The Scarlet Letter: Destined to torture high school students for time immemorial
“A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game,” writes Jacques Derrida. “A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible. . . . [It] can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.” At first glance, a piece of literature is bound to the time in which it is written – the peculiarities of the language of the period, as well as the sensibilities and prejudices of the author’s culture, create the text’s external impression. However, the truths that the author weaves beneath the surface of the text can transcend time; indeed, they gain meaning as the text is interpreted and reinterpreted by readers outside of the text’s original time period. Thus, though Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter is marked with the indulgently verbose language of its time, its comments on human strength, morality, and identity render it pertinent to a modern audience. As Derrida notes, this modern re-reading takes Hawthorne’s original themes and develops them in an expanded context.
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Just as Hawthorne adds new importance to 17th-century Puritan life through his 19th-century interpretation, 21st-century readers can add a modern significance to the themes of Hawthorne’s novel. The Scarlet Letter deals heavily with the concept of human strength, a theme that is applicable throughout the ages. The novel’s protagonist, Hester Prynne, has an adulterous affair with Arthur Dimmesdale after her husband has been absent many years and presumed dead. Prynne’s one moment of weakness actually leads her to a life of deep personal strength. Though she is forced to carry the burden of her sin plainly on her breast, Prynne manages to work and raise a child on her own, and maintain strict moral integrity throughout the novel. She never blames Dimmesdale for abandoning her and her daughter, and even keeps her husband’s identity a secret at his request. Dimmesdale, however, proves an extraordinarily weak character, as his moment of sin leads him to self-destruction instead of self-fulfillment.
While Prynne builds a new life for herself out of her sin, Dimmesdale not only shirks his duties as a father, he literally devastates himself in his guilt. Dimmesdale mutilates his own body instead of accepting the responsibilities of his sin, showing his cowardice as a human being. This theme of strength and weakness is also applicable to single motherhood in the modern-day. Though single mothers today do not face the intense stigma that Hester Prynne did in Puritan society, single mothers still have broken a social norm and must overcome this past indiscretion to create a life for themselves, virtually on their own. The strength of women in society despite their subjugation is still a prevalent theme in modern society, and the examination of the history of this struggle is vitally important.
The Scarlet Letter also presents a view of morality that is pertinent to a modern readership. Prynne defies the moral norms of her society by committing adultery but remains steadfast in her obligations to her daughter and her duty to society throughout Hawthorne’s work. Prynne accepts her condemnation for her sin, a highly moral act, though the Puritan punishment she is given is excessive and unfair. Dimmesdale, on the contrary, refuses to accept the consequences of his sin – he barely talks to Hester or Pearl at all – and instead preaches the Puritan morality that he himself has broken. Such hypocrisy is ever-present in modern life, particularly in the realm of politics. The famous segregationalist Strom Thurmond had an illegitimate child with a black woman that he never owned up to until his death. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was revealed as a prescription painkiller addict after years of railing against drug users and their drain on society. Today, as in the 17th century, one’s moral code is not immune to moments of weakness or baser urges. Furthermore, a society’s moral code does not always align with an individual’s inner moral compass – for example, a gay man living in the American South may be ostracized, but he is still good as far as his own moral view is concerned. A culture may brand an individual as immoral because their values do not agree with that of the greater society, though they conduct themselves well according to their own moral code.
Hawthorne’s novel deals heavily with this divide between personal identity and societal norms. Hester Prynne lives in a world that has branded her a sinner for her one indiscretion. The remainder of her life in Boston is spent both accepting this mark of sin and attempting to overcome it. Hester refuses to leave Boston or remove her scarlet letter, as she feels eternally bound to the sin she has committed. However, Prynne later defies this mark of shame by raising the daughter that was born of it on her own and conducting herself with personal conviction and moral fortitude despite her bad reputation. Her letter “A” even comes to mean “able” to many, and later its negative meaning is almost entirely lost.
Though at the beginning of the novel, Hester is defined almost exclusively by her scarlet letter, she is able to break free from this label through her strength as an individual. The same theme is common in modern discourse, from Blacks fighting racism in American society throughout the 20th century to Demi Moore overcoming the stigma attached to strippers to win her custody battle in 1996’s Striptease. In The Scarlet Letter and in modern life, the moral judgments of society attempt to restrict the individual from achieving personal success; it takes a strong individual to overcome society’s moral code to achieve their own moral goodness. Hawthorne expertly threads these ideas of strength, morality, and identity throughout his novel to create a work of symbolic import that is ripe to be interpreted in the modern-day, and in centuries to come.
- Derrida, Jacques. “Dissemination.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. 1830.
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