The Scarlet Letter | Yesterday's independent woman
In 1850, author Nathaniel Hawthorne published what would become one of the greatest works of American literature, as well as one of the first novels to be mass-produced. Despite being set in Puritan Boston during the XVII century, The Scarlet Letter: A Romance is not a completely accurate depiction of those times. As the original title remarks, it is instead a romance, a story of love, feelings and endurance.
What is closer to the truth is the introductory frame to the story, in which a nameless narrator, working in the Salem Custom House, finds a manuscript bundled with a scarlet piece of cloth with the gold-embroidered letter “A.” The manuscript tells the story of Hester Prynne, the main character of Hawthorne’s book. As the nameless narrator, the author himself worked at the Boston Custom House, with whom he also shares a negative view of Puritans, mixed feelings towards his ancestors, and the intent to write a romance.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
A scarlet letter, an ‘A’ for adultery, is what Hester is forced to wear for the rest of her life, for the sin she committed. Her former husband, now disguised under the name of Roger Chillingworth, tries to extort from her the name of the child’s father. But Hester refuses to tell, and she does reveal it neither to the judge nor to Arthur Dimmesdale, the church minister. She rather endures the humiliation and raises her daughter Pearl alone, prey of malevolent looks, displaying with pride the blood-coloured letter on her chest.
As the years go by, Pearl grows lively and restless, and the villagers threaten to take her away from her mother. After speaking in Hester’s defence, Dimmesdale starts to fall ill, and Chillingworth offers to cure him. Once in close contact with him, Chillingworth, who stayed for years in search of Hester’s lover, begins to suspect the church minister, claiming that his illness is due to his unconfessed guilt.
A symbol of resistance
The scarlet letter, which marked Hester’s life and obsessed the small Pearl, will carry on through the lives of all the main characters involved. Despite assuming different meanings for each one, it is mostly the sign of Hester’s acceptance of her punishment, and refusal to confess the guilty man’s name. When first adorned with the letter, Hester walks with calm and composure. In the following years, she will help the poor and needy, all while raising Pearl alone.
Hester would be today a symbol: not only a symbol of bravery and inner strength, as opposed to Chillingworth’s malice and Dimmesdale’s inner torment, but also a symbol of freedom, a woman who faced the unjust law and popular belief to retain dignity. The only things that shake her composure are Pearl’s fate and, when endangered, her lover’s heart. The Scarlet Letter is a romance, but one constrained by legality and religion and exposed to the villagers’ whispers and judgment. In such an oppressive place, Hester’s solitude might be her escape rather than a burden.
Many directors adapted Hawthorne’s book into movies with the same title, the most famous being the works of Victor Sjöström, Wim Wenders and Roland Joffé. But The Scarlet Letter‘s themes are often found in other stories as well, such as Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”Nathaniel Hawthorne
When reading The Scarlet Letter today, it is not difficult to consider the religious dogmas and XVIIth century laws as the main oppressors of Hester’s love and freedom. Hawthorne’s convoluted prose describes an uncertain world, where people don’t show their true faces and keep secrets. A world whose inhabitants have little control over the ignorance that makes them menacing to the protagonists. But it is scarier to think that all of Hester Prynne’s conditions are still permanent in present times, in a wide range of transparency and entity depending on countries and situation, but oftentimes not less grave.
Like many other great stories of oppression and persecution, The Scarlet Letter is a powerful book that uses the past to make readers realize something about the present. In any country, at any time, Hester’s story is sadly relatable to someone, making Hawthorne’s most famous work a timeless novel, a dark romance where love is overshadowed by customs and institutions, and the most powerful feeling turns out to be guilt.