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scarlet-letter

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter is the magnum opus of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who gives birth after committing adultery and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne explores themes of legalism, sin and guilt.

Plot summary

The novel begins in 17th-century Boston, Massachusetts, then a Puritan settlement. A young woman, Hester Prynne, is led from the town prison with her infant daughter in her arms and the scarlet letter “A” on her bosom. The scarlet letter "A" represents the act of adultery that she has committed and it is to be a symbol of her sin – a badge of shame – for all to see. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester's husband, who is much older than she is, sent her ahead to America while he settled some affairs in Europe. However, her husband never arrived in Boston. The consensus is that he has been lost at sea. While waiting for her husband, Hester has apparently had an affair, as she has given birth to a child. She will not reveal her lover’s identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her public shaming, is her punishment for her sin and her secrecy. On this day Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child’s father.

The elderly onlooker is Hester’s missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself Roger Chillingworth. He settles in Boston, intent on revenge. He reveals his true identity to no one but Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and Pearl (her daughter) grows into a willful, impish child, who is more of a symbol than an actual character, said to be the scarlet letter come to life as both Hester's love and her punishment. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but, with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, an eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister’s torments and Hester’s secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers something undescribed to the reader, supposedly an "A" burned into Dimmesdale's chest, which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.

Dimmesdale’s psychological anguish deepens, and he invents new tortures for himself. In the meantime, Hester’s charitable deeds and quiet humility have earned her a reprieve from the scorn of the community. One night, when Pearl is about seven years old, she and her mother are returning home from a visit to the deathbed of John Winthrop when they encounter Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. Hester and Pearl join him, and the three link hands. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl’s request that he acknowledge her publicly the next day, and a meteor marks a dull red “A” in the night sky. It is interpreted by the townsfolk to mean Angel, as a prominent figure in the community had died that night, but Dimmesdale sees it as meaning Adultery. Hester can see that the minister’s condition is worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale’s self-torment. Chillingworth refuses. She suggests that she may reveal his identity to Dimmesdale.

Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest because she is aware that Chillingworth knows that she plans to reveal his identity to Dimmesdale, and she wishes to protect him. While walking through the forest, the sun will not shine on Hester, though Pearl can bask in it. They then wait for Dimmesdale, and he arrives. The former lovers decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release, and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. The sun immediately breaks through the clouds and trees to illuminate her release and joy. Pearl, playing nearby, does not recognize her mother without the letter. She is unnerved and expels a shriek until her mother points out the letter on the ground. Hester beckons Pearl to come to her, but Pearl will not go to her mother until Hester buttons the letter back onto her dress. Pearl then goes to her mother. Dimmesdale gives Pearl a kiss on the forehead, which Pearl immediately tries to wash off in the brook, because he again refuses to make known publicly their relationship. However, he too clearly feels a release from the pretense of his former life, and the laws and sins he has lived with.

The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever. Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing the mark supposedly seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead just after Pearl kisses him.

Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows what has happened to them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who was rumored to have married an European aristocrat and established a family of her own. Pearl also inherits all of Chillingworth's money even though he knows she is not his daughter. There is a sense of liberation in her and the townspeople, especially the women, who had finally begun to forgive Hester of her tragic indiscretion. When Hester dies, she is buried in "a new grave near an old and sunken one, in that burial ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both." The tombstone was decorated with a letter "A", and it was used for Hester and Dimmesdale.

Major themes

Sin

Sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result of their knowledge, Adam and Eve are made aware of their disobedience, that which separates them from the divine and from other creatures. Once expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are forced to toil and to procreate – two “labors” that seem to define the human condition. The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge – specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself more “boldly” than anyone else in New England.

As for Dimmesdale, the “cheating minister” of his sin gives him “sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrate[s] in unison with theirs.” His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy. The narrative of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is quite in keeping with the oldest and most fully authorized principles in Christian thought. His "Fall" is a descent from apparent grace to his own damnation; he appears to begin in purity. He ends in corruption. The subtlety is that the minister is his own deceiver, convincing himself at every stage of his spiritual pilgrimage that he is saved.

The rosebush, its beauty a striking contrast to all that surrounds it – as later the beautifully embroidered scarlet A will be – is held out in part as an invitation to find “some sweet moral blossom” in the ensuing, tragic tale and in part as an image that “the deep heart of nature” (perhaps God) may look more kindly on the errant Hester and her child (the roses among the weeds) than do her Puritan neighbors. Throughout the work, the nature images contrast with the stark darkness of the Puritans and their systems.

Chillingworth’s misshapen body reflects (or symbolizes) the evil in his soul, which builds as the novel progresses, similar to the way Dimmesdale's illness reveals his inner turmoil. The outward man reflects the condition of the heart.

Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is as a symbol. Pearl herself is the embodiment of the scarlet letter, and Hester rightly clothes her in a beautiful dress of scarlet, embroidered with gold thread, just like the scarlet letter upon Hester's bosom. Parallels can be drawn between Pearl and the character Beatrice in Rappaccini's Daughter. Both are studies in the same direction, though from different standpoints. Beatrice is nourished upon poisonous plants, until she herself becomes poisonous. Pearl, in the mysterious prenatal world, imbibes the poison of her parents' guilt.

Past and present

The clashing of past and present is explored in various ways. For example, the character of the old General, whose heroic qualities include a distinguished name, perseverance, integrity, compassion, and moral inner strength, is said to be “the soul and spirit of New England hardihood.” Now put out to pasture, he sometimes presides over the Custom House run by corrupt public servants, who skip work to sleep, allow or overlook smuggling, and are supervised by an inspector with “no power of thought, nor depth of feeling, no troublesome sensibilities,” who is honest enough but without a spiritual compass.

Hawthorne himself had ambivalent feelings about the role of his ancestors in his life. In his autobiographical sketch, Hawthorne described his ancestors as “dim and dusky,” “grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steel crowned,” “bitter persecutors” whose “better deeds” would be diminished by their bad ones. There can be little doubt of Hawthorne’s disdain for the stern morality and rigidity of the Puritans, and he imagined his predecessors’ disdainful view of him: unsuccessful in their eyes, worthless and disgraceful. “A writer of story books!” But even as he disagrees with his ancestor’s viewpoint, he also feels an instinctual connection to them and, more importantly, a “sense of place” in Salem. Their blood remains in his veins, but their intolerance and lack of humanity becomes the subject of his novel.

Public response

The Scarlet Letter was published in the spring of 1850 by Ticknor & Fields, beginning Hawthorne's most lucrative period. When he delivered the final pages to James Thomas Fields in February 1850, Hawthorne said that "some portions of the book are powerfully written" but doubted it would be popular. In fact, the book was an instant best-seller though, over fourteen years, it brought its author only $1,500. Its initial publication brought wide protest from natives of Salem, who did not approve of how Hawthorne had depicted them in his introduction "The Custom-House". A 2,500-copy second edition of The Scarlet Letter included a preface by Hawthorne dated March 30, 1850, that he had decided to reprint his introduction "without the change of a word... The only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor... As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives".

The book's immediate and lasting success are due to the way it addresses spiritual and moral issues from a uniquely American standpoint. In 1850, adultery was an extremely risqué subject, but because Hawthorne had the support of the New England literary establishment, it passed easily into the realm of appropriate reading. It has been said that this work represents the height of Hawthorne's literary genius; dense with terse descriptions. It remains relevant for its philosophical and psychological depth, and continues to be read as a classic tale on a universal theme.

The Scarlet Letter was also one of the first mass-produced books in America. Into the mid-nineteenth century, bookbinders of home-grown literature typically hand-made their books and sold them in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of The Scarlet Letter, 2,500 volumes, sold out within ten days, and was widely read and discussed to an extent not much experienced in the young country up until that time. Copies of the first edition are often sought by collectors as rare books, and may fetch up to around $6,000 USD.

On its publication, critic Evert Augustus Duyckinck, a friend of Hawthorne, said he preferred the author's Washington Irving-like tales. Another friend, critic Edwin Percy Whipple, objected to the novel's "morbid intensity" with dense psychological details, writing that the book "is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them". 20th century writer D. H. Lawrence said that there could be no more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter.

Allusions

Film, TV and theatrical adaptations

  • 1917: A black-and-white silent film directed by Carl Harbaugh with Mary G. Martin as Hester Prynne
  • 1926: A silent movie directed by Victor Sjostrom and starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson.
  • 1934: film directed by Robert G. Vignola and starring Colleen Moore
  • 1973: Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe a film directed by Wim Wenders in German
  • 1979: PBS version starring Meg Foster and John Heard
  • 1994: A rock musical, "The Scarlet Letter" written by Mark Governor is produced in Los Angeles.
  • 1995: The Scarlet Letter, a film directed by Roland Joffé and starring Demi Moore as Hester and Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale. This version is "freely adapted" from Hawthorne according to the opening credits and takes liberties with the original story.
  • 1996: The film Primal Fear references The Scarlet Letter.
  • 1996: The Marilyn Manson promotional video for the song 'Man That You Fear' obliquely references the novel.
  • The Red Letter Plays (In The Blood produced in 1999, and F--ing A, produced in 2000) by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, adapts elements and themes from the novel as the basis for the two contemporary plays.
  • 2001: A musical stage adaptation which premiered at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Stacey Mancine, Daniel Koloski, and Simon Gray.
  • 2004: The Scarlet Letter is a Korean noir-thriller featuring an adulteress' monologue, that mentions a plan to raise her unborn child as Pearl in America, in a desperate plea to exit her obsessive affair.
  • 2008: "shAme" , a rock opera by Mark Governor based on "The Scarlet Letter" premieres in Los Angeles. It is a major reworking of his 1994 stage musical that was also produced in Boston in 2000 and as a radio production in Berlin in 2005. The 2000 version was endorsed and presented by the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society.

References to the novel

Literature

  • The 1993 novel The Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee re-wrote the story, placing it in present-day Boston, Colonial America, and seventeenth-century India during the spread of the British East India Company.
  • Deborah Noyes wrote a companion to this novel entitled Angel and Apostle with Pearl as the main character.
  • Postmodern writer Kathy Acker borrows from The Scarlet Letter in her novel Blood and Guts in High School. Janie, the main character, identifies with Hester Prynne and intertwines their stories in a vulgar manner.
  • In the novel Speak, Hairwoman, the English teacher, refers to The Scarlet Letter in her lesson. The novel's protagonist, Melinda Sordino, is a freshman in high school who is ostracized from her fellow schoolmates during the school year, much as Hester Prynne was ostracized by the Puritans in Boston.
  • Maryse Condé's novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, although set at the time of the Salem witch trials, also features the character Hester Prynne.
  • The title of Jhumpa Lahiri's 2008 novel Unaccustomed Earth comes from a passage from the introduction to The Scarlet Letter: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Music

  • The song "Love Story" by country singer Taylor Swift, from her second album Fearless, is based on star-crossed lovers Romeo & Juliet and includes the line "You were Romeo, I was the scarlet letter."
  • The band Halifax have a song entitled "Scarlet Letter Part 2" on their EP "A Writer's Reference".
  • The band As Blood Runs Black titled their song "Hester Prynne" including lyrics that hint towards sin.
  • The Music Man character Harold Hill sings a line in the song "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" about his desire for a strong-willed woman: "I smile, I grin, when the gal with a touch of sin walks in. / I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more 'A'."
  • The band Trophy Scars refer to the title of the book in the opening lines of their album Alphabet. Alphabets. There are also other allusions to the novel over the course of the album via a similar theme and lexical device. In a recent interview to Absolute Punk, Jerry Jones, the band's lead singer said "I did indeed adopt Nathaniel Hawthorne's motif for his book The Scarlet Letter".
  • The Virginia-based Hip-Hop group The Clipse refers to Hawthorne in an unreleased track from their 2006 album Hell Hath No Fury. Pusha T delivers the line "Like a Scarlett letter, for the world to see" on a song called "Pussy" which was later released on their mix tape album We Got It 4 Cheap: Vol. 1.
  • The band Sweetbox references it in their song "Chyna Girl", in which vocalist Jade sings "And now my scarlet letter burns".
  • American composer Robert Ward composed a ballet in 1994 for the Winston-Salem Piedmont Triad Symphony based on the novel.
  • American composer Stephen Paulus composed a monodrama opera in 2003 entitled "Hester Prynne at Death" (to a text of Terry Quinn) based on the novel.
  • The Casting Crowns song "Does Anybody Hear Her?" includes the line; "Can't see past her scarlet letter/And they've never even met her."
  • The rosebush is referenced in the song "Don't Forget Me" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the

line; "I'm the rainbow, in your jail cell, all the memories of everything you've ever smelled."

  • The Tool song "The Grudge" deals with the themes of forgiveness and guilt, referencing the novel with the lyrics "Unable to forgive your scarlet letterman"
  • The Say Anything song "People Like You Are Why People Like Me Exist" mentions the line "Repressed and overdressed with a Scarlet Letter on your chest."
  • The Hole song 'Old Age' references the book with the line "No one knows she's Hester Prynne".
  • The Project 86 song titled "Salem's Suburbs" contains the lines "They put on disguises today/To hide the scarlet letters/That each of us has put so far away."
  • The Jag Panzer Song Titled "The Scarlet Letter" on the album "Mechanized Warfare"
  • The band Pat The Human has a song called Prom Night With Hester Prynne.
  • Tori Amos "Scarlet´s Walk". The main character Scarlet is inspired by the book "The Scarlet Letter" In the first the song of the album "amber waves" Scarlet meets a porn-actress, who become an object of contempt.

Television

  • An episode of the America teen drama Popular was based around each of the main characters confessing their Scarlet Letter.
  • In an episode of Mama's Family, Mama is frustrated in her attempts to read the book because of its language until Iola points out to her that the book is actually a romance with lots of scandal, then Mama is able to read it.
  • The show One Tree Hill features an episode with a voice over by character Lucas Scott where a quote from The Scarlet Letter is used.
  • In "Easy-Bake Coven" plot The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VIII, Edna Krabappel is seen wearing a scarlet letter 'A'.
  • In Grey's Anatomy, the episode "Who's Zoomin' Who?", George is trying to get Olivia to say she had slept with other men. He says "it's not like I'm handing out Scarlet Letters or anything."
  • In "Reno 911!," the episode "Son of a "Chechekevitch" (2006), Deputies Weigel and Kimball answer a 911 call at the Reno Renaissance Fair, where someone sticks a red "A" on the chest of a very pregnant Weigel.
  • In the movie "Speak" Melinda Sordino and her class are studying symbolism with The Scarlet Letter as reference material, Melinda narrates "why couldn't he just say what he meant? Would they pin a scarlett letter on his chest? S for staight forward."
  • In an Episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Lara Flynn Boyle, Boyle plays "Hester" but instead of an "A" on her chest, it is the letters "BJ". Later in the sketch, Will Ferrell comes on to the scene wearing the letters "HJ" and "BF"
  • In an episode of Twin Peaks, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) identifies herself as Hester Prynne while attempting to gain employment at a brothel.
  • A reference to The Scarlet Letter is made in hit medical drama House (TV series). In episode "Insensitive", Dr. Lisa Cuddy asks Gregory House, "Do I need to stitch a letter on my tops?" when he finds out she had brought a man home after a first date.
  • In the Nip/Tuck episode "August Walden", a female character, seeking free correction of a oversized red birthmark on her face, asks plastic surgeon Christian Troy whether he has read the novel. He responds that he had "in college", and the woman says that her mother has always referred to her birthmark as her "scarlet letter".
  • In Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, episode "The Library", Myra, a former prostitute, reads the book, which will later be one of the reasons to close the library.
  • In a 2008 episode of MADTV there was a song with John Edwards singing about his affair. He had a Red "A" on his shirt

Culture

Richard Dawkins's Out Campaign for atheism uses a red scarlet "A" on webpages and clothing as an emblem of atheist identification.

Tennessee has drivers convicted of DUI wear vests advertising this fact while on roadside litter pick-up duty. This is a badge of shame similar to the original scarlet letter.

See also

References

External links

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