The essence of the hypocritical, paradoxical, intolerant and deeply religious American Puritanical society is ever omnipresent in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. His brilliant use of the Puritan society surpasses the setting and is molded into the demeanor of his characters and therefore highlights the intricacies of his theme. The rigid Puritan moral and social code reverberates throughout all aspects of the novel and Hawthorne allows The Scarlet Letter to be interpreted as a story of sins and sinners; where sin and its punishment are eternal and immutable.
His dark and gloomy tone seen throughout The Scarlet Letter seems to adhere to this way of thinking. But Nathaniel Hawthorne through his all-encompassing conflict between the restriction and piety of Puritan society and the desires and powers of individual underscores his bleak tone with a lighter one, which accentuates hope and romanticism. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne profoundly depicts Hester Prynne as a sinner and recluse in the Puritan society through his ominous tone, he has also been able to glorify Hester’s romanticism through an exultant tone – therefore bringing light into the eternal damnation that shrouds Hester.
Hawthorne submits Hester after her open “condemnation” (56) to the harsh, life-long “penance” (59) of the scarlet letter and suffers with silence. Even though Hawthorne depressingly describes Hester as “giving up her individuality” (56) and becoming a symbol of “woman’s frailty and sinful passion,” (56) he however deceptively omits the key fact that Hester Prynne does not regret her passion.
Consequently, even as the reader continues to believe that Hester’s passion was the fatal flaw, which caused her eternal damnation, Hawthorne is able to subtly interject hope and a justification for her belief in recognition of the desires and powers of the individual. If Hawthorne makes Hester willing to endure “the torture of the scarlet letter,” (120) it is because she is still in love and not because she is penitent. Her apparent “humility” (111) and patience conceal her devotion to her lover.
Hawthorne provides numerous intimations of her true feelings when he underscores his dreary and depressing tone with a lighter tone from the first scaffold scene – where he glorifies her idealism and the sunshine emphasizes her beauty and dignity of bearing – but it is in Hester’s meeting with Arthur Dimmesdale in the forest that Hawthorne fully reveals her secret. Here it is confessed that Arthur is for her the man “once – nay, why should we not speak it? – still so passionately loved! (132)
As the meeting in the forest flowers into a love scene, a drastic change is seen from the gloominess characteristic of other chapters; Hawthorne here is able to make Hester the very goddess of love, similar to the flood of sunshine which now pours into the forest is another outer manifestation of the same inner divinity. “Love, whether newly-born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.
Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s! ” (138) Here the deep force, which moves throughout the story, is at last called by its proper name – not as Hawthorne’s dark tone describes it as – “sin,” (47) “guilty passion,” (62) “shame,” (61) or “hypocrisy” (47) – but “love. ” (140) Even though Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes the scarlet letter as a badge of shame and a symbol of damnation by Puritan society, he at the same time is making it a powerful symbol of Hester’s identity – an identity that highlights hope.
The scarlet letter, the town magistrates condemned Hester to wear, was supposed to be an omnipotent symbol of her sin and an eternal “ignominy. ” (48) Hawthorne in line with his dark and gloomy tone made Hester cease to be a women, and be henceforth a living “emblem” (65) of guilt without redemption and suffering without end. Yet he ingeniously underscores his dominant tone, by shifting the meaning of the scarlet letter and undermining the rigid Puritan moral and social code that his main tone represents, and by doing this Hawthorne is thus able to interject hope and light into Hester’s most bleak situation.
In the midst of condemning Hester as an adulteress, he invokes “the image of Divine Maternity. ” (41) While once again he progresses to describe Hester’s life as one of restriction, orthodoxy and acceptance, he also continues to undermine his dark tone by glorifying the scarlet letter which now “meant Able” (110) because “so strong was Hester Prynne, with a women’s strength. ” (111) Hawthorne even goes a step further by saying that the scarlet letter now “had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom” (111) endowing Hester with “a kind of sacredness. (111) Hester Prynne, former pariah of Puritan society now makes a radical transformation into a pious model citizen.
Even though Hester cannot be saved from her eternal damnation, Hawthorne is somehow able to shed a little hope on her unhappy earthly life and bring out a few important qualities in her. Hawthorne also ingeniously illustrates how the scarlet letter is likewise a window into the human condition and this somehow allows Hester to “speculate”(113) about the Puritan society and venture past the strict limitations that this society had placed on independent thinking.
Questions like “Was existence worth accepting? ” (113), the statements regarding the role of “women” (113) and feelings that “society [should] be torn down”, all go to making Hester Prynne well ahead of her time and at the same time allowing Hawthorne to emphasize Hester’s independence and freedom of expression. The “hungry dream of knowledge” (53) is a very abstract theme in The Scarlet Letter but nonetheless a very important one.
Knowledge in one sense was a very crucial quality in the Puritan society and was connected directly with power, so Hawthorne by undermining the scarlet letter as a beacon of his dark and gloomy tone – emphasizes on the other hand a hopeful lighter tone where he glorifies her idealism, independence, and her hope The main conflict between personal identity and societal demands is cleverly revealed in The Scarlet Letter and is a sure representation of the two tones Nathaniel Hawthorne has used.
One which is his dominant dark, gloomy and depressing tone that clearly represents society with its many facets of intolerance, hypocrisy, rigidity, restriction and orthodoxy, and the other, the lighter more hopeful tone, which is distinctly used by Hawthorne to underscore this. However by subtly and cleverly interjecting periods of ‘cheering light’, he is able to go past the extraordinary insight he offers into the norms and behavior of the 17th century American Puritan society and thus is able to glorify the very things that were rejected by the Puritans such as, individuality, romanticism, and idealism.