At the heart of so many books lies a central tension, some kind of friction that drives the gears and cogs of the narrative. And when that tension comes courtesy of something as fundamental a part of human nature as passion, then it has the power to completely alter the course of the characters’ lives. Passion encompasses our deepest, most heartfelt emotions and can cause us to break all our ordinary morals and principles to pursue it. But can this pursuit of passion in the face of adversity ever be a constructive, purposeful force? Or can it only lead to stigma? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter centres around these ideas, exploring them through its various characters, presenting just what happens when human emotions are pushed to their extremes.
In the opening chapter of the book, the narrator illustrates just how unavoidable sin is; how as a part of humanity, it can never be truly stamped out or ignored. ‘The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil… as the site of a prison’. The irony of this statement is self evident; even the founders of this supposedly ‘perfect’ community recognised that sin will always be present, and so pre-empt it by constructing a prison, a building specifically designed to house sinners. The fact it is the ‘virgin’ soil which is defiled by the ‘prison’ emphasises just what kind of sin the puritans are so concerned about.
Hawthorne’s wording here is crucial, the prison is a ‘practical necessity’; something that is an essential part of the community. Indeed, even this statement’s placing within the novel is crucial; right at the start, before Hester and her ‘sin’ has even been fully introduced in the narrative. Also important is the way sin and crimes of passion has driven the community into purpose; in this case, investing labour and materials into the construction of a prison. Thus, the first tensions between passion, principle and purpose are outlined in the very fabric of the community itself. Passion feeds into the principles and purpose of the community. Something constructive has come from an apparently deconstructive force, indeed, a force that has not even happened yet, but is expected to happen. The puritan’s self-awareness of their own capacity for sin presents a crucial flaw at the heart of their principles.
This theme of purpose being born from passion manifests itself throughout The Scarlet Letter, most obviously in the form of Pearl herself. As Hester’s child she represents the ultimate physical creation, fashioned out of sin and pushed into a society that by their very principles are fundamentally set to despise her. The tension here lies in what a human child precisely is – human nature would initially seem to decree that a human child is something to be loved and cherished, it is a gift of life, the future of the community, the beginnings of the next generation; the very definition of progress and purpose. Yet due to the puritan principles, they find themselves at odds with this child, born out of sin.
In many ways, Hester’s life is a metaphor for the book itself, just as its focus centres around the tension between the passions of her sin and the creation of her child, so does her life. Chapter 2 ends with her clutching her child and the scarlet letter ‘to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes! – these were her realities, – all else had vanished!’ The striking element here is the ‘shame’ becomes something physical, something ‘real’. She can feel it just as well as she can the child held in her arms. Her life is now summed up by just two things, her child and the scarlet letter. By forgetting her puritan principles, she may have gained a child and the stamp of adultery, but she has also lost everything else. The sense of purpose works in both ways, it can give, but it can also take away.
In this respect, the story of her and Dimmesdale’s sin becomes almost biblical, drawing strong allusions to Adam and Eve. They too gained something when they sinned – knowledge – but yet also lost their innocence and earned the scorn of God. Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin was a product of goodness and pleasure, but results in expulsion and suffering. But just as Adam and Eve gained knowledge when they sinned, so too does Hester. In one of the most famous quotations from the book, Hester’s relationship with her badge of shame is described: ‘The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong’. It is here that we realise just how strong Hester is as a character; she has born all the negative stigma her sin has placed on her, but converted them into a positive strength. This illustrates that even a ‘sinner’ can impose a new set of principles on themselves, a strength of force that allows them to continue on with their life with a sense of purpose.
This is important as it highlights how Hester and Dimmesdale’s passion afford them a kind of immortality. By stepping out from the norm and the traditional principles of the puritan community, they have been given a kind of fame, and a window to experience the world in new ways. As pointed out in the above quotation, Hester becomes unique among women; now able to experience things no woman has experienced before, and this gives her a great sense of inner strength. Dimmesdale also benefits – his part in the sin allows him to become more in touch with his emotions, elevating his sermons to immensely powerful and moving speeches. Of course, in Dimmesdale’s case though, he eventually experiences the ultimate fall from grace as he reveals the ‘A’ branded into his chest before dying. Unlike, Hester, who bears the mark of her passion for all to see in the form of Pearl and the scarlet letter, Dimmesdale’s badge of shame is hidden away, pushing in on himself – he becomes ill, and eventually dies. By hiding it from public view, he is directing all the stigma in on himself. In this way, it seems to be not so much the tag of sin which changes a person, but what that person chooses to do with that tag.
This theme of inner passions manifesting themselves physically on a person appears throughout the book. The most obvious example is the physical creation of Pearl out of Hester and Dimmesdale’s passions, but also of note is the contrast between the couple’s ‘red letters’. Hester’s badge can be removed, both physically – as she does in the forest – but also in terms of its meaning. Later in the book we are told ‘the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be… looked upon with awe.’ Thus, it eventually becomes something positive. This sense of the red letter being impermanent highlights a key element of the tension between passion and principles in the way that principles can be shifted and altered with time.
Another instance of impermanent passion appearing physically is in the character of Chillingworth. As a doctor, he can be seen as a kind of ‘leech’, feeding off the despair and agony of others. For him, his whole life purpose becomes focussed around achieving some kind of revenge against Dimmesdale for sleeping with his wife. However, once Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth has no victim, and like a leech with no blood to feed on, he swiftly dies too. For Chillingworth, his passion is fed by the passion and sin of others, and without that sense of purpose in life, there is nothing left for him. This stands as a marked contrast to Hester, who creates a life for herself despite the social stigma. Indeed, her profession as a seamstress is significant – a job defined by purpose and productivity; creating things.
Much of the success of The Scarlet Letter has been attributed to the way it addressed spiritual and moral issues from a uniquely American standpoint. And by analysing the central tensions between passion, principles and purpose that form the crux of the novel we can begin to understand. These three elements are such a fundamental part of every human life they cannot be ignored. They work their way into every community and must be addressed. Indeed, The Scarlet Letter does precisely that, the narrator’s views in the Custom House section clearly outlining that there is a lesson in some sense to be learned from Hester’s story. A new set of principles for a new age, a sense of purpose born out of the passions of the past.
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Waggoner, Hyatt, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963)
Wineapple, Brenda, Hawthorne: A Life (London: Random House Trade, 2004)