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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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We live in a permissive society. By and large, the law only bothers us when we bother the other guy. There is no law to tell us what to wear, how to think, or whom to love. In Puritan New England, life was vastly different. There, laws covered just about every aspect of life. Not surprisingly, human nature revelled against such strict supervision. Certain impulses and emotions, passion foremost among them, would not be denied.

In the love of Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne tells the story of one such rebellion. In a very real sense, the lovers are criminals. Their passion is a violation of the rigid Puritan civil and religious code. As wild as the forest which shelters it, the love of Hester and Dimmesdale asks us to weigh the justice of society's laws against the claims of human nature; that is, against men and women's most deeply felt desires and needs.


The individual vs. society. Law vs. nature. These are really just different terms for the same basic conflict. Hawthorne is a Romantic writer with a Romantic subject: a rebel who refuses to conform to society's code. Most of us instinctively side with the rebel, the nonconformist. But society in this novel has a good deal to be said for it. It has assurance, dignity, strength. We can argue that Hester is right in her assertion that fulfillment and love are worth fighting for. And we can argue, with just as much validity, that society is right in its joyless insistence that adultery is a crime deserving of punishment.


Hawthorne, as a descendant of Puritans of the deepest dye, is the heir to a strong tradition of sin. Puritan theology began with the thoroughgoing conviction of sin. After Adam's fall, every man and woman was thought to be born an awful and vile sinner, who could be redeemed only by God's grace (not by good deeds or by any actions which lay within human control).

Now, Hawthorne is a 19th-century man of enlightenment. He is not a Puritan. Nevertheless, he is, morally speaking, something of a chip off the old block. As a writer, he is utterly immersed in sin, in the wages of sin, in the long odds on redeeming sin.

The Scarlet Letter is a study of the effects of sin on the hearts and minds of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. In every case, the effect is devastating. Once these characters stumble into evil, they flounder about as if in a morass. Sin changes the sinners. It darkens their vision and weakens the spirit's defenses against further temptation.

And yet, sin also pays some unexpected dividends. Sin strengthens Hester. It humanizes Dimmesdale. Hawthorne, departing from his Puritan ancestors, considers the possibility that sin may be a maturing force.

If sin is an encompassing shadow in the The Scarlet Letter, redemption is, at best, a fitfully shimmering light. Chillingworth never seeks redemption at all. Hester looks for it in good works, and fails to find it.

Dimmesdale alone undergoes the necessary change of heart to find a doubtful peace.


Is there really a war waging inside us between our emotions and our reason? Hawthorne thinks so, and he's pretty sure which side he wants to win. The heart leads Hester and Dimmesdale astray, but the intellect- untempered by feeling, mercy, humanity-thoroughly damns Chillingworth. Hawthorne comes down on the side of the heart.


Hawthorne's Puritan New England is a world which encourages duplicity. So much is forbidden that almost everyone has something to hide. Hawthorne's characters walk around in daylight with pious and sober expressions on their faces. But once they get home at night and lock the door, they pull out their secret thoughts and gloat over them like misers delighting in a hidden stash of gold.

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