Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter


Locate in The Scarlet Letter passages that treat transatlantic pilgrimage. Consider how these passages contribute to both thematic and structural features of the novel.

The Scarlet Letter is probably Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best-known novel. Published in 1850, the tale is set in Massachusetts, in the latter part of the 17th century, and revolves around four main characters: the young and beautiful, but sinful Hester Prynne, her illegitimate daughter Pearl, their parish minister, the Oxford-schooled, highly respected Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and the malevolent, leeching Roger Chillingworth. The two passages I will look at regarding transatlantic pilgrimage occur during the first and third pillory scenes, which are pivotal in the books structure.

The first passage sets up the story for the reader, as Chillingworth’s character emerges from two years in the wilderness, to find his wife has had a child by an unknown man, and is being forced to stand on a scaffold on full public display for three hours as part of her punishment. Chillingworth knows as much as the reader does, so has to seek an explanation from a member of the community. The structure of the novel is dictated by the three pillory scenes, as pointed out by Roy Male in his book, Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision. “Now if any work impresses the reader as having a clean classic structure, it is The Scarlet Letter, with its symmetrical pillory scenes, its subtle contrasts and massive ironies”1. In addition to this, “A symmetrical pattern is discerned in which Hester Prynne is the openly repentant sinner, Arthur Dimmesdale the half-repentant sinner, and Roger Chillingworth the unrepentant sinner”2. The first shows us Hester being held up to public scrutiny, but refusing to name the father of her child, and her co-sinner. The second scene features Arthur Dimmesdale screaming his confession for all to hear, but no-one does. The third comes at the denouement, as Dimmesdale finally lets the world know of his sin. Chillingworth is told the story of his own pilgrimage by the townsman, and that of Hester Prynne’s. The voyage they both took is the catlyst for the story, and Hester and Dimmesdale’s decision to flee ties up the novel.

The second passage occurs in the forest, where the ‘black man’ walks. Nature, for the Calvinist, was the source of temptation and evil.” Hester and Arthur feel safe to talk freely to each other for the first time in seven or eight years. At the climax of their heartfelt discussion, the pair decide to flee to Europe, and in celebration, Hester tears off the Scarlet Letter, and lets her hair fall free. We are then presented with the image of Pearl, alienated on the other side of a brook, unable to recognise her mother or accept her father. She cannot resolve herself with her parents until Dimmesdale ‘can unite his duality into integrity, and she can be manifested as the ‘hieroglyph’ which unites him with Hester, can the final picture be formed.’3 The only way Dimmesdale finds he can resolve the two different parts of his psyche, is to confess. He is bound by his puritan beliefs, and cannot bring himself to leave his exalted position as a clergyman, but,

For a brief time, Dimmesdale enjoys this ‘natural’ setting. He recognizes that Chillingworth’s cold and logical investigation of the human heart is an unpardonable sin. Reunited with his lover and their child, he exclaims that this relation – with Hester restored to her original beauty – is indeed ‘the better life!’ And in Pearl he recognizes ‘the oneness of their being…at once the material union, and the spiritual idea in whom they met, and were to dwell immortally together4

He also realises that ‘Hester’s thrilling plan of escape to a state of nature where there are no formal restraints will be no real escape but rather a further temptation of himself.’ He sees himself as “irrevocably doomed”5.  Dimmesdale’s desire to confess is echoed by Hugo McPherson

At first the Calvinist community dominates in punishing Hester, then Chillingworth, recognizing Dimmesdale as his victim, begins to torture him; next Hester acts to free her lover from his suffering; and finally the delicate hero, Dimmesdale, takes control, makes his confession, and with a kiss sets Pearl free of the spell that enthralled her. This, in a sentence, is the story of the Puritan-American quest6.

“The story of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s struggle through ‘seven long years’ to learn the meaning of A is Hawthorne’s central theme.”7 The structure of the book is broken up (discounting the Introduction) by the three main pillory scenes, the first of which introduces the characters to us through the eyes of Chillingworth; the second reveals to us the true relationship between Hester; and the third and final Pillory scene is the scene of Dimmesdale’s confession, ‘ascension’8, and the resolution of the plot. However, outside this structure, there are at least two more transatlantic pilgrimages. The first is taken by Pearl and Hester to the old world, as the child’s

integration of the gifts of Hester and Dimmesdale has no place in Puritan America. She must therefore find her fulfilment in Europe as the first representative of a new breed – the figure who presages James’s immaculate heroines, ‘the heiress of the ages…One might say she is the first genuine Miss America.9

The second pilgrimage is taken by Hester, who after seeing Pearl blossom into a young woman, returns to the Puritan society she was tried by, to prove once and for all that the scarlet letter is no longer the stigma it was intended to be, that the story of an Indian arrow striking the letter, and falling “harmless to the ground.”10 have become at least symbolically true.

These passages of transatlantic pilgrimage contribute quite heavily to the thematic and structural themes of the novel. The theme is sin; heading for America seems to be portrayed as heading towards sin. All three main characters are innocent of any large sins until they settle in America. Likewise, leaving New England is portrayed as, if not absolving themselves of sin, then at least removing the pilgrims from everyday contact with their trespasses. Both Hester and Pearl’s transatlantic voyages in the final chapter are triggered by sin; Pearl needs to be away from the puritanical society in order to flourish, while Hester returns to eastern sea-board, once more to be close to her lover, and to carry out her part of the sentence imposed on her. The passages contribute to the structure as well, the arrival of Chillingworth from his long trans-Atlantic journey coincides with the first pillory scene, and Dimmesdale’s agreeing to flee with Hester, regardless of whether or not he had any inkling of going through with it or not, is key to the final pillory scene.



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