The Scarlet Letter, Part 2: Thoughts on the Characters

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As I mentioned yesterday, my reread of The Scarlet Letter left me with lots to think about. I was particularly fascinated by the contrasts between the main characters: Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Roger Chillingworth. And then, of course, innocent Pearl’s symbolic role in the novel was the most interesting part of the moving story line. As I consider the three individuals examined under Hawthorne’s watchful eye, I’m struck by how different each person’s self-recognition was.

If you’ve read this novel, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts too on the characters, themes, and philosophic ideas.

Note that this post contains spoilers of The Scarlet Letter.

Roger Chillingworth

Roger Chillingworth is the wicked, Satanic influence in the Puritan society (as is also Mistress Hibbens and the others who are referenced as witches). Chillingworth’s goal in life seems to be to extend unhappiness to the man who hides his guilt. (And may I add that I love the “cold” name that Hawthorne assigned to this horrible man.)

“Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil’s office. This unhappy person had effected such a transformation by devoting himself, for seven years, to the constant analysis of a heart full of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated over.” (page 177)

As I read, I was struck by the contrast between Chillingworth’s horrific application of judgment and the ways in which the others in the town spurned Hester for her sin. Although the townspeople continued to shun Hester Prynne for years by walking apart from her and otherwise avoiding her regular presence, they did recognize her talent. They hired her for sewing talent, from new baby outfits to burial clothes. As time passed, the letter lost its meaning as a symbol of the sin, but the fact that Hester needed to be shunned remained intact. As Roger Chillingworth’s role grows through the years, he becomes more satanic and more revengeful. Chillingworth was so blinded by revenge that he remained the lone condemnatory force for both of the sinners in the novel.

Hester Prynne

On the other hand, Hester Prynne seems to be a repentant soul to some extent. Yet, by the end her pride has taken her above the judgmental society.

“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, but taught her much amiss.” (page 204)

Is she more “whole” and “good” than Roger Chillingworth or the other judgmental persons of the town, who shun her for the mark she bears dutifully? Even as she held up her head with pride, she struggled to find peace in life.

“Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled.” (page 173)

And likewise, her little daughter Pearl was able to sense that life was not “normal” for her mother.

“Mother,” said little Pearl. “The sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now, see! there it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!” (page 190)

When Hester finally casts aside the scarlet letter, she immediately feels free. She felt she could find joy in existence without the burden of the punishment. “She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom.” (page 206)

Reverend Dimmesdale

And where does the guilt-ridden Arthur Dimmesdale fit in on the spectrum of human nature? He lives a double-existence. Though Reverend Dimmesdale’s suffering is not visible to the people of the town, he suffers, for the “veneration” of the town’s people “tortured him” (page 154) and when he has the chance to flee his judgmental society with Hester, he yet struggles to give up his status.

“Between feeling as an avowed criminal, and remaining as a hypocrite, conscience might find it hard to strike a balance…” (page 205)

Reverend Dimmesdale is still obviously undecided as to what he should do, and his indecision causes Hester to doubt their happy future. Hester, who just pages before has unconditionally forgiven him for his years of hypocrisy, finds that, as she watches him proudly march in the parade, she simply can’t forgive him (page 240). It’s too painful for her to see that he has been free all this time, which she has been burdened with the penance (including being cast out of society) for the both of them.

Pearl’s Role

My favorite scenes revolved around Pearl’s symbolic place in the story, from the “electric chain” (page 162) that the three form as they stand on the scaffold one evening to the visit in the woods, near the stream. Pearl, representing innocence, seems to bring the characters together in her observations and presence.

I was struck by the references to “sunshine” in the quote about Hester and Pearl above. In the first scene of the novel, sunshine is distinctly mentioned. As Hester stood in the daunting sunlight on the platform of the pillory receiving the society’s judgment, the infant Pearl blinks in the light which Hester cannot shade from her eyes. Although Pearl is the innocent wild result of the two sinner’s actions, she is the representation of innocence sullied.

In a later scene, Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale talk and plan their future in which they plan on abandoning the strict moral regulations of the Puritan society and flee away together. They stand on one side of the stream, and Pearl stands on the opposite shore.

“I have a strange fancy,” observed the sensitive minister, “that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet they Pearl again.” (page 212)

With this comment and this setting, it seems the minister and Hester recognize that they cannot go back to innocence. Their decision in the woods to abandon the “wrongness” of the judgmental society means they forever give up the appearance of repentance and acceptance of the moral laws they’ve abided by for so long.

On the previous page, Hawthorne wrote of Pearl that she had “strayed out of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to return to it” (page 211). Scorn and condescension have been a constant in Pearl’s life, and so while she remained innocent, she was trapped in the stigma of sin. Watching the two from across the stream, Pearl recognizes that she is apart from them. Because it’s all she’s known, though, she desires to be a part of the couple.

Yet in the end, Pearl is finally able to escape the stigma and the world of sin in the very symbolic and emotional last scene of the novel. After her father’s confession and as he dies, he asks her to kiss him.

“Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.” (page 254)

Unlike her mother, Pearl, the innocent, is able to move on. I love that last insistence that Pearl would be able to be “a woman” in the world, unlike Hester, who was trapped in an existence she didn’t believe worth living. The characters in the novel provide a fascinating contrast, as well as intriguing examination of sin and righteousness, guilt and repentance, and society versus the individual.

Page numbers from the Barnes and Noble Classics edition (read digitally on my Nook Color)

Tomorrow: Thoughts on the anti-transcendental aspects of the novel.

Reviewed on December 8, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I still think Hester stays in Salem because she mourns her part in the death of Dimmesdale. She sees herself as part of a joint sin, but I honestly don’t believe she bears the letter for the twon; I believe she bears it for herself. Dimmesdale feels the weight of guilt upon him by God, the church and Salem — but Hester for herself.

    I could definitely be wrong! I only read it once, very quickly…

    • Jillian » That’s a good point. She returns to Salem and wears the letter again but from the brief Conclusion it didn’t really sound like she was an active part of the town any more. The town would not have insisted she wear it, yet she does….hmm. More to ponder.

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