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Motifs

Volume 2, Number 1, January-June 2016, pp. 78-84


DOI: 10.5958/2454-1753.2016.00011.8

The Scarlet Letter: The Mark of Man

Archana Bahadur Zutshi


Assistant Professor (Councillor), English at IGNU Centre Lucknow, India

ABSTRACT
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The Scarlet Letter is an extraordinary tale of womanly endurance. The work is still current as Hester
Prynne was a path breaker. Her story is more important than her individuality. The writer does not delve
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into the ordinary or commonplace. Hester has gone that extramile for her perspective encompasses all
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womanly ordeals. Finally, she succeeds in preserving her sanity and sanctity of being as Pearl, her
daughter, is embraced by the mainstream Puritan society. She is sought and trusted by the womenfolk
as their wizened counsel.
Keywords: Puritan, Dignity

I
Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter is an engrossing tale of a woman who seems to
survive in a listless world of puritanical laws. She is endowed with an unbridled heart and its
overriding passions, but there are negligible occasions in the novel to display or declare them in
an overpowering sense. There is a sense of denial. The Scarlet Letter revolves around that
fateful event which marks Hester Prynne as an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary sin of
adultery. Her life is marred, and she is branded as a lowly creature. Hesters indefatigable zeal for
life is undimmed and she wears her badge of shame as though it were a trophy. Hidden from
public gaze, she excited no strong or fresh revulsion among the people. Nathaniel Hawthorne
observes:
Hatred, by a gradual and quiet and process, will even be transformed
to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new
Irritation of the original feeling of hostility. In this matter of
Hester Prynne, there was neither irritation nor irksomeness. (Hawthorne 128)
She is the marginalised one who lives not in the centre but on the margins of existence. Leela
Gandhi 1998, quotes Ashis Nandy in her book, Postcolonial Theory: A critical introduction,
which seems to be appropriate herein the following:

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The Scarlet Letter: The Mark of Man

Colonialism too, was congruent with the existing western sexual


stereotypes and the philosophy of life which they represented.
It produced a cultural consensus in which political and
socioeconomic dominance symbolized the dominance of men
and masculinity over women and feminity (Nandy 4).
In the novel, Hester is exposed at a larger than lifescale when she stands on the spots of ignominy,
the scaffold and the prison. Her true nature momentarily can be reckoned in the dark forest when
she has the exclusive interview with Arthur Dimmesdale, the undisclosed partner of her iniquity.
Ironically, the novel subtly hints that Hester is a person ruled by the heart and its over riding
passions, but there are no occasions or instances where they are showcased in an over powering
sense. She epitomises the sense of denial.
She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, oriental characteristic
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a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which save in the exquisite productions
Of her needle, found nothing else, in all the possibilities of her life,
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to exercise itself upon (Hawthorne 41).


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It is not a moralist novel or a romantic one. Hawthorne appears to chronicle with objectivity the
times, the rigid Puritan ambience, and the historical over view is can did. He brusquely comments
or interprets the propensity of the times for witchcraft
Nothing was more common, in those days,
than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena,
that occurred with less regularity than the rise and set of
sun and moon, as so many revelations from a supernatural source (Hawthorne 122).
The reader can not gauge Hawthornes a version or sympathies; he, like a true artist, is concerned
about the representation of the truth.
There are stark details~ the heroine has no commendable reputation. But her figure towers and
assumes greater proportion and significance just like the Scarlet Letter A represents an allegorical
and mythical preponderance. The letter and Hester Prynne are inseparabl, and can be equated as
both are inherently used as references to something that was under public scrutiny and censure~
her identity is rooted in the very stigmatised letter.
In such an age in New England, the Massachusettss magistry had no concern for the right of a
woman.
As befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were
almost identical and in whose character both were so
thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of
public discipline were alike made venerable and awful on the other hand,

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Archana Bahadur Zutshi

a penalty, which in our days, would infer a degree of mocking.


infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity
as the punishment of death itself. (Hawthorne 41)
Hawthorne endows Hester with a rare beauty and dignity despite her moral flagrance. Her enigmatic
and specially acquired status makes her secluded existence, almost sanctified. Not once, except
in Chapter IV (The Interview) do we catch her in a state of nervous excitement (26) ~ She
seems to be in control because of her innate strength. She seems to hold the centre and the rest
are impaled besides Hester. Only she is truly humane, the realistically portrayed, the one who is
psychologically balanced. But she is not allowed to be; she should sheath her person and be
denied access to a routinely normal life. Hawthorne has created in Hester Prynne a feminine form
that is alluring because she is not a shadow, but is real. She dominates the world of The Scarlet
Letter. Her characteristic flaw, the untamed animal energy too gives her a vivid and distinctive
order.
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A studied silence and her dignified bearing mark the novel. She holds the largest canvas and is the
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rose of the rosebush. Hawthorne would rather pluck one of its blossoms and present it to the
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reader, which might symbolise some sweet moral blossom or relieve the darkening close of a
tale of human frailty and sorrow (2). On the contrary, a wild rosebush and rooted almost at
the threshold of the prison could be generous and be imagined to offer their fragrance and
delicate beauty to the prisoner as he went in so much to say in token that the deep heart of
Nature could pity and be kind to him.
Hester is strong as she survives her desolation. The commitment of adultery is a revolt against
mismatched coupling. In How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie refers to Rev.
Oliver M. Butterfields coining a term matrimonial illiterates for those who are do not plan their
life.
Sex, says Dr. Butterfield, is but one of the many satisfactions
in married life, but unless this relationship is right,
nothing else can be right (Carnegie 234).
Hester accosts Roger Chillingworth in the forest as he goes about gathering the medicinal herbs.
She accuses him of causing untold harm to Arthur Dimmesdale.
You search his thoughts. You burrow and rankle in his heart!
Your clutch is on his life, and you cause him to die daily a living death~
and still he knows you not. In permitting this, I have surely acted
a false part by the only man to whom the power was left me to be true! (Hawthorne 140)
Roger Chillingworth, as he claims himself to be the fiend, does not show any sign of remorse. He
is bent upon his revenge as he walks away accentuating his crooked form and his deformity. She

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reminisces about her long past days when he would emerge at eventide from the seclusion of
his study and bask in the light of her nuptial smile. She marvelled how she could ever have been
wrought upon to marry him! As she repeatedly says that she hated the man.
Hawthorne furnishes:
Let men tremble to win the hand of woman~ they win along with
it the utmost passion of her heart. Else it may be their miserable fortune,
as it was Roger Chillingworths, when some mightier touch than their
own may have awakened all her sensibilities But Hester ought
long ago to have done with this injustice. What did it betoken?
Had seven years under the torture of the scarlett letter inflicted so much
of misery, and wrought out no repentance? (Hawthorne 147)
She is not a saint, she is humane and fallible. There is ample dignity in her mien. She is subtle and
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mysterious. Her emotional vacuum is not redressed or sought to be filled. This feminine form
created by Hawthorne raises a voice without repentance against the repressive chauvinism that
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lies at the centre. We feel that she does not need the support of either of the men. Is she emotionally
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stronger, her personage towers above the two , Roger Chilling worth and Arthur Dimmesdale.
Hester Prynne is the real protagonist in the mans world. With a self-composed resignation, she
endures the ordeal and sustains herself in the wilderness. The two men are seemingly the alter
egos of the woman, the minister Dimmesdale who is gnawed by the sense of guilt is apparently
the good man~ Roger Chilling worths sinister revenge is appallingly fiendish, he is the Blackman.
Hester is the child of nature , a rose in the wilderness. Roger Chilli worth could not but admire
her in her despair, that it was time when she disclosed and revealed the secret of Roger Chilling
worths identity to Dimmesdale. As she implores for his mercy, he comments unable to restrain a
thrill of admiration:
Thou hadst great elements. Peradventure, hadst thou met earlier
with a better love than mine, this evil had not been. I pity thee,
for the good that has been wasted in thy nature! (Hawthorne 143).

II
Pearl and her subsequent coming of age is a concern as she is the offshoot of an akin uncontrollable
passion. She is instrumental in the novel to perpetrate the consciousness of the sinful act on
Hester: She is called a symbol~ she is an extension of Hesters persona. In dressing up, Pearl
Hester allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination their full play~ Arraying her in a
crimson velvet tunic of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of
goldthread. Due to the remarkable attribute of her garb Hawthorne calls Pearl as The Scarlet
Letter in another form~ The Scarlet Letter endowed with life (Hawthorne 61).

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Not once, Hester vocalises a desire to be acknowledged in public life or dissipate the shame by
making the companion of her sin to be known or accountable. But Pearl is irrepressible~ she
demands answers and is not easily satisfied. By coincidence, Dimmesdale reached the same spot,
the scaffold where Hester Prynne had suffered the first few hours of public ignominy, one night
in a sleepy ramble. Hester and Pearl happen to pass by from a vigil at Governor Winthrops
deathbed. As the three forms a chain at the scaffold Pearl inquired:
Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, / tomorrow noontide (Hawthorne 120)?
Later at the Scaffold again, after the election day, Sermon the minister spoke fervently, he confessed
his sin and asked the people to stand witness, as Dimmesdale tore away his ministerial band from
before his breast. In his dying declaration, he spoke of Gods judgment on a sinner, the horror
stricken, multitude saw him inflicted with a gnawing sinister emblem which was always seen in
its outward manifestation on Hestens bosom. He asks Pearl:
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Dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not,
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yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt? Pearl kissed his lips.
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A spell was broken (Hawthorne 137).


III
The Scarlet Letter is a novel about the suffering of a woman. The narrative does not shift from
either Hester Prynne or the scarlet letter. Hester arouses feeling of sympathy, for life had been
unfair, as she did not get her share of joys in life. Her temporary scheme of fleeing to England and
start life anew with Dimmesdale was shattered. Chilling worth had become privy to the plan, as
he craftily extracted the information from the captain of the ship. Fate had contrived otherwise.
Hester was not a puritan prude, but she had a dignified sense of forbearance. She was an
anachronism and rebel: a little ahead of the times. She is the metaphoric dream of all who stand
for the cause of women. The Scarlet Letter A stood for stigmatising her as an adulteress. In the
same society, the sailors were given peripheral liberty:
The buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling,
and become at once, if he chose a man of probity and
piety on land~ nor, even in the full career of his reckless life,
was he regarded as a personage with whom it was
Disrespectable to traffic, or casually associate. (Hawthorne 212)
She is in need of sympathy, but she is overlooked. She is made to undergo a long sentence of
social ostracism. She is more sinned against than sinning. Her entire feminine form is veiled from
view; her sombre attire is enlivened by the richly embroidered letter on her bosom. Though her
beauty is sheathed her being and spirit are unaltered. Hester Prynne herself becomes a blazing

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symbol of suppression of women. The patriarchy of puritan society which denied her the right to
live with dignity. She has to expiate for her desire to be happy. Roger Chilling worth had been no
match to her, but he instilled a false sense of happiness:
She marvelled how she could ever have been wrought
upon to marry himAnd it seemed a fouler offence
committed by Roger Chilling worth than any which had
since been done him, that, in the time when her heart
knew no better, he had persuaded her to fancy
happy by his side. (Hawthorne 146)
It is a subtle tale of subduing a womans passion and right to live: it is a bane of different societies.
In the Indian context, we think of Charitrahein (The Characterless) of Sharat Chandra Chatterjee.
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In his another novel, Biraj Bahu, the eponymous woman protagonist undergoes suffering with
an equal sense of pride, she was implicated on a false charge of infidelity. It is a poignant tale of
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pride and vulnerability. The wronged Biraj Bahu endures the igno minous charge with dignified
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separation and suffering after a blissful matrimony. She too is not tragic and suffers due to the
tragedy of errors. She is noble and enduring symbol of womanly strength and endurance. We feel
that Sharat Chandra had created a strong female literary figure. Towards the end of The Scarlet
Letter, Hester Prynne too becomes a sort of a legend because of her spirit that has survived
despite the odds.
Hester rakes up the issue of gender sensitivity and seems to be persecuted for being progressive
even in trial. She represents and harbours the will to oppose the oppressive fundamentalist. Hester
had assumed the role of a counsellor to the women of New England who were wronged or in
distress and who sought a redressal:
She assured them too, of her firm belief, that, at some
brighter period, when the should grow ripe for it
be revealed in order to establish the whole relation
between man and woman on a surer grand of mutual happiness.
Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she
herself might be the destined prophetess.
The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must
be a woman indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful~
and wise moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethical medium
of joy~ and showing how sacred life successful to such an end
(Hawthorne, 245)!

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Archana Bahadur Zutshi

REFERENCES
Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Private Ltd.,
1979. Copyright in India, 30th Indian Reprint.
Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
1998. Published in Australia.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Dale Books, 1978.
Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Energy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford
University Press, 1983.
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84 Volume 2, Number 1, January-June 2016