In the early American novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne expresses his transcendentalist view of sin and identity in a rigid Puritan society. Transcendentalism emphasizes natural law, and the individuals ability to determine what just. Directly contrasting this view, Calvinism is based on stagnate laws with severe consequences. The protagonist, Hester, faces such consequence when she is prosecuted as an adulteress. When first introducing Hester in chapter two, Hawthorne vividly describes her leaving the prison, marking the start of her tragic new life. Through tone, emotional appeal, and the symbol of the scarlet letter, Hawthorne favors the rebellious individual over a society that values its strident rules for group cohesiveness over personal freedom.
Through tone, Hawthorne expresses his sympathetic attitude towards Hesters situation and his disapproving and critical attitude towards the Puritans rigidity and harshness. Her outfit, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity (51) Hawthornes tone reveals empathy and admiration for Hesters individuality in order to strengthen the readers appreciation of society individual as their own entity. Picturesque peculiarity is a trait innate to individuality instead of collective conformity. Hawthornes fixation on Hesters Picturesque peculiarity exemplifies his admiration of individual. Hawthorne describes Hesters attire as having, a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony(50). Hawthorne, focusing on Hesters attire, shows Hester as a breath of fresh air in the suffocating regulations of the colony. Hester acts as a beacon for the individual. Hawthorne glorifies Hesters small personal choices, such as dressing a certain way, to lionize the individual. This glorification illustrates Hawthorns respect for the individual and the choices the individual is entitled to make even within the confinement of a strict society.
Hawthorne appeals to the readers emotions by revealing Hesters beauty and the senseless punishment inflicted upon her newborn. During her walk of shame, Hesters beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped (51). Hawthorne draws the reader to Hester through her angelic beauty. Hawthorne capitalizes on human propensity to associate beauty with goodness. Halo has an angelic or saintly connotation, making Hester a martyr for personal freedom. In making Hester appear superior to the towns people, Hawthorne, in turn makes the individual appear superior to society. Hester carries her child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison (50). The Puritans not only punish Hester, but also her child, an innocent being. A horrific and incomprehensible view of Puritan punishment is exposed for having an innocent baby live in a sunless dungeon. Almost effortlessly, Hawthorne utilizes emotional appeal by creating sympathy and respect for Hester and her baby and abhorrence for the Puritans. Hawthorne strengthens the voice of self-determination in the conflict between society and the individual.
The symbolism of the scarlet letter echoes the theme of the individuals triumph over society. Hawthorne describes the scarlet letter, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread (50). Through her rebellious depiction of the letter A Hester symbolically rejects the Puritans label of who she is. In an eloquent gesture she gives beauty and validity to her illicit relationship. Instead of conforming to the punishment, Hester makes the punishment part of her. She sews it in an elaborate way that re-interprets the meaning of the letter. The Puritans used the scarlet letter to label Hester as a defective soul. Hester used the A to label herself as a human. A flawed human that has loved and lost. Although Hester carried her fatherless infant, the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer--so that both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time--was that SCARLET LETTER (51). Impressed in this context is meant as frightened, daunted, or awed. The townspeople were surely all these things. The townspeople valued their frivolous rules and punishment with intensity. They are so absorbed in the punishment they bestow upon her, a mere symbol of her affair, that they fail to recognize the real consequence; a fatherless child.
Hawthornes examination of the imbalance of the Puritans rigid rules that supported their society over the need for self-determination shows a unique but universal human dilemma. Hawthorne uses emotional appeal, tone, and symbolism in The Scarlet Letter to reveal and support this sensual and tragic tale. Alas, in every functioning society there is a trade off in the ongoing struggle to find equilibrium between personal freedom and the collective benefit of society.