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The Scarlet Letter: An American Story
The Americanism in Hawthorne’s Work
Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is a story that vividly details the extreme judicial and at times arbitrary practices of American’s first settlers. The Puritans, in search of freedom from religious oppression, greatly adhered to the rules and regulations of the society in which they founded.
Anyone who was guilty of breaking any social or religious convention in the community was severely punished and/or extradited from the rest of the group. The people who did not adhere to these rules were considered to be very low on the social ladder, and therefore needed to be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.
Hester Prynne is no exception to the tyrannical and judgmental behavior of the early Puritans. Because of one mistake, she is subject to live out the consequences of her adultery for the rest of her life.
For the rest of her life, in the novel, Hester is sentenced by the religious and judicial superiors of her community to wear a scarlet letter on her chest. Because of this punishment Hester, along with her fellow adulterer Arthur Dimmesdale, must endure the emotional and social weight of what she has done.
This story is truly an American one because it details the strict religious and social views of our nation’s earliest founders.
“The Scarlet Letter” is considered to be an American story because it explores the impact authoritarian religious beliefs have on those who are most militant in upholding their ideals and how those beliefs influence the characters in the novel. Religion, today, is still a very powerful influence on the lives of almost every one of the world’s citizens.
This was especially true for the Puritans. The concepts of sin and judgment were concepts the Puritans greatly upheld. Dimmesdale’s example of judgment is flawed in the novel. Not only does he engage in adultery with Hester but, as a minister, he fails to even change his sermon themes after the fact that he himself has engaged in the very activity he preaches against.
This is an excellent technique on Hawthorne’s part because even though he is exploring themes such as religious ideals, judgment, and sin he also examines the theme of hypocrisy in the character of Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale himself silently struggles with what he has done. It isn’t until the very end of the novel where he openly declares what he has done in front of his community. The book states, “With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed!”
At this point, he has revealed the scarlet letter that has been burned upon his chest and this is where he frees himself from his guilt…much to the dismay of the other Puritans. The impact authoritarian religious beliefs the American Puritans possessed were great, but they are especially devastating to the lives of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.
The religious beliefs of the Puritans are so authoritarian and judgmental that they lead both Arthur and Hester into emotional decline. Perhaps one idea the Puritans were not able to recognize in the novel regarding their treatment of Hester and Arthur was the idea of their own spiritual declension. Hester is degraded to such a humiliating and deplorable state.
By making her wear an object on her chest that would be a constant reminder to herself, and to others, of what she had done was very intense.
This action greatly shows how devastatingly intense the beliefs of the Puritans were and, because of this, we as the readers are able to obtain a glimpse into the past by witnessing what it must have been like for someone to defy the social and religions conventions of Puritan life.
In conclusion, “The Scarlet Letter” is indeed an American story because it gives the reader a peek into daily Puritan life and, by obtaining this peek, our notions about Puritan life are enhanced because the novel details the strict religious and social views of our nation’s earliest founders.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THIS?
I would definitely recommend this book. Originally published in 1850, "The Scarlet Letter" is an engaging work of literature. If you're someone who's interested in escaping into the fascinating views of a historical setting, then don't pass up Hawthorne's novel!
Disclaimer: I bought this novel with my own money at a local bookstore.
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