Showing posts with label Scarlet Letter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scarlet Letter. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 25

The power of being alone


Those corruptly enjoying power strive to craft rules to control a population’s behavior and very thoughts. Rigid rules in a small community aim to reinforce that power, ensuring hypocrisy, deceit and guilt. 

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne bears a child out of wedlock while her husband is away, and she refuses to divulge the father’s identity. The Puritan community gives her a short prison sentence and orders her to display a scarlet A on her chest indefinitely. The intention is to remind the community Hester's adultery, misery and shame with every passing day: “giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast… as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.”  

Hester crafts the large letter herself almost as a mark of pride: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore….” 

Those in power who fail to exercise self-control are often the most desperate in clinging to rigid rules, and this is the case with the infant’s father, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. “In no state of society would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework.” 

Dimmesdale is tempted by true freedom yet fears the consequences of community-wide freedom and resists confessing his son. “Not the less, however, though with a tremulous enjoyment did he feel the occasional relief of looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of intellect than those with which he habitually held converse. It was as if a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study, where his life was wasting itself away…. But the air was too fresh and chill to be long breathed with comfort.”  In a community in a constant state of vigilance and scrutiny, transparency and truth become weapons for both those who support the rules and those who resist.  

Age, gender, institutions contribute to the chains of power in Hawthorne’s novel, as noted by Dimmesdale. “The good old man addressed him wit the paternal affection and patriarchal privilege, which his venerable age, his upright and holy character, and his station in the Church, entitled him to use, and, conjoined wit this, the deep, almost worshipping respect, which the minister’s professional and private claims alike demanded. Never was there a more beautiful example of how the majesty of age an wisdom may comport with the obeisance and respect enjoined upon it, as from a lower social rank and inferior order of endowment towards higher.” 

Seven years pass and the community continues to ostracize Hester and her daughter. The free-spirited, observant child, Pearl, plays alone, Hester is free to think as she pleases and Hawthorne comments, “It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society.” 

Hester quietly makes herself useful for the community, and as a grudging respect eventually replaces the condemnation, Hester’s dogged embrace of the letter A becomes a sore point. The townspeople resent being forced to make explanations to newcomers and their own young children. Hester is increasingly urged to discard the letter, but she embraces her status and isolation: “The world’s law is no law for her mind…. In her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.”  

Because the two spend so much time, Pearl is largely free of the town's rigid influences. Hester both fears and loves Pearl as she strives to educate the child on her own. Still, she worries about the girl's wild nature and her future, prompting Hester to wonder: “in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all. Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting even to the happiest among them?” 

The scarlet letter does not fulfill the intentions of those who would punish and shame Hester.   

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