The Nature of Revenge in the Scarlet Letter
Hawthorne’s masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, has been interpreted and studied since it was first published in 1850. There is much conjecture on Hawthorne’s intended meaning; both literally and allegorically. However, most critics support the theme of adultery in this work. Many critics also agree with the themes of revenge and guilt. Johnston believes the gist of this novel concerns the “consequences of breaking the moral code…and failing to be true to human nature” (Johnston 2). She suggests that revenge and hypocrisy are also significant elements in The Scarlet Letter and that it encompasses “a person’s attempt to see his or her artistic side survive in a community that disapproves of the use of the imagination” (Johnston 2).
The word adultery is never spelt out in the novel. Thus, the letter A could represent an avenger as well as an adulterer (Johnston 17). Gartner believes that Hawthorne has rewritten the Book of Esther and convincingly draws parallels between the two works (Gartner 131). Similar to Johnston’s view, another critic compares Hawthorne to Hester and attributes to Hawthorne the belief “that artists can prevail over the oppression shown them by other people in his book ‘The Scarlet Letter’” (Egan 26).
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Another critic asks, “Is the main theme the effects of hidden as contrasted with open guilt?” (Waggoner 127). He also ponders:
…Why is this novel which leans so heavily on a statement so ambiguous?… He is in fact letting
his images do most of the work for him, even
while he reserves the right to comment abstractly
on them, and in later chapters, on the rare but
significant actions (Waggoner 127).
Male, another scholar, deduces:
The critic faces two major difficulties in discussing the
book. Its plot is so lucid that almost every reader
thinks he already knows what The Scarlet Letter is
about. Thus what see to be the most obvious symbols-
Pearl, Roger Chillingworth, the letter itself- are actually
the most often misunderstood (Male 93).
Male believes the novel is about man’s “search for truth” and “the consequences of sin” (Male 93).
Close scrutiny of the action in The Scarlet Letter divulges a theme of revenge with the three main characters acting as avengers. Though Chillingworth is the most obvious symbol of revenge, Dimmesdale and Prynne are vengeful in different degrees.
The author himself sets the tone for revenge in the preface to the second edition:
…the author begs leave to say, that he has carefully
read over the introductory pages, with a purpose to
alter or expunge whatever might be found amiss…As
to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or
political, he utterly disclaims such motives….The
author is constrained therefore, to republish his
introductory sketch without the change of a word
Although Hawthorne denies using The Custom-House as a means of revenge for his removal as a Custom House official, he quite obviously does so. The focus of his long description of the Custom House (and object of revenge) is not only to cast his co-workers and boss in a poor light but to reveal the inefficient and apathetic virtues of the Federal Government. To this end, Hawthorne describes in detail how his co-workers sleep on the job and even describes his own government workday as “…the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life…” (Hawthorne 27). This reveals that government workers enjoy three hours of work rather than the customary eight. Referring to the Custom House Inspector as “an animal” and comparing him to a dog is another of Hawthorne’s vengeful deeds (Hawthorne 21).
Chillingworth embarks on a road to revenge at almost the first moment he enters the story. The demon of revenge overtakes him as he enters the town and sees Hester upon the scaffold when “A writhing horror twisted across his features” (Hawthorne 44). Chillingworth’s next action is to obtain information on Hester from a man in the crowd. He first seeks to confirm Hester’s iniquity and then asks for the identity of the baby’s father. When he learns that the father’s identity is not available, Chillingworth declares that this unknown man should be punished. He reiterates three times that the child’s father will be found (Hawthorne 45).
Chillingworth’s next significant action takes place while ministering medicine to Hester in her prison cell. Hester is afraid to take any medicine from him fearing his revenge. Chillingworth reassures Hester that if he wanted revenge, he would not get it by killing her. He explains that “better revenge” would be in keeping her alive to wear the scarlet letter. An easily overlooked point is Chillingworth’s next declaration; that it is the infant’s father who has hurt both himself and Hester. This may mark the beginning of mutual revenge against Dimmesdale, as Hester agrees to keep Chillingworth’s identity as her husband secret (Hawthorne 52).
Chillingworth fades into the background for a while, but he is present when the town elders debate removing Pearl from her mother’s care. When the elders fail to take this course of action he suggests that he might study the child to determine her father. It seems that he is determined to exact revenge on someone (Hester) until he can ascertain the child’s father. Chillingworth’s mental and perhaps physical torture of Dimmesdale is quite obvious and does not warrant further discussion here. It is noteworthy that when Dimmesdale is asleep in his chair one day, Chillingworth removes his cloak and sees the scarlet letter across his heart; which makes him more obsessed with torturing Dimmesdale (Hawthorne 95). Learning of Dimmesdale’s and Hester’s planned departure, Chillingworth planned to join them rather than to kill Dimmesdale. After Dimmesdale’s death, Chillingworth has lost his will to live. His revenge was in watching the minister suffer and ended with his death.
Though Dimmesdale suffers terribly by his own self-torture, he too has tasted revenge. He abandons Hester at her time of need (public punishment) and blames her for putting him in his secret predicament. For seven years he makes no attempt to see her, comfort her, or offer any type of financial support for her or his illegitimate child. However, ironically, his actions seek revenge on his community for punishing Hester. He still lusts for young women in his congregation. He preaches fervent sermons, while mentally mocking his congregation. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is on the podium, making noise in the middle of the night to mock his congregation. After his meeting in the woods with Hester and planning to sail away with her, his only question was when they would leave. He was concerned with getting in one last piece of revenge, the Election Day Sermon, before his departure.
Dimmesdale’s ultimate revenge is at the last scaffold scene. He dashes Hester’s hopes of a new life with him and Pearl. He further destroys her hopes of spending eternity with him in his last dying words. He admits his guilt to the townspeople whom he has mocked for all these years, only when he knows they will have no chance to retaliate.
The most dramatic actions of revenge are performed by Hester Prynne. As the prison guard leads her from the prison:
…on the threshold of the prison door, she repelled
him, by an action marked with natural dignity and the
force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if
by her own free will….she took the baby on her arm,
and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile,
and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around
at her townspeople and neighbors (Hawthorne 39).
Thus, from her very first action in the story, Hester shows disdain for the townspeople. She looks directly at them with scorn, vowing to keep her true anguish hidden from them. She places her hand on the beautiful letter on her breast only to draw attention to it. Making her punishment an object of art is another means of Hester’s revenge. Hester’s decision to remain in the colony after being released from prison was also vengeful. Her continued presence adorned with the letter would cause unease in the community and discomfort for Dimmesdale.
It can be argued that Hester’s reason for not naming Dimmesdale while on the scaffold is Hester’s main revenge. She knows the minister’s weak nature and that his conscious will offer her more revenge if he is alive, rather than put to death if she names him. Hester also knows that agreeing to keep Chillingworth’s identity as her husband hidden is also not to Dimmesdale’s advantage. It is hard to believe that Hester truly loved Dimmesdale since she made no attempt to contact him for seven years. After seeing Dimmesdale at the second scaffold scene, and noting his physical and spiritual deterioration, Hester’s need for revenge against Dimmesdale has been satisfied.
Hester is able to get revenge on her community by making her needlework so good that they needed her. She must have gained some enjoyment from refusing to work for some of her community. Also, performing work for the elders, and those in high positions in the community must also have given her some satisfaction. Hester exacted her revenge by kindness. She proudly wore the letter in public, knowing that seeing it made many of the townspeople uneasy because of their similar sins. This is also probably her true motive in wearing the letter even when told she could take it off.
Finally, Hester exacted revenge on her community through Pearl. She would not leave her house without taking Pearl along, dressed like a smaller version of the scarlet letter. She was also lax in Pearl’s religious training and in disciplining her, feeling that the community had caused Pearl to suffer enough.
From Preface to Conclusion, The Scarlet Letter endows its infrequent action with vengeance. The characters symbolize art, guilt, and obsession, but the main characters are all avengers on some level. Is not Hawthorne making the statement that human nature is imbued with revenge?
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