Alienation is a common theme in all writing; however, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, never has alienation been so vividly accounted. The Scarlet Letter is a story about Hester Prynne, a woman who commits adultery against her husband named Roger Chillingworth, with the local reverend named Arthur Dimmesdale; the result is a strange child named Pearl. The plot thickens as the mistress and the reverend strive to keep their sin a secret, and as Chillingworth appears back in town hiding his true identity; it climaxes on a scaffold where all secrets are revealed. Alienation is a heavy theme throughout the book, and it adds an incredible twist to see it’s affect on the characters. Alienation is portrayed through symbols, behavior, and drama with Hester, Pearl and Dimmesdale. Each character is associated with an important symbol that sets them apart from society. They also each deal with their alienation in different ways with different behaviors, and they are treated differently by society causing drama. In the end, some can deal being outcasts from society, but some cannot.
Hester, the main character of the book, is most evidently alienated from society for her sin. The most important symbol in the book, the embroidered “A” on her bosom, sewed on as punishment for adultery, is also a symbol for alienation. She is different from all of society because of that mark, and can never live a normal life because of it. “…Let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart,” (38), said a townsperson at first sight of the scarlet letter. As seen in this quote, society will always look at the scarlet letter as a wall between themselves and Hester. Hester’s behavior shows how greatly she is affected by her alienation.
“Lonely as was Hester’s situation and without a friend on earth who dared to she herself, she, however, incurred no risk of want,” (57); in this quote one sees how being alienated from society can cause a person to become an introvert and become a lifeless body as Hester had become. There is a lot of drama surrounding Hester; all of society looks at Hester in shame. This complete shun from society drives Hester to live in an isolated cottage away from people. “In this little, lonesome dwelling…Hester established herself with her infant child,” (57). This particular dramatic event alienated Hester geographically as well as socially. Hester’s alienation also causes others to become alienated like her daughter and the one she has an affair with; however, Hester is most sharply alienated from all.
Hester’s daughter, Pearl, is also alienated from society. Her alienation has different circumstances, however, because she was born an alien, she did nothing wrong. Since she is the product of sin, many consider her a “demon child” with supernatural powers. For this reason, she herself is a symbol of her alienation; “It [Pearl] was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!” (70). She is compared to Hester’s symbol of alienation, but she is a breathing, living form of the same symbol. She alienated herself and her mother from society. She is not your normal child, she acts very different; “She [Hester] could recognize her [Pearl] wild, desperate, defiant, mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart,” (63).
In this description of Pearl’s behavior, we see a child that does not fit in your normal Puritan mold; she is a child filled of energy, character, and mischief. She finds a way to live a happy life regardless of being an outcast from society. Because of Pearl’s behavior and her mother’s sin, lots of drama occurs around the possession of the child; “Women it is thy bandage of shame! …It is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer thy child to other hands,” (76). Here, Governor Bellingham is trying to take Pearl from her mother to give her a “normal” life in attempt to raise the child into your average, molded Puritan. Pearl is a free willed little girl who circumstantially is outcasted by society.
Arthur Dimmesdale, the local reverend, is Pearls father; however, this is a secret kept from society and is revealed in the final scene. Dimmesdale’s secret guilt alienates him internally from everyone around him. His hidden sin is eating him alive while he continues to put a mask on and preach to society as if nothing is wrong. This hidden secret is symbolized in the book as an unknown marking on his chest over his heart. “With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed!” (172); here, Dimmesdale reveals the markings on his chest to all of society and reveals his secret. This marking, weather it be a scarlet letter or not, is what symbolizes his alienation. It is an internal alienation from the outside world, and is not known by society until this moment.
His behavior prior to this event should signs of a deep illness, not curable by any medicine. “His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abused into more than childish weakness,” (109). Dimmesdale is weak in spirit and in health due to his extreme guilt alienating him from society. His behavior reflects his health which is in jeopardy due to his secret. This extreme pressure causes dramatic events to occur before the final climax. “Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually under the influence of a species of somnambulism,” (101). The author here describes Dimmesdale’s journey to the scaffold one night; this night he can take the guilt no longer. It describes him to be in another world controlled by his guilt. He is alienated from all when he is in this frame of mind, and this can be seen through dramatic events such as this. Dimmesdale’s secret sin has caused his character to change considerably while alienating him for the rest of the town.
The three “aliens” in this story have different types of alienation, and are under different circumstance too; nevertheless, the simple fact remains, they are alienated from their surroundings. Each character deals with their alienation a different way, and this is evident at the end of the story. Dimmesdale cannot take his inner guilt any longer and dies, Pearl fights through her problems to live a normal life, and Hester lives forever in her sin on her own. Through symbols, each character’s behavior, and the drama occurring in their lives, alienation can be depicted with each character; however, the outcome of their alienation is governed only by the inner qualities of the character that the author has created. This reoccurring theme in literature has never taken a similar twist of outcomes, and it has brought interest, excitement, and meaning to the story.
Courtney from Study Moose
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