The Scarlet Letter as a Story of Crime and Punishment

The Scarlet Letter is essentially a story of crime, sin and punishment. It tells of the ignominy or humiliation of a woman who has broken scriptural and statutory law in a community dedicated to the maintenance of the authority of the law. The magistrates and ministers named are historical figures and the narrator acts the part of a historian, setting the account of her punishment in the context of the history of New England.

The Scarlet Letter

Richard Bellingham, for example, is an important figure in this story of Puritan justice, for he is said to be the chief magistrate when Hester Prynne is sentenced to wear her badge of shame.

In wearing the letter, Hester Prynne loses her individuality and becomes “the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion”. Hester is the “text of the discourse” whenever there is a minister present to read the letter. It is, however, later that “many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant ‘Able’; ‘ so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.’ The people who refuse to read the letter as the judges intended to do so because they respond to Hester as a woman rather than as  a type, as a sign, or as a text. In thus ‘misreading’ the letter they are subverting the system of law based on the belief that the authority of the lawmaker is “of God”. The people of Boston do so spontaneously and unselfconsciously, for they act as the narrator tells us, from the heart. So, too does Arthur Dimmesdale when he allows the suppressed wildness in his nature to speak out and calls Hester his “better angel.”

But the “strategy of subversion” is employed by Hawthorne after Hester had  been branded as a sinner according to the judgments of the Puritan patriarchies. To their mind, her guilt is total and unquestionable and that their morality is the absolute morality. Her sin is unredeemable according to the Puritan ethic. Hester has sinned against the seventh Commandment of God “Neither shall thou commit adultery” – and lost His favor for ever. She can be made to do penance by making her wear of her guilt. Hester’s punishment is double. Not only does she have to wear the embroidered letter on her bosom but Pearl’s presence also keeps reminding her of her sin. The Puritan society asserts its authority over the individual by forcing Hester to accept her punishment. She can, of course, avoid to escaping from the settlement. But, deep down a Puritan herself, Hester chooses to stay back. She however, tries to justify her stance by telling Dimmesdale in the forest, “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so: we said so to each other.”

Hester is a social outcast in the community. Children follow her and shout at her. Strangers gaze at the scarlet letter on her bosom and make no secret of their contempt for her. Her numerous acts of charity as a Sister for Mercy do not secure her the society’s pardon. But Hester is not embittered by the experience.

The reverse is the case with Arthur Dimmesdale. He is Hester’s partner-in-sin and his punishment comes purely from within. He is all the time haunted by his sense of guilt. The fact of concealment serves only to intensify his misery. He undergoes various kind of penance, including vigils, fasts and self-flagellation. As he tells Hester in the forest, it is all penance and no penitence. He even mounts the scaffolds on the dark night of the vigil as an act of expiation. He ultimately manages to carry out the resolve after his  Election Day sermon and unburdens his heart to the crowd. Therein lies his deliverance.

But no such deliverance awaits Hester. She leaves the settlement with Pearl after the deaths of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, but returns to her solitary cottage on the outskirts of the settlement after a few year of continue serving the people. She has, in fact, triumphed over the punishment meted out to her through her vocation (needle work) and her service to the people and also through her implicit acceptance of the punishment. Yet a space is kept between her grave and that of Dimmesdale after her death, signifying that society might have forgiven them, but their ultimate redemption lies in the hands of God. The Puritan ethic is perfectly carried out in The Scarlet Letter even though the narrative is marked by ambiguity at several points.