The Scarlet Letter - Pt 4

The Market-Place Chapter 2

Finally, a character, we cry! A plot! And a good one too!

And a shorter post today ...

Hester Prynne, a married woman whose husband was not in the colony when her daughter was conceived, is lead out from prison with her three-month-old child to the ‘scaffold’ — the place of public punishment — to be gazed at with scorn by all the community. Her sentence is to wear a red cloth letter ‘A’ for ‘adulteress’ pinned to the front of her dress. This scarlet letter becomes a symbol like the rose in Chapter 1; it means a hundred different things through the book — ‘adulteress’, ‘angle’, ‘able’ — notice the ‘A’s as you read.

Here you can also see how Hawthorne values sympathy as a moral virtue — one of the most attractive things about his writing is that is is kind to his characters, crediting them with intense feelings, and making sure there is one voice of sympathy in the crowd.

On a theological note it’s interesting that Hester’s guilt is almost entirely social and psychological. She suffers because the community has condemned her, and because she feels guilty. That sounds natural, but it’s odd in a Puritan context. As a woman brought up to believe Christian doctrine from her earliest childhood, it seems strange that there should be no pain at the thought she had offended God. Hawthorne does this throughout the book — he represents guilt with painful intensity, but he sees it as a social problem, and a personal one, not a problem with how God sees the person.

This is distinctly un-Puritan. Of course the Puritans valued having a godly society (crime was a social problem as well as a sin against God), and they didn’t underestimate the pain of mind that guilt could cause. But they saw it as a problem first because God had been offended, and only second because other people had been offended.

And of course that makes it hard to offer a solution to such guilt — the gospel is made quietly irrelevant in such a context — it doesn’t primarily claim to make us right with each other or right with ourselves (although it does that too). It claims first of all to make us right with God. If enmity with God is not the problem, then the gospel is not the solution. And enmity with God is not, as Hawthorne seems to see it, Hester’s problem.