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Literary Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Book, The Scarlet Letter

When a person or character makes a mistake or commits an affective act, their life can be altered both negatively and positively. This idea takes an important contribution in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This novel focuses solely on Hester Prynne: as the protagonist of the novel, she is outwardly “imprisoned” through alienation and isolation for committing the sin of adultery, which is against Puritan belief. As the novel progresses, she faces and deals with negative effects as well as positive effects due to this sin. These effects that take place help support many of the overall themes of the novel and the message of sin Hawthorne is trying to get across to the reader, one of these important themes relating to identity and society.

In the novel, Hester’s sin had various positive effects on her life. Her experience from this sin has made her an overall more mature person. When her punishment of the scarlet letter had first begun, she had felt ashamed and embarrassed as all of the townspeople stared at and shamed her for wearing the letter. Yet, as time went on, Hester’s proto-feminist thinking led her to realize that she needs to not accept the town’s judgement of her. Once her punishment is completed and she is authorized to take the letter off, she refuses, claiming that doing so would be meaningless. This event represents her showing the power she possesses over authority, which she did not have when her punishment first started. The meaning of the letter then changes from “adultery” to “able,” as in she was successfully able to overcome her sin. She learns to accept her imperfection as a part of herself rather than struggle through it, turning it into something “beautiful.” Hester also starts doing charity work by bringing food and clothes to the less fortunate and connecting with them spiritually, making it clear that she did not let her sin bring her down and destroy her as a person.

As well as positive effects, Hester’s sin had negative effects on her life. Once the scarlet letter was attached to her, she was immediately isolated and shunned from society. The townspeople symbolized the scarlet letter “A” as something shameful and something to look down upon. The public nature of Hester’s punishment allows the citizens to compare their choices to Hester’s, justifying their own bad behavior with the “could be worse” act. As a result of these judgements of the townspeople, Hester is made out to be a “living sermon,” having her humanity taken away. Although the scarlet letter affected Hester positively, some negative effects came along with her also.

These ideas of the positive and negative effects of the scarlet letter on Hester lead to Hawthorne’s message of identity and society. Identity is a very critical part to this novel. While, on the adverse side, the townspeople are avoiding her, Hester chooses to accept her sin as a part of who she is rather than struggling through it. After all, her “sin” was caused by a need and want for love. Throughout this novel, Hester demonstrates strength and defiance to the Puritan society with the letter “A.” She turns this letter into something beautiful and refuses to make it a symbol of shame, not letting one “sin” define who she is as a human being. Going alongside with identity, society takes an important role in Hawthorne’s message. The presence of Pearl, Hester’s baby daughter, shows the irrelevance of the citizens’ attempts of shame and punishment. As the citizens focus more on the scarlet letter rather than Pearl, this shows their failure to see the real consequence of Hester’s “sin.” These positive and negative effects on Hester’s life lead up to the theme of identity and society in the novel.

All through The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne advances through a roller coaster of conflicts and positives, such as becoming a more mature human and being isolated by her fellow Bostonians and townspeople. As Hester goes through these results of the scarlet letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne attempts to execute the theme of identity and society in the novel. The positive and negative effects on Hester Prynne help build the overall meaning and base of this novel.

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