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Assessment of The Scarlet Letter Essay


Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was an author, critic, editor and teacher who "possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time" [1]. She contributed significantly to the American Renaissance in literature and to mid-nineteenth century reform movements. A brilliant and highly educated member of the Transcendentalist group, she challenged Ralph Waldo Emerson both intellectually and emotionally. Women who attended her "conversations" and many men of her time found Fuller's influence life-changing. Her major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century published in 1845, profoundly affected the women's rights movement which had its formal beginning at Seneca Falls, New York, three years later.

Hester Prynne is the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's romantic novel, The Scarlet Letter, which is set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. As a young woman, Hester married an elderly scholar, Roger Chillingworth, who sent her ahead to America to live but never followed. While waiting for him, she had an affair with a Puritan minister named Dimmesdale, after which she gave birth to Pearl. Found guilty of adultery (through the absence of her husband and the birth of Pearl), Hester is punished by being forced to wear a scarlet letter 'A' (which stands for Adultery) on her bosom for the rest of her life. This transforms Hester into "a living sermon against sin" [2]. Hester is immediately ostracised from the stern community and endures years of shame, scorn and loneliness. Hester is passionate but also strong and equals both her husband and her lover in her intelligence and thoughtfulness. Her alienation puts her in the position to make acute observations about her community, particularly about its treatment of women.

So, is there a link between these two women? Hester is a fictional character, from a novel set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England who is shunned from her community as punishment for her adulterous crime/sin. Margaret Fuller was a highly educated writer and critic who played an important role in the American Renaissance in literature and to mid-nineteenth century reform movements. The similarities are not initially apparent, so it is necessary to take a closer look at these two women. The purpose of the central part of this essay is to determine how far Hester Prynne is as much a woman of mid-nineteenth century American culture as she is of seventeenth-century Puritan New England. How far ahead of her time were her actions?

In the statement which forms the sub-title of this essay, it is said that Hester Prynne, in certain respects, is endowed with the sensibility of Margaret Fuller. A definition of the word "sensibility" may be useful in our understanding of the question: "Sensibility: 1a) Openness to emotional impressions, susceptibility, sensitiveness (sensibility to kindness) b) An exceptional or excessive degree of this. 2a) Emotional capacities or feelings b) a person's moral, emotional, or aesthetic ideas or standards (NB It does not mean "possession of common sense, reasonableness.)" [3]. We know that Hester possesses these qualities because they are displayed in her kind deeds, for example, we are told that

as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel . . . Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. [4]

She is forced to suppress her own emotional needs because there was no room for this kind of expression in the strict community. Life was centred on a rigid Puritan society in which no one was able to divulge their innermost thoughts and secrets:

Puritanism was not only a religious creed, it was a philosophy and a metaphysic; it was an organization of man's whole life, emotional and intellectual, to a degree which has not been sustained by any denomination stemming from it. [5]

As stated above, Puritans were noted for a spirit of moral and religious earnestness that informed their whole way of life. In the New England Puritan colonies, law and religion were entangled without any clear distinction between the two. A "hard-featured dame" says of Hester Prynne:

This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. [6]

Hawthorne believed that man, to establish and enjoy a normal relationship with his world, must live in harmony with his fellow beings and with nature. If man does not respect the bond of love crucial to coexistence and accept the view that all men are united in a brotherhood of imperfection, and if he does not adopt nature as an inspirational and stabilizing force in his life, he lives a sub-human existence - so self-centred as to be at odds with other people and with external nature. Hawthorne's religious enthusiasts (Puritans), conscious only of their spiritual goals, violate the bond with man and nature essential to living a normal life.

Every human being needs the opportunity to express their feelings, otherwise the emotions are bottled up until they become unstable. It is almost as if the possessed physician, Roger Chillingworth, has trapped a volatile chemical (the secret of Dimmesdale's adultery) inside a vial (Dimmesdale) and now waits for the inevitable explosion (the revelation). Reverend Dimmesdale's pent-up feelings of guilt and shame became hazardous to his health,

In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge . . . his brain often reeled, and visions seemed to flit before him. [7]

Unfortunately, Puritan society did not permit any kind of emotional expression, thus characters had to seek alternate means to relieve their personal anguishes and desires. Luckily, for at least four of the main characters, Hawthorne provides a sanctuary in the form of the mysterious forest. In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the pivotal characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. It provides an escape from the strict mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up and be themselves. It is only here that Hester and Dimmesdale can openly engage in conversation without being preoccupied with the constraints that Puritan society places on them. The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehaviour, and Hester takes advantage of this, when Arthur Dimmesdale appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdale about subjects which could never be mentioned in any place other than the forest. "What we did . . . " she reminds him, "had a consecration of its own. We felt it so!" [8]. This statement shocks Dimmesdale, and he tells Hester to hush, until he realises that he is in an environment where he can openly convey his feelings. The forest also brings out the natural appearance and natural personality of people. When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, we see a new person. We see the real Hester, who has been hidden for years under a shield of shame. Her eyes grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek. We recognise her as the Hester from Chapter One. The beautiful woman who is not afraid to reveal her dark, flowing locks and display her beauty. This dramatic transformation of Hester after she discards the constricting shackles of law and Puritanism and embraces the liberation provided by the natural world shows how harsh and crippling Puritan society could be to one's inner self.

On a more positive note, the suffering which Hester went through qualified her as spokesman of the frustrations and joys of human relationships: "She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess." [9]. Working from the definition of a prophetess as simply one who is gifted with extraordinary moral insight, Hester's gospel was nothing more hopeful or pessimistic than the existential "endure". We do not have a record of her specific counsel to suffering women, yet it would seem that her role in the community of tormented souls was to inspire by her presence (and therefore, her survival) rather than her oratory an awareness that human experience has in it an element of suffering, and that conflicts between self and community, between personal will and moral law, are inevitable.

This sentiment of nature being in opposition to religion was echoed in the twentieth century by the revolutionary Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who was no friend to the religious impulse in human beings. Freud felt that the only way for society to progress was to recognise and acknowledge its libidinal and aggressive impulses. He believed that civilisation - the sum total of all our complicated structures of culture, law, religion and society - arose through the learned repression of individual instinctual urges, and that these individual desires are always at odds with the regulations, institutions and laws of society which force them to heel. In Freud's account the civilised 'moral' human being is obviously a repressive formation. People are, in reality, bubbling cauldrons of violent and sexual desires waiting to boil over. Civilisation is imagined as holding back, rather than moving forward. The Scarlet Letter appears to adhere to this theory - we are told that:

Hester fancied . . . that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in others' hearts. [10]

In addition to this, we learn, towards the end of the novel, that "women, more especially, - in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion, - or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,- came to Hester's cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy!" [11]. So, Hester was not the only sinner of the village, yet she was the only person punished, and was made to feel alienated and abnormal. It was this alienation that put Hester in a unique position. She was able to look upon society from its precipice, and make acute observations about the community, particularly about its treatment of women.

Margaret Fuller is described in a similar way by Charles Capper, in An American Romantic Life:

A seemingly ubiquitous, modern American intellectual figure . . . a conflicted, alienated, avant-garde thinker who, despite or because of her alienation, looked hopefully to popular, world-historical transformations. [12]

In the space of a few years, she became America's female intellectual prophet, challenging the whole "masculine"-"feminine" dichotomy on which the official gender culture was based. The life of Margaret Fuller was the kind of life that Hester Prynne dreamed of living. Given her situation, however, she deemed the revolution of society, and the revolution of woman's place in that society "a hopeless task before her." [13].

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