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Commentary on The Scarlet Letter Essay



"The Custom House" became the prologue to The Scarlet Letter. The auto biographical essay served as a literary device, with the appearance of a mysterious scarlet letter, and laid out Hawthorne's definition of the romance as different from the novel.

The Scarlet Letter attained an immediate and lasting success because it addressed spiritual and moral issues from a uniquely American perspective. In 1850, adultery was an extremely daring subject, but because Hawthorne had the support of the New England literary establishment, it passed easily into the realm of appropriate reading. The Scarlet Letter represents the height of Hawthorne's literary genius; dense with terse descriptions. It remains relevant for its philosophical and psychological depth, and continues to be read as a classic tale on a universal theme.

In the opening scene Hester Prynne appears wearing a decorated red gown. The scene shows the truth of a puritan society that expresses its identity through the hard and merciless punishment of sin, making a public spectacle of the sinner. No one can deny that she is an adulteress, the clearest evidence is the baby she carries in her arms. With the letter A in her dress she becomes a marked woman, an instrument of moral education for the entire group.

What we are presented with is a society that has no place for doubt or for the discrimination of fine shades of meaning in moral action. All offences are equally terrible in the eyes of the puritans. From the example of Hester it is only too patent that every single person living is marked from the very moment of birth, a fate they can neither evade, struggle against, nor deny.

In The Scarlet Letter only one thing is known - Hesters sin - and only one person is on display. The identities of both her husband and her lover remain unknown; Hester does not disclose them to the community.

For the puritans, human nature was essentially fixed, petrified at birth as a distinctive and closed fatality. Nevertheless, Hawthorn sees human nature as gifted with a distinctive dynamism that can work its way through moral categories, from evil to good. Hester's transgression meets with an extreme reaction from the puritan community. By degrees, the puritan community learns to live with Hester, for, as Hawthorne comments, Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will ever be transformed to love.

Wearing the letter Hester gains clarity of herself while Arthur Dimmesdale, tormented by inner demons, can never achieve this, and is only through Hester's influence that Dimmesdale can summon up the courage to speak the truth publicly. He was fatally split between his public role as a minister and his secret identity.

The moral significance of truth telling is far greater than any practical or prudential wisdom, summed up in such a phrase as Honesty is the best policy. For Dimmesdale to have failed to make this discovery is almost for him to have lost his soul already.

Hester's public shaming, which opens the book, is symbolically answered by a corresponding scene closing the book, in which Dimmesdale, Hester as his wife and their daughter Pearl will finally stand together before the assembled community.

In The Scarlet Letter the spirit of liberty and revelry is victorious.

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