“Theme of “The Scarlet Letter”Perhaps the foremost purpose of The Scarlet Letter is to illustrate the difference between shaming someone in public and allowing him or her to suffer the consequences of an unjust act privately. In accordance with a strict interpretation of the Bible, adultery was a capital sin that required the execution of both adulterer and adulteress--or at the very least, severe public corporal punishment. It is in this environment that Hester commits adultery with Dimmesdale, but we come to see that the public shaming cannot begin to account for all the complexities of the illicit relationship--or the context of it. What Hawthorne sets out to portray, then, is how the private thoughts, the private torture and guilt and emotional destruction of the people involved in the affair, are more than enough punishment for the crime. According to a famous critic,
“It is remarkable that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society”
We wonder whether the state or society has any right to impose law in private matters between citizens. More than a tale of sin, the Scarlet Letter is also an intense love story that shows itself in the forest scene between Hester and the minister Arthur Dimmesdale. With plans to run away with each, Arthur and Hester show that their love has surpassed distance and time away from each other. This love also explains why Hester would not reveal the identity of her fellow sinner when asked on the scaffolding.
“There seemed to be no longer anything in Hester's face for love to dwell upon”
The scarlet letter is symbolic in a number of different ways, but perhaps most in the ways that the sinners choose to wear it. Hawthorne's generative image for the novel was that of a woman charged with adultery and forced to wear the letter A upon her clothes, but upon wearing it, decided to add fancy embroidery as if to appropriate the letter as a point of pride. Dimmesdale, however, as the town minister, wears his own scarlet a burned upon his flesh, since it is the community's rage he fears the most. Thus we see the difference between a woman who has made peace with the crime, publicly confesses, and endures the suffering the community imposes, and a man who imposes his own punishment because he cannot bear to reveal the crime to the community.
“I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God,--when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul,--it was vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion”
Pearl embodies the theme of wilderness over against civilization. After all, she is a kind of embodiment of the scarlet letter: wild, passionate, and completely oblivious to the rules, mores, and legal statutes of the time. Pearl is innocence, in a way, an individualistic passionate innocence. So long as Dimmesdale is alive, Pearl seems to be a magnet that attracts Hester and Dimmesdale, almost demanding their reconciliation or some sort of energetic reconciliation. But as soon as Dimmesdale dies, Pearl seems to lose her vigor and becomes a normal girl, able to marry and assimilate into society. The implication is thus that Pearl truly was a child of lust or love, a product of activity outside the boundaries imposed by strict Puritan society. Once the flame of love is extinguished, she can properly assimilate. One of the famous critic is of the view that,
“There was a fire in her [Pearl] and throughout her; she seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment”
In the town, Hester usually is confronted with the legal and moral consequences of her crime. Governor Bellingham comes to take her child away. When he ask her name she says,
“I am my mother's child,' answered the scarlet vision, 'and my name is Pearl!”
Chillingworth reminds her of her deed, and she faces Dimmesdale in the context of sinner (his reputation remains untarnished despite his role in the affair). But whenever Hester leaves the town and enters the woods, a traditional symbol of unbridled passion without boundaries, she is free to rediscover herself. The woods also traditionally emblematize darkness. In the darkness of night, Hester is free to meet Dimmesdale, to confess her misgivings, and to live apart from the torment and burdens of the guilt enforced by the community. Dimmesdale too is free at night to expose his guilt on the scaffold and reconcile with Hester. Therefore Dimmesdale says, when he is on scaffold,
“Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl....Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!”
It can be concluded here that “The Scarlet Letter” is the tragic story of a women’s shame and cruel treatment; she suffers at the hands of Puritan’s society in which she lives. In “The Scarlet Letter” Hester Prynne's offense against society occurred seven years earlier, but she remains punished for it. Hester learned to forgive herself for her adultery, but society continues to scorn her for it. Indeed, Hester reaches peace with her affair and in that peace comes to see the town as insufficiently forgiving in its thoughts and attitudes. Pearl is enough of a reminder of the wild choices in her past, and as Pearl grows up, Hester continues to live in the present rather than in the past.
“Many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength”