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Scarlet Letter Essay

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Expression of Morals

Acceptance of one’s own mistakes against the scrutiny and judgement of society has forever been a human struggle. In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne lives in 17th century Boston, Massachusetts with her daughter, Pearl, who is born out of Hester’s adultery with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester is forced to wear the scarlet A as a punishment for her sins, and this novel follows multiple characters’ lives as each of their darkest secrets are revealed to one another or the public. In the time period, in which the novel is written in, the Romantic movement was sweeping through the United States. The movement supported individuality, innocence, and respect for nature, as well as rejected oppressive society. The Puritans the novel discusses were strict Christians who left England to find refuge and freedom in America. They valued public shaming to punish sinners and almost everything that did not exactly follow the Bible was considered a sin. The physical appearances of characters in the novel are a representation of their moral characters, therefore an unattractive appearance is associated with the negatively regarded Puritanism and attractive appearances are associated with the author’s own Romanticism. Hawthorne utilizes physical appearances or expressions of characters to reveal their moral character in order to convey, in the Romantic opinion, the corrupted morals of restrictive society and praise Romanticism.

Hawthorne makes use of the overall appearances of various citizens of the town throughout the book to establish the differences between Puritanical and Romantic figures. As a group of women discuss the punishment Hester should endure for adultery, a “hard-featured dame of fifty” (35) suggests that the group should be responsible for the sentencing of Hester for her adultery. The woman is depicted as harsh, unattractive, and old as well as being strongly Puritan, therefore exposing her corrupted morals that would lead her to judging Hester so harshly. Her hard face and old age connects to her cruel and outdated judgements of Hester that would be expected of a Puritan because of the society’s common concrete or hard rules that allow for no individualism, which is desired by Romanticists. In contrast to the aged Puritanical member of society, “a young wife” (36), described with a “child by the hand” (36), proposes the least severe punishment, that Hester should be allowed to cover her scarlet A. Youth and children are a common Romantic symbol for celebrated innocence, and the youngest and most attractive woman in the group shows the most compassion for Hester as she she holds an innocent child connected with Romanticism. She rejects the Church’s and society’s punishment for Hester, further revealing her Romantic tendencies. Hawthorne uses the lady as a Romantic character in order to contrast the beautiful Romanticists with the harsh and judgemental Puritans who rally for crueler punishment. In order to include an opinion on organized religion, as Hester ascends the scaffold she is met with members of the church and town officials. This includes a specific clergyman who covers his “grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap” (45) while in the public eye. This character conceals his unkempt hair beneath a cap because Romantics, like Hawthorne, believe that Puritans disguise their poor moral character and Puritans conform to societal standards such as this character’s head covering and occupation. His gray hair shown through the use of the word “grizzled” is hidden beneath the common skull-cap worn by members of the church, which reveals how Puritans obscure their flaws beneath a facade of religion. The clergyman is written as a rough, ugly, and concealing his homely appearance not only to expose corrupted Puritanical morals and conformation but also specifically to criticize organized religion. Each of these character’s overall descriptions reveals whether they are a Puritanical character or a Romantic character, which then translates to whether or not they are corrupted by society. Hawthorne praises his own Romanticism with Romantic characters sparing Hester and exposes the judgement and corruption of society through their desire to harm Hester for her sins.

The author further stresses the importance of physical attributes by focusing specifically on the expressions of the supporting characters to expose the corrupted morals of Puritanical society. The first time Roger Chillingworth sees Hester on the scaffold with Pearl, “writhing horror [twists] itself across his features” (42) as if a “snake [is] gliding” (42) across him. Chillingworth is often depicted as deformed and how he is portrayed here is similar because he is written with a terrifying look. The way Hawthorne describes Chillingworth’s expression is meant to connote the pain or shock, through the twisting of horror, that strong Puritans would feel from such a deep sin as Hester’s. The mention of the snake also alludes to the sin and evil associated with the Satanic snake from the Garden of Eden. To express an opinion of the upper officials of Puritanical society, Governor Bellingham watches over Hester as she ascends the scaffold to display the scarlet A. He is “advanced in years” (44) and sits on the balcony with other officials with “hard experience… in his wrinkles” (44) as he observes Hester. The Governor is an old Puritan in a high rank with a deformed face from his wrinkles. His old age connects to the outdated Puritanical systems in place and the archaic punishment that Hester must suffer. His wrinkles show experience in ruling over Puritans, meaning that he has a deep connection with their views and his wrinkled expression is symbolic of the crumbling Puritanical institutions. Mistress Hibbins, a character meant to be a common townsperson in relation to the world at large, as opposed to an important official, hears Dimmesdale’s shriek while he secretly ascends the scaffold at night and her “sour and discontented face” (102) is revealed and it is later hypothesized that her face would become more “[sour] than ever” (104) if she saw Dimmesdale in the



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