A is for Alone
American culture has consistently defined itself in contrast with the other. Beginning with the first settlers and their Native American counterparts to white land owners and slaves, Americans have identified themselves with what they are not. Men are not women; free people are not slaves; whites are not black; we are not them. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne dramatizes the American desire to define the other (and thus define themselves) in his characters Hester Pryn, Pearl, Reverend Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth. Each of these characters is ostracized in different ways. Hesters act of sin isolates her from the greater Puritan society. Pearl is isolated because of her status as a child conceived out of wedlock, and her behavior results in further isolation from her peers. Reverend Dimmesdale is isolated from his faith because of his sin and guilt, but is ironically embraced by the larger community. Chillingworths all consuming quest for vengeance isolates him from his own humanity as well as larger society. The identity of these them characters is based entirely on their otherness from the larger we of Puritan society.
Hesters isolation from the Puritan community begins before her adulterous affair. She is a single woman settling in a Puritan community without a husband. She did not marry from any affection for her husband as she reveals when speaking with Chillingworth in her jail cell. She is alone physically, but also has no friends to replace the lacking love for her husband. Hester is extremely beautiful and a very talented seamstress. She was "young" and "tall" with "dark and abundant hair so glossy that it threw off the sunshine," and "deep black eyes." She was "lady-like" and could be "characterized by a certain state and dignity rather than [as] delicate" (Hawthorne 50). These physical characteristics set her apart from the tradition women of Puritan American.
Hester is fated for isolation because of the Calvinist views of sin held by Puritans. By sinning in this way, Hester has all but proven she is not a member of the elect, those who are predestined to go to heaven. This sets her apart from the larger Puritan community which is working so diligently to prove to themselves that they are destined for heaven. One of the reasons Hester is never fully accepted into her society is because of the visibility of her sin. She must wear a scarlet A on all of her clothing as dictated by her theocratic government, but more importantly, she carries the living embodiment of her sin, her daughter Pearl, with her at all times. Hesters visible sin is a constant reminder to them that they may burn in Hell with Hester out of no single decision of their own. Because of this, they define Hester as the other in order to give comfort to and define themselves.
Hesters sin also had implications for the result of that sin: her daughter, Pearl. Physically, Hester and Pearl are isolated because they move into a house "on the outskirts of the town, [...] not in close vicinity to any other habitation, [...][and] out of the sphere of that social activity" (Hawthorne 74-5). Hester and Pearl choose live alienated and alone with only each other for companions. Hester refuses to implicate Dimmesdale in the sin with her, denying Pearl an earthly father. This results in an abnormal childhood for Pearl, which isolates her further from Puritan society and her peers. Not only is Pearl "born [an] outcast" (Hawthorne 86) because of her mother's mistakes, but by default, she must now grow up in a strictly religious society with only one parent. Pearl is often compared to imps, elves, or demons and she has a natural wildness about her that alienates her, in her own right from the Puritan society. After the confession and death of Dimmesdale, Pearl moves away with her mother and never again returns to New England. Because of the alienation experienced as a child, alienation that was inherent in her from birth, Pearl could never settle in New England. The text suggests that she lives somewhere in Europe. This is a direct contrast to the American Puritan ideals because of which Pearl was persecuted. By living out her life in comfort in Europe, Pearl remains an other from Puritan society, but does not maintain the isolation she experienced in her childhood.
Pearls father, Reverend Dimmesdale suffers from an entirely different kind of isolation than her mother. Dimmesdale is embraced by his community as an extremely pious man who serves as an example to his flock. However, because of his affair with Hester and his subsequent inability to admit to it, Dimmesdale is alienated from his God. This alienation is made worse by the extreme reverence in which his community holds him. He is guilty not only of adultery, but also hypocrisy and lying. His fear that his own sin may influence the religious health of his followers simply adds insult to injury. All of this sinful emotion manifests itself in his own scarlet letter, carved into his flesh over his heart. His guilt ultimately leads to his destruction. After his confession of his affair, Dimmesdale dies. His revelation of his own scarlet letter shocks the Puritan community. However, in a cruel twist, Dimmesdale, arguably the most sinful character in the book, not because of his sin, but because of his denial of it, continues to be regarded by the community as faithful. Many do not believe he committed any sin and that his dying act was simply to continue to aid in the development of their faiths. Dimmesdales character exemplifies the commitment American culture has to defining itself. By refusing to acknowledge the sin ridden Dimmesdale as flawed, the Puritan community allows itself to continue to be defined as good and holy people with exception only to those who show outward manifestations of evil.
Although Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale are primarily alienated and isolated because of circumstance, Chillingworth alienates and isolates himself of his own accord for the sake of revenge. His physical deformity and social elevation from being a doctor have prevented his total assimilation into society, but he broadens his mental alienation and isolation from others by changing his name and giving up claim on his previous life.
He resolved not to be pilloried beside her on her pedestal of shame. Unknown to all but Hester Prynne, and possessing lock and key of her silence, he chose to withdraw his name from the roll of mankind, and, as regarded his former ties and interests, to vanish out of life as completely as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the ocean, whither rumor had long ago consigned him. (Hawthorne 108-9)
This denial could possibly be what gradually formed into hate and revenge. The town remembers that Dimmesdale first arrived in the company of Indians and that he had spent time with them learning about their healing arts. Indians were considered to be part of Satan's ministry and would therefore have given Chillingworth part of their stigma. The first Americans defined their
Christian goodness in contrast to the savagery of the Native Americans. These Natives Americans are the ultimate manifestation of the other in early American society. Because Chillingworth is aligned with them from the beginning, he is clearly destined to act entirely outside of the Puritan community and their idea of humanity.
Chillingworth does not begin as an inherently evil person, but his quest for unchristian vengeance consumes him. He does not hold Hester responsible for her sin, admitting that he was cruel to have married her at all. However, he does not feel any responsibility for the sin committed by Hesters lover. Chillingworth is determined to discover the identity of the man and, upon discovering it is Reverend Dimmesdale, he gives all of his energy in exacting revenge. Ultimately, Chillingworths entire existence is dependent upon the suffering of Dimmesdale; not long after Dimmesdale death, Chillingworth dies. His complete societal isolation led him to no longer have substance; Puritans would claim that he had sold his soul to the devil in order to enact revenge. Chillingworths total dedication to causing misery for another entirely isolates him from humanity.
Hawthornes obsession with the effects of isolation and failure in The Scarlet Letter can be traced back to his personal shame regarding his familys involvement in radical persecution resulting from religious beliefs. One of his forefathers was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials, a burden which haunted Hawthorne throughout his life. Hawthorne also reflects his belief of his personal failures in The Custom House, the introduction to The Scarlet Letter:
No success of mine---if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been blightless, if not positively disgraceful. "What is he"" murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. "A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,---what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,---may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler! (Hawthorne 10)
Hawthornes personal feelings of isolation and shame result in characters who truly suffer for their otherness. Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth are all ultimately destroyed because of their other identities in sacrifice to the success of the greater Puritan society.