The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne from Salem, Massachusetts, a US State in New England.
Image: RachelC.Photography via Flickr (2018)
This was a puritan era when moral purity was encouraged in every aspect of life, public life and personal life. The main character Hester Prynne is forced to wear the embroidered Scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothing after being found guilty of adultery which was a crime.
The novel is written in a third person narrative, which the exception of the introduction where Nathaniel Hawthorne speaks directly to the reader, talking about his experience working at the Salem Custom House. The introduction describes the people that he worked with impolitely “I characterize them generally as a set of wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing from worth preservation from their varied experience of life” (p.g 13) and their work ethic “mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip through their fingers.” (p.g 12) One particular man he commented “My conclusion was that he had no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing.” (p.g 14) In the preface to the second edition it explains that these comments and the introduction to The Scarlet Letter caused an “unprecedented excitement” in the community that the author was talking about. “It could hardly have been more violent, indeed, had he burned down the Custom house, and quenched its last smoking ember in the blood of a certain venerable personage, against whom he is supposed to cherish a particular malevolence” and the author responds to criticism saying it was written with no ill feeling and it was true so he decided to republish the introduction without changing it, shows slight hostility towards the Custom house.
“BUT WHO CAN SEE AN INCH INTO FUTURITY BEYOND HIS NOSE?”
A native American character is described as Indian (a historical inaccuracy) and his clothing is described as “savage” compared to the clothing the puritans wear, which is described as “civilised” an antonym showing puritan dress in a positive way, while showing Native outfits as opposite to this, a negative trait. Also, the devil, or a demon the characters believe to exist, in the book is called “the black man,” that is the description for him. There are other negative associations with the word black throughout “vileness and blackness” and “black trouble of the soul” describing an illness.
Hester Prynne is cast out of the community so the other puritans do not speak to her in public and the puritan children attempt to throw stones at her and her daughter Pearl. “She was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere”. The only people who speak to her are the ministers and the governor, who attempt to take her daughter out of her care and have her raised by someone else. Hester argues that she should have custody of the child so they relent “God gave me the child! cried she. He gave her in requital of all things else which ye have taken from me.” The governor’s sister, who is later executed accused of being a witch, also talks to her to encourage her to join witchcraft but Hester refuses.
The word ‘ignomany’ and variations such as ‘ignominious’ appears throughout the book, approximately 20 times in the 200 page book. It means public shame or disgrace and also public contempt. Hester Prynne faces this until her death and her lover is eventually revealed in a plot twist. There is not much dialogue at the beginning of the book, as the main character does not have any interaction with other characters, because she is publicly treated with contempt and the people treat Pearl the same way because of her illegitimacy. Hester and her lover are eventually buried together in a grave marked “On a field, Sable, the letter A, Gules” meaning “On a field, black, the letter A, red”
The Salem House & Nathaniel Hawthorne
Meaning behind the word ‘ignomany’
Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Background of the Salem Witch Trials
My Twitter thread while reading ‘The Scarlet Letter’