Hester’s Isolation and Alienation in The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale have committed adultery, an unacceptable sin during the Puritan times. As a result of their sin, a child is born, whom the mother names Pearl. Out of her own free will, Hester has to face major punishments. She has to serve many months in prison, stand on the scaffold for three hours under public scrutiny, and attach a scarlet letter, “A” on her chest every day as long as she remained in the town of Boston. The letter “A” was to identify Hester Prynne as an adulteress and as an immoral human being. “Thus the young and the pure would be taught to look at her, with the letter flaming on her chest”, also “as the figure, the body and the reality of sin”(73). Holding on to sin can lead to alienation and isolation.
One reason Hester was alienated was her refusal to identify the another adulterer. When Hester is released from prison and stood upon the scaffold, she was asked to reveal the name of whom she committed the sin with. Having a heart blinded by love Hester choose to stay in the town and wear the scarlet letter “A” instead of revealing the other adulterer. She faced society only to protect and be close to the man she still loved. The “impulsive and passionate nature” (54), which to Hester seemed pure and natural had to be faced with humiliation alone, without the partner of sin. It seemed as though she was paying not only her own consequence but that of her lovers as well. Saying so herself while standing on the scaffold “I might face his agony as well as mine!” (64). Now taking on all blame she has given “up all her individuality. Now she would become the “general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion” (73). After the sin had been revealed Hester never again felt she was accepted by society. It seemed to her as though “every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished” (78) from the town. Hester was unable to walk through town without a child babbling a rude gesture or strangers eye upon her bosom.
After the crime of adultery was known to all, Hester’s appearance changed completely. Her clothing and the way she wore her hair changed from being beautiful and revealing to plain and common. It seemed Hester tried to blend in as much as possible and to go unnoticed. Her “ornament,- -the scarlet letter,–which was her doom to wear” (79) shown out quite obviously to everyone throughout the town. Assuming the encounters with the scarlet letter would have some kind of effect of immunity was quite the opposite of what truly happened. “From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callus; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive to daily torture”(79).
Hester and Pearl were placed outside of town in an abandoned cottage away from all habitation. Small children would sneak up to catch a glimpse of the scarlet letter. After they had eyed it from the window they would “scamper off with contagious fear” (75) as if the scarlet letter burned like fire. Hester’s great skill in needlework probably saved her from dying of loneliness because she hadn’t “a friend on earth who dared to show himself” (75). And though Hester was most likely the best seamstress in Boston, she was unable to embroider a wedding vale for any bride. The white vale symbolized purity and the hands of Hester were not pure. This was one specific area in which society alienated her.
Holding on to sin can lead to alienation and isolation. Hester’s sin was that she fell in love with another man and committed adultery with him. If Hester could have let the love for Dimmesdale free and named him as the other adulterer she would not have suffered so badly from the isolation and alienation that she did.