter, she creates for Pearl a wardrobe full of spectacular scarlet garments so like the letter that even the townspeople comment on the likeness. Hester is proud of her daughter, and she is proud of her love for Dimmesdale. Nothing like true conviction has entered her heart, and nothing her accusers do can encourage that conviction. Hawthorne confirms this suspicion, stating, “the Scarlet Letter had not done its office” (Ch. 13).
In contrast to Hester’s outward penitence and inward rebellion, Arthur Dimmesdale outwardly maintains a façade of innocence, while internally wallowing in self-hatred. Under the influence of Hester’s disguised husband Roger Chillingworth, Dimmesdale grows to view his own blameless reputation as necessary to the spiritual health of his congregation—he deceives himself into believing he hides his sin for their sake, and takes his punishment into his own hands. He refuses to sleep, and he ritualistically brands his own scarlet letter ‘A’ into the flesh of his chest. But none of these acts of remorse have the power to free him. As he puts it to Hester, “of penance I have plenty, of penitence, none.”
Both lovers suffer from the same malady—an unwillingness to repent before their fellow man. Their saving grace, fittingly, is their daughter Pearl, the scarlet letter herself, both the symbol and the reality of their sin. This is where the perfect beauty of Hawthorne’s novel starts to shine through.
Pearl has an eerie, knowing way of aggravating her mother and father’s guilt. She’s merely a little girl, and has no way of comprehending the moral freight that accompanied her entry into the world; and yet, she constantly makes snide reference to the letter on her mother’s breast. She often points to the minister, and asks her mother why he holds his hand over his heart (a particularly chilling moment to readers, who know precisely what sore he harbors beneath his pastor’s robes). She, not only in her her clothing but in her personality and mere existence, acts as a present reminder to her mother and father of their sin.
In this, Pearl functions as a sort of Christ-figure—Jesus took on the flesh, both physically in body and spiritually in nature, of his followers and redeemed them by carrying their shame. Pearl does the same for her parents in a pivotal scene in the woods outside of town.
Meeting him secretly, Hester convinces the guilt-ridden Dimmesdale to run away with her, leaving the town behind and making a home for Pearl far away. The sheer relief of dropping her penitent performance fills Hester with reckless joy. Tearing the letter from her breast, and throwing it away onto the forest floor, Hester calls to Pearl, eager to introduce her to her father for the first time.
At this summons, Pearl steps fully into a role she has been flirting with throughout the novel and points to her mother’s breast, refusing to come one step nearer until Hester returns the scarlet letter to its place. To put it even more bluntly, Pearl takes one look at her parents, on the verge of running from true conviction and repentance, and demands that they own their sin, own their daughter, and take up their crosses. This, folks, is Christianity.
Hester and Arthur cannot find absolution on their own, either by modeling penance without penitence, or repenting privately to avoid true transparency. The specter of their sin calls them continually to vulnerable repentance, as little Pearl asks, “Doth he love us?...will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?” (Ch. 19)
Hawthorne’s final message to us details the only true path to the kind of freedom all we sinners long for—walking in the light with one’s fellow man. As Dimmesdale, confronted by his daughter’s rejection of his cowardice, climbs the scaffold and bares his own blistered scarlet letter, we see a true depiction of our common dependence on forgiveness, and on our brothers and sisters to administer it, no matter their relational or moral qualifications. Hawthorne’s townspeople are moralists. They are withholding of forgiveness. They are puffed up with their own righteousness. They display an utter lack of compassion at every turn. But that doesn’t change their central importance to Hester and Dimmesdale’s redemption—in standing "above" the common people, wielding “true” understanding that they do not possess, Dimmesdale imprisons himself in the self-same hypocrisy he sees in his congregation, and until he steps down from his pulpit and joins them in the mud there can be no freedom for anyone.
Dimmesdale’s congregation, his lover, and his daughter all need him, but not to model a perfect life of devotion to God. They need him to model the Christian life: brokenness before one’s Redeemer, and His body, the church. We’re all broken like Dimmesdale, and equally unfit to judge ourselves. We must all confront devastation and failure of a caliber we are afraid to imagine, and even more afraid to walk willingly into. But, as Hawthorne movingly depicts, freedom lies in just that: willfully initiating ourselves into a wider community of transgressors, where repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are a feature of every true story.
Perhaps, in the end, The Scarlet Letter gets a bad rap for a good reason—perhaps we fear what Hawthorne is saying. Perhaps we’re afraid that in looking into the depths of Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy we will see ourselves, staring defiantly back at us and demanding that we identify with him. I know that is what I have found there. But in painting that figure so starkly, Hawthorne has not only confronted us, but also offered us a stirring hope. Having struggled alongside Arthur Dimmesdale, perhaps, in our hour of need, we too will be given the grace to say, “tempter, methinks thou art too late.”