Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter emphasizes the theme of isolation throughout the whole novel. Using a variety of literary techniques and descriptions of emotions and nature, Hawthorne is able to fully depict the inner feelings of hurt suffered by the central characters as a result of severe loneliness and seclusion. The torturous of isolation, are experienced by the key figures, Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, each due to different situations and to various degrees. These characters undergo a journey, which separates them from society. Such a journey allows them to explore their needs and desires in an existential quest that ultimately allows them to recognize themselves as individuals. This journey follows a pattern of fall, renunciation, and redemption.
The Scarlet Letter is primarily concerned with the thoughts and feelings of Hester Prynne. Hester, being an outcast of society, experiences the most evident and apparent form of isolation. As a symbol of sin, Hester is viewed by the strict Puritanical town as an outsider, a presence of evil, and, ultimately, one who is detested by God. The town’s harsh condemnation of Hester is revealed through a local woman’s comment, “…at the very least, they should have put the brand of hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead” (Hawthorne, 36). Although this dire attitude towards Hester does eventually improve, due to her many benevolent works for the poor, she never truly does escape the feelings of lonesomeness and segregation present in her life. This fact is further stressed by Hawthorne’s exclusion of all conversation
and dialogues, a usage of context and form, in chapter five to demonstrate that Hester has absolutely no communication with the world beyond her occasional trips to town to receive and deliver embroidery orders, described as “dark and inscrutable.” The forest, in contrast, provides Hester with a secluded habitat in which she may seek truth and escape the glares of humanity, though all the while downhearted and alone.
Isolated from the constraints imposed by living in such a stern culture through the public’s disdain and her own rejection of the local beliefs, Hawthorne’s protagonist experiences liberation from the shackles of the community’s austere approach to life. Hester Prynne contemplates new ideas, which would never have occurred to her were she not removed from the general populace by her fall. Hawthorne describes this emancipation writing,
Alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable, – she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world’s law was no law for her mind…. In her lonesome cottage, by the shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England. (Hawthorne, 151)
This passage describes the effect of isolation on Hester. The “ fragments of a broken chain’’ she casts off symbolize the confinement of New England’s puritanical ideology. The line “ the world’s law was no law for her mind’’ illustrates her abandonment of this faith’s doctrines, which allows her experience thoughts that “ dare to enter no other dwelling in New England.’’ The loneliness of Hester’s expulsion from society provides her with a freedom of intellect that cannot be found in culture governed by rigid belief system. However, it proves difficult to accept thoughts that challenge the convictions to which the scarlet letter’s bearer has been subject so long. The effect of Hester’s years spent separated from the influence of public’s beliefs and laws are clear:
For years past she looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators have established ; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for
the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory , the gallows , the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other woman dared not tread. (Hawthorne, 183).
She now freely condemns practices of the pillars of New England communities, challenging the church while renouncing the reverends’ decree of God’s will and magistrates’ laws. Hester freely chastises the entities which create structure and constraint in society. Like the native peoples, who hold no ties to Christian faith or laws, she does all this without remorse or doubt regarding her soul’s future.
A more private and hidden feeling of isolation and alienation is conveyed through
Arthur Dimmesdale. Unlike Hester, who has been thrown into a life of dejection by society, Dimmesdale inflicts this desolation upon himself. Dimmesdale, unable and unwilling to publicly reveal his sin, continues to be haunted by his own guilt, and consequently feels inner isolation towards humankind. Nonetheless, the entire town embraces Dimmesdale as a messenger of God and “a miracle of holiness” who should be greatly admired and respected. Paradoxically, Dimmesdale views himself as an evil fiend and punished himself with daily abuse and starvation. In the end, when Dimmesdale finally does release his guilt and shame, he succumbs to sickness and dies, feeling for the very first time, true happiness and peace.
As the impious revenge-seeking villain of the novel, Roger Chillingworth undergoes the most concealed and obscure form of isolation. Not only is he physically separated from his companion, Hester, and the townspeople, who suspect evil intervention, but is also mentally detached from himself. To exhibit this transformation, Hawthorne expresses the character of Roger Chillingworth primarily through private contemplation; Chillingworth exposes his true self only through his thoughts. With exception to Hester, Chillingworth speaks to no other person about his plans or motives. Following his vow to uncover Hester’s secret lover,
Chillingworth slowly begins to lose his true identity to the devil. Such pure wickedness causes Chillingworth to eventually withdraw from his prior life and isolate himself to live in a world, which through his eyes, only contains bitterness and hate.
Although Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth all experience isolation, each endures a different aspect and to various extents. Hester is alienated from her fellow man and is completely cut off from a life of customariness and normality. On the other hand, Dimmesdale, essentially the town’s public figure, feels alone in the fact that he is the sole person, besides Hester, to really understand the true man within himself. This agonizing wound is so strong that it eventually takes his life. However, Chillingworth is the character that goes through the most harsh and excruciating form of torture. To surrender to evil and watch oneself gradually wither away due to one’s own choice is one of the most unbearable pains known to man.
The agony of isolation that Hester and Dimmesdale go through, which directly extends to Chillingworth’s distress, is caused by the firm belief, by the town, that they are responsible for the extermination of all existing sin on earthy, though they themselves sin. In addition, Hawthorne explains that society, in judging people according to what they themselves believe to be proper and ethical is, appallingly to claim to be flawless and equal to the superiority of God himself. All these key figures, Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, undergo a spiritual journey in which a fall isolates them from society. This separation provides a new perspective on the group they were once a part of that causes the fallen to renounce the beliefs and practices of their contemporaries. As they distance themselves from the world, these characters cast off the shackles created by the influence of other’s people’s thoughts and ideologies. Release from these constraints allows them to look critically at the society they have left behind and form their own opinions of where life should lead, rather than accepting the roles that others have placed upon them.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1986.Print. “Isolation in the Scarlet Letter” StudyMode.com. Web.06 Aug 2013. . “Isolation Through Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” 123HelpMe.com. Web. 04 Aug 2013
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Scarlet Letter.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
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