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The Scarlet Letter: Hope

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When authors write books, most don’t write only to entertain their readers. They go further and develop an argument from which their readers can learn from. One book that successfully develops multiple arguments is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his story, Hawthorne uses the discriminatory religious beliefs of the Puritan society and shows how they negatively affect two main characters. He shows how these characters use and develop hope to get past their struggles. Hester is shown to use Pearl, her unseen daughter, as her source of hope. Likewise, Reverend Dimmesdale is shown to use Pearl and Hester for his hope. Hawthorne doesn’t only use characters, but he also uses many symbols to show how hope develops in each character throughout the story. Throughout his novel, he successfully develops the argument that hope is what gets people through their difficult and challenging times.

Primarily, Hawthorne develops his argument through the main character, Hester Prynne. Hawthorne begins off the novel by showing the Puritan society gathered around the town prison waiting for someone to walk out. Then Hester walks out with an infant, her daughter in her hands. The word goes around throughout the crowd that Hester is being punished for adultery. Throughout this process, Hester has absolutely no hope in herself. She is surrounded by all these people who are judging her for her actions. She is also shown to have a scarlet letter on her chest. The Puritans have symbolized the letter A on her chest to stand for “Adulterer” and Hester has to keep it on as her punishment. Hawthorne begins to develop his argument when he shows Hester’s connection to her daughter. Pearl is the physical representation of Hester’s sin and the Puritan society constantly reminds her of it. Pearl becomes the symbol of sin, but Hester doesn’t let this take away her hope. Hester uses Pearl to get through the discrimination she faces. She “named the infant ‘Pearl,’ as being of great price, - purchased with all she had, - her mother’s only treasure!” (Hawthorne 81).

Even after knowing that she committed adultery she names her child with love and hope. This helps her see that her daughter is a symbol of strength and not sin. Hester’s inner strength and hope from Pearl keeps here sane and helps her to keep fighting through the neglection. Hester also finds safety from Pearl. Whenever Pearl “was asleep, Hester never felt a moment’s safety; not a moment’s calm enjoyment of her” (88). Hester feels uncomfortable and scared without the presence of Pearl. This is significant to show how Pearl gives Hester ease and without her, Hester feels trapped in guilt. As she gets neglected more from the Puritan society, Hester begins to find comfort from having Pearl around her. Pearl continues to be Hester’s hope. And even further when the town magistrate tells Hester that Pearl is a “badge of shame” (101), Hester replies back saying that Pearl “hath taught me - it daily teaches me - it is teaching me at this moment - lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better…” (101). This shows that even though Pearl is symbolized as sin in the society, Hester looks past that and tries to gain hope by learning from her daughter. She stands as a proud mother and sticks up for her daughter when the Puritans began calling her a shame. Even though Pearl is the reason Hester is being punished, Hester does not let that change her opinion about her daughter. She treats her daughter like a princess.

She describes Pearl as “[her] happiness! - she is [her] torture, none the less! Pearl keeps [her] here in life!” (103). This is significant to represent how Pearl is Hester’s biggest motivation to fight through the Puritan beliefs. Without Pearl, Hester wouldn’t have the courage to live on and continue. Pearl gives Hester most of the hope she needs to get through her struggles. By showing how Hester uses Pearl as her source of hope, Hawthorne shows how hope is what helps people get through hard times.

Hester also has hope when she tries to move on in society. She hopes that society will accept her again and forgive her for what she did. After being released from prison, Hester spends seven years living alone with Pearl in a small cottage far away from the main village. No one in the society ever felt empathy for her and therefore just isolated her. Hester had no choice but to separate herself and live on her own. However, after seven years Hester begins to develop her hope and she tries to involve herself back into society. Hester goes “not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble; as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled…” (146). Hester starts helping the poor, the sick, and those in trouble.

This gives her hope because the Puritan society becomes more accepting of her. The Puritans begin to say that “Such helpfulness was found in her, - so much power to do, and power to sympathize, - that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (146). The Puritan society who once criticized her for everything she did now begins to accept her and see the real strength she has within herself. They also begin to see the scarlet letter on her chest “as [a] token, not of that one sin” (147). When society begins accepting her back, Hester develops even more hope in herself to continue her fight. Weeks after, Hester gains the courage to remove the crimson scarlet letter that has stuck with her for over seven years. Hester “undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves” (182). The letter that represented adultery and sin to the society was now on the ground “glittering like a lost jewel” (182). At this point, Hester’s hope has risen so high that she finally feels free from sin. She “heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit… She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom!” (182). After removing the scarlet letter, Hester begins to feel hopeful in life and she gains the courage to do anything. While she could have done this at any time, she was scared of further shame and punishment. It took her time to get there but eventually her hope that society will accept her leads to her freedom. Her hope once again gets her one step closer to resolving her struggles. By showing how Hester has hope for the future, Hawthorne portrays how hope is what brings us strength and courage for upcoming events in life.

Likewise, Hester isn’t the only one who uses hope to get through their struggles. Reverend Dimmesdale, who is the one that Hester committed adultery with plays a big role in society. As a Reverend, he has to stick up to many expectations and no one would find him guilty of a crime like adultery. Due to this, Dimmesdale locks up all of his feelings and his guilt out of the fear that society will judge and punish him as they did to Hester. When the guilt catches up to him, Dimmesdale falls severely ill and needs to be cared for. To get through this, Dimmesdale finds his hope through Hester and Pearl. When Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold he notices Hester and Pearl and says “‘Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl,’... ‘Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all thee together’” (138-139). Dimmesdale feels happy whenever he sees Hester or Pearl. He gains hope from them and it helps him to oversee his locked up guilt. He:
felt for the child’s other hand, and took it. The moment that he did so, there came what seemed a tumultuous rush of new life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system. (139)
When all three of them hold hands, Dimmesdale feels happiness and love. He uses the connection between the three to help him overcome his fear. He hopes that their connection will grow stronger and that he will be able to get past his struggles. While he is scared of being caught with Hester and Pearl, Dimmesdale takes the big risk in holding their hands to give him strength and help him feel better. Dimmesdale’s hope in that Hester and Pearl will accept and love him motivates him to become stronger and fight through his guilt. By showing how Dimmesdale uses his hope, Hawthorne successfully shows how everyone, no matter what their status, uses hope to overcome their struggles.

Equally important, Hawthorne also uses many symbols to develop his argument. By using symbols, Hawthorne shows how hope develops throughout the story in each character. The first symbol that Hawthorne uses to develop his argument is the scarlet letter. Since the beginning of the novel, Hawthorne shows the scarlet letter to symbolize a “token of infamy” (59). The Puritan society views the scarlet letter on Hester’s chest as a representation of sin. This weighs down on Hester and shows her weakness. Hester is afraid to take it off because she fears that she will be punished and isolated even more. However, Hawthorne shows how the scarlet letter symbolizes hope for Hester when Pearl “took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best as she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter,-the letter A,-but, freshly green, instead of scarlet!” (161). This symbolizes how Pearl, who is the reason that the scarlet letter is symbolized as sin gives Hester hope. Pearl makes a letter A just like the one on her mother’s chest, however, instead of scarlet, it is green. The color scarlet represents immorality and sin showing what Hester has done. However, the color green that Pearl uses represents the renewal of life and safety. This symbolizes the strength that Hester gets from her daughter. Even after being isolated by the discriminatory Puritan beliefs, Hester is motivated to stay strong for her daughter. She doesn’t let the connotation of the scarlet letter let her down.

Similarly, another symbol that Hawthorne uses frequently is sunlight. Sunlight is significant to represent strength, happiness, and hope. Towards the beginning of the novel when Hester and Pearl are walking through the governor’s hall, Hester says to Pearl that “Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!” (94). When Hester says this, Hawthorne is showing the readers how since Hester has been isolated from society and punished for adultery, she has lost all of her hope and happiness in life. She tells her daughter that she can’t provide her any happiness and that she (Pearl) should learn from her mother’s mistake. Hawthorne shows how Hester’s hope develops more into the book when Hester takes off the scarlet letter. When she takes off the letter her hair “fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance” (182). As soon as the scarlet letter is gone from her chest, the forest fills up with light. For the first time, there is light in the same place Hester is. This is significant to show how Hester has developed the strength and hope to finally move on in her life. The abundance of sunlight represents her resistance to isolation and shows how she is ready to move on. Hester’s hope is what helps her to move on from her long-lasting punishment.

Furthermore, the biggest and most important symbol that Hawthorne uses to develop his argument is physical appearance. The character’s appearance shows how they are feeling. The lack of beauty or the appearance of being sick represents being trapped with unhappiness and no hope. After the guilt of committing adultery with Hester Prynne got to his head “the health of Mr. Dimmesdale had evidently begun to fail” (109). Some even observed him “to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain” (110). Dimmesdale being the Reverend in town is trusted by everyone and if he tells anyone about his crime then he would be punished. As a result of this, he keeps his feelings trapped and his sickness represents his loss of hope and happiness. However, towards the end of the book, Dimmesdale’s health improves significantly. When Dimmesdale finally accepts the truth and decides to tell the people that he was the one who committed adultery with Hester “he stood… on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days” (223). Dimmesdale stands tall and proud in front of the people. He also gives his speech “with a voice that rose… high, solemn, and majestic” (227). Dimmesdale appears healthy and elegant as he stands on the scaffold. This is significant to show how he has finally achieved the strength and hope to open up. He doesn’t feel trapped anymore. His elegance and well-being represent his freedom from guilt and his abundance of hope. He gains the hope to express his actions and feels free to be with Hester and Pearl. His hope helps him to overcome the fear of being punished and embarrassed in front of the Puritan society.

Throughout the book, Hawthorne successfully argues how people have hope and strength within themselves by portraying the struggles of Hester and Dimmesdale and by showing how they overcome those struggles. He shows how Hester gains hope from her daughter, Pearl and how she is optimistic that society will accept her. He also shows how Dimmesdale uses Pearl and Hester as his strength and hope. Not only this, but he also uses many symbols to show the light of hope within each character. Hawthorne’s development of his argument throughout the novel can motivate readers to be strong and have determination in themselves to get past their struggles.


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