In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the relationship between Hester and the community parallels the symbolic metamorphosis of Hester’s scarlet letter. The Puritan society alienates and isolates Hester; her initial relationship with the community was despondent and detached. This averse relationship between the society and Hester was personified through the creation of the scarlet letter. Hawthorne establishes a direct correlation between the significance of the scarlet letter and the relationship between Hester and the society.
The scarlet letter was established by the Puritan society to be a corporeal expression of sin and temptation, but through Hester’s altruistic and enduring nature, the scarlet letter becomes a virtuous symbol and thus Hester’s relationship with the community is amended. During the early stages of Hester’s punishment, the scarlet letter that Hester is condemned to bear on her chest is a relatively unique and foreign object within the Puritan society; as a result her relationship with the society is strained and she is met with hostility and distrust.
This also reveals that Puritan society is stagnant and as a result fears change and uniqueness. The society berates Hester and resents her adultery; Hester’s presence in the community generates apprehension among the Puritans. Hawthorne utilises the depraved relationship between Hester and the community to evoke the irony behind her punishment. This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray! Hawthorne 49). Hawthorne establishes the desperate nature of the Puritans to eradicate sin, and in extension, Hester, from their society. The Puritans perceive humanity as submissive in the face of sin; this is made evident by the woman condemning the daughters and wives of the community to the same fate as Hester. As a result, the Puritans view Hester as a temptress and symbol for sin. The women addresses Hester in contemptuous and taunting tones which further suggest the strained relationship between Hester and the community. The Puritan view on Hester is physically manifested in the scarlet letter.
From early on, Hawthorne employs the scarlet letter as a symbol that evokes the strength of Hester and her relationship to society. Hawthorne portrays her relationship with the society in these tumultuous times as severe, which correlates with the severity of what the scarlet letter represents during this period. The scarlet letter represents Hester’s sin and Hawthorne has Hester subconsciously stylize her scarlet letter to inherently represent Hester’s character and function in society. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter ‘A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony. (Hawthorne 50) Hawthorne utilises vivid imagery to juxtapose the significance of the scarlet letter and its physical manifestation, thereby effectively emulating irony in order to define Hester’s strong spirit and womanhood.
The letter is a personification of sin, and a taboo object in society. Hawthorne contrasts this idea by painting an alluring image of the letter by employing eloquent diction. Hawthorne exploits this irony to draw a parallel between the letter and Hester. Hester is also beautiful and elegant yet is shunned from society. By connecting the scarlet letter and Hester through this parallel, Hawthorne successfully unifies the significance and fate of the scarlet letter with the fate of Hester within the community. By embroidering the “A” so ornately Hester embraces her punishment as a form of repentance.
Though the letter ultimately imposes a life of banishment and ostracization upon Hester, Hawthorne immediately defines the letter as a symbol far nobler than adultery. The letter is indicative of Hester’s strength and independence, qualities that distinguish her from the other submissive women in the Puritan society. The scarlet letter consequently elevates Hester above the Puritan society, through its effect of isolation and its symbolism of Hester’s spirit. Hawthorne also establishes Hester’s spiritual relationship between her and the community. At the beginning of the novel Hester’s ties with the community are devastated.
Hester’s decision to stay within the community after she is publicly shamed for her ignominy is symbolic of her enduring nature. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom. (Hawthorne 76) Hawthorne utilises the irony in Hester’s decision to stay in the community that condemned her to evoke her more metaphysical connection to the society.
Hester has a spiritual and moral obligation to the community. Her salvation is intertwined with the relationship she possesses with the community. Hester’s strong spirit has a definitive impact on her relationship with society, her charitable and enduring personality transforms what the scarlet letter represents, and in extension, manipulates the ways in which the community interacts with Hester. During her punishment, the scarlet letter successfully isolates and alienates Hester because the letter manipulates the Puritan’s distressed view on human nature. However, Hester does not passively live out her punishment.
She becomes active and helps others which elicit the reverence of the society. Initially, Hawthorne foreshadows this improved relationship between Hester and society through the night on the scaffold when the meteor reaches its zenith in the sky. “[…] beheld there the appearance of an immense letter–the letter A–marked out in lines of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud […]” (Hawthorne 146). The symbol in the sky is interpreted in a myriad of ways. The townspeople witness the letter “A” in the sky as a sign for “Angel”.
The community’s interpretation of the celestial omen is evidence of the development of Hester’s connection to society. Through this scene on the scaffold Hawthorne emphasises that the idea of sin that the letter represents in society is gradually fading away, and Hester’s relationship to society is improving. Ultimately, due to Hester’s spirit the scarlet letter undergoes a full metamorphosis of symbolism which results in Hester’s renewed relationship to society. Seven years after Hester is condemned at the scaffold the significance of the scarlet letter is addressed by the community and Hawthorne. Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? ’ they would say to strangers. “’It is our Hester–the town’s own Hester–who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted! ’[…] the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. (Hawthorne 153) Hawthorne conveys the metamorphosis of the scarlet letter through the dialogue between the townsfolk and his inclusion of biblical allusion. The community correlates Hester’s existence with the “embroidered badge”-the scarlet letter.
Through this, Hawthorne once again unifies Hester’s relationship to society with the scarlet letter. Furthermore, the anaphora employed by Hawthorne emphasises Hester’s benevolent spirit. Her willingness to help others despite her place in society has earned the respect of the community. The religious allusion associated with the scarlet letter quickly follows the dialogue praising Hester. The position of the allusion in the passage corresponds with the idea that Hester’s relationship society is tied with the significance of the scarlet letter. Hester’s “punishment” has become a symbol of strength, piety, and goodness.
Hester has transformed the very object of scrutiny that has weighed down so much of her life into a divine icon. Hawthorne continually emphasises the correlation between the significance of scarlet letter and Hester’s renewed relationship to society. “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” (Hawthorne 152). The quote highlights Hester’s transformative qualities, primarily her strength which has uprooted the very meaning of the A.
Near the end of the novel, Hawthorne fully conveys the transformation of the scarlet letter and the relationship Hester possesses with the Puritan society. Hester has the opportunity to live a fulfilling life outside of Boston, yet she returns to live out her twilight years in the very city that condemned her. Once again, Hawthorne expertly weaves irony to establish the spiritual relationship between Hester and the community. “But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence.
She had returned, therefore, and resumed, of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it, resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too. ” (Hawthorne 248). Hester’s good willed and strong natured spirit has overcome the original shame placed upon her by society. The spiritual and moral bond that
Hester developed during her punishment towards the Boston society is everlasting; her salvation is forever rooted in the community . Her transformative, independent character has changed the symbolism behind the A. Instead of hiding and being guilty about her situation she openly portrays her repentance and is revered by the community. Hester’s relationship to the community is unified with the significance of the scarlet letter. Hester’s altruistic and independent nature transforms the significance of the scarlet letter and as a result she forms a new, more positive bond with the Puritan community.
Hester’s public scorn at the beginning of the novel is transformed into solemn reverence by the end of the novel. Similarly the scarlet letter’s original definition of adultery is replaced with the word able. Hawthorne employs irony and draws parallels between the scarlet letter and Hester to evoke the emotional and spiritual relationship between Hester and the community. Ultimately, Hester’s scarlet letter and bond to the community was transformed; her spirit and tenacity being the agents of salvation.