The title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter refers to the literal symbol of ignominy that Hester Prynne’s community forces her to wear as a reminder of her sin. Though the word “ignominy” is used in sympathetic passages that describe Hester Prynne’s disgrace as an adulteress and out-of-wedlock mother, its use at the same time reveals an extremely critical description of Hester’s community; Hawthorne finds that what is truly disgraceful is the way the community relishes and exploits the opportunity to punish one of its members. Through powerful diction and imagery describing Hester’s sin and through saintly representations of Hester’s beauty and wholeness, Hawthorne reveals his sympathy toward Hester. The narrator commiserates with Hester when the reader first encounters her walking to her daily public shaming upon the marketplace’s scaffold.
He writes, “her beauty shone out and made a halo of misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (50). The word “halo” suggests an angelic, even saintly quality, compared to the sin for which she is being publicly disgraced as punishment, making her circumstance more complex than simply one of punished sin. That she is “enveloped” by disgrace implies that her shame derives more from her surroundings than from her sin; Hawthorne’s use of “misfortune” also demonstrates the narrator’s sympathy toward Hester, again suggesting that her disgrace comes as much from the community’s display of her sin as from the sin itself. Hawthorne portrays Hester sympathetically yet again in her encounter with Chillingworth in the prison. The disguised physician declares Hester to be “a statue of ignominy, before the people” (68). Ironically, Chillingworth, in the role of a healer, here admonishes rather than helps Hester. His words, intended to threaten and punish Hester, in fact, spark sympathy for her in the reader.
Similarly, later in the novel, while Hester and Dimmesdale talk in the forest, briefly away from the opprobrium of the Puritan community, Hawthorne describes how “Hester Prynne must take up again the burden of her ignominy” (170), on her return “to the settlement.” The use of the words “must” and “again” reveal Hester’s continual forced obligation to wear and be a symbol of shame in her community, and show again the narrator’s sympathy toward her. The fact that she is “burden[ed]” by disgrace illustrates the extreme weight of her painful, shunned experience, thus establishing the cause for the narrator’s sympathy for Hester. As Hawthorne shows empathy regarding Hester as she leaves the prison, he also condemns the harsh experience inflicted on her by the community, “The very law that condemned her…had held her up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy” (71).
The words “terrible ordeal” not only reinforce the narrator’s sympathy toward the protagonist, but also suggest that the narrator is judging the community, not Hester. By revealing the community’s enjoyment and cruelty in punishing Hester, Hawthorne criticizes the Puritan’s ideas of justice and mercy through both assertive diction and direct communication with the reader. When “A crowd of eager and curious schoolboys” stare “at the ignominious letter on her breast” (52), the reader sees the “eager” pleasure and excitement witnesses experience from Hester’s circumstance. Here Hester’s disgrace has become both an entertainment and an educational device. The narrator continues with, “she perchance underwent an agony…as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon” (52). With this description, Hester’s humanity is maintained, even when the community, “all” of it, objectifies her as a teaching tool.
The image of her heart “flung”, “spurn[ed] and trample[d] upon” demonstrates both the narrator’s sympathy toward Hester and animosity toward Puritan society, regardless of the age of the member. Shortly after his description of the schoolboy’s callous treatment of Hester, the narrator continues with a harsh account of the scaffold and pillory once employed upon it, “that instrument of discipline” that represented “the very ideal of ignominy” (52). The pillory reflects the nature of the community’s sense of justice, and the narrator finds it extremely harsh. The word “ideal,” often associated with perfection, suggests that the pillory signifies the ultimate desired effect of “ignominy:” public shame from which the sinner cannot turn away.
Next, it would seem that Hawthorne speaks out directly and emotionally to the reader, declaring, “There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature, whatever be the delinquencies of the individual, – no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame” (52). Hawthorn’s use of word “methinks” suggests his forceful personal address on this issue of cruelty; he weighs in powerfully against the malice of the Pilgrim community that punishes Hester, even if it has not subjected her to the pillory. The word “no” implies Hawthorne’s view that this punishment is an absolute violation of human decency on the part of any community that turns a criminal into a victim by inflicting the use of a pillory. The letter “A” Hester must wear shows that the Puritans have depersonalized Hester as part of her punishment for committing adultery.
The Puritan community is again portrayed as disgraceful when “John Wilson, the eldest clergyman of Boston” (60), steps forward above the scaffold where Hester continues to stand. He “had carefully prepared himself for the occasion” (63). Clearly, the words “carefully prepared” show Wilson relishing the public opportunity to punish Hester. He delivers to the community “a discourse on sin, in all its branches, but with continual reference to the ignominious letter” (63). His repeated reference to the scarlet letter underscores his depersonalization of Hester in her disgrace, without any consideration of her human suffering.
The word “ignominious” reflects as much about the opportunistic clergyman and the punishing Pilgrim audience as it does about Hester’s sin. The narrator continues, “So forcefully did [Wilson] dwell upon this symbol, for the hour or more during which his periods were rolling over the people’s heads, that it assumed new terrors in their imagination” (63). The length of this sermon, and the nature of Wilson’s “rolling” delivery show the clergyman’s intention to hammer his message into the crowd and fire up its punishing judgment.
Hawthorne continues to criticize the community as he places Hester historically at the site where she was first disgraced. The narrator notes, “If the minister’s voice had not kept her there, there would nevertheless have been an inevitable magnetism in that spot, whence she dated the first hour of her life of ignominy” (211). Implied is the idea that the power of public shaming by the community causes her to remain. Specifically, by noting that the scaffold is where “the first hour of her life of ignominy” began the author criticizes the community by revealing that Hester did not experience “ignominy” until being publicly disgraced on the scaffold, even though her sin had been committed many months prior.
With his use of the word “ignominy,” Hawthorne repeats throughout The Scarlet Letter the cruelty, judgmental attitude, and narrow-mindedness of Puritan society. He portrays Hester’s community as condemning sinners mercilessly, refusing to accept ideas that are foreign to their ways of living or thinking. In this way, the townspeople depersonalize Hester, suggesting that she and her disgrace are one. Hester is seen as her sin, not as a complex human being with complicated, still unknown, circumstances.