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Individualism in 'The Scarlet Letter'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1902 words Published: 8th May 2017

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America and individualism are almost inextricably linked in our perception. From the early beginning with the Declaration of Independence to the strong propagation of liberty and freedom of thought America may in some ways still evoke the picture of a country, where individualism is valued and dreams can be lived.

Therefore, in the following paper, I will set about to explore in which ways some of the characters of Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter are individualistic and what their relations to the community they live in are. I will draw information from different sources, focusing especially on the female character of Hester Prynne and then move on to shortly comment on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Puritanism, as the Puritan community in the book constitutes a central motive of the novel.

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The early 19th century was the time when American independency and character strongly influenced people’s beliefs. The importance of individualism was stressed and a lot of “personal liberties” like e.g. the freedom of speech were granted. Moreover, farmers from Europe were able to independently establish themselves in America and in this way became responsible for and proud of their own achievements. Self-reliance was a key concept, when living in remote regions and enforced the disappearance of class differences as well.

Her exclusion from society can be seen as having triggered this apparent independence and the mentioned self-reliance. She has to adapt herself to this new and demanding situation, which makes her rethink and challenge traditional beliefs, like the absolute belief in law. Her mind now reaches beyond the limits society has set and she manages to reach a new freedom of thinking uncommon for her time. Hawthorne compares this to the intellectual development in Europe at that time.

“Standing alone in the world, – alone, as to any dependence on society and with little Pearl to be guided and protected, – alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not 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. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. […] Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter” (Hawthorne 149)

Where Hester is the cause of disdain for the community, the woman who has committed a despicable sin, Dimmesdale embodies the wise and pious priest, which seems to set them worlds apart in the eyes of society. But far from deserving this elevated and honoured position, Dimmesdale is the partner of Hester’s adultery. He now acts as a judge of her crime and conceals his own guilt. As a reverend the responsibility for Hester’s religious devotion and soul would lie in his hands.

Instead of being faithful to his religious beliefs he becomes a hypocrite. Despite the Puritans’ conviction of his saintliness, he is not what he appears to be. His violation of a law of society did not happen due to individualism, but maybe because he values his own satisfactions even more than he values his faith.

Dimmesdale finds himself caught between his loyalty to his office and God and the in the eyes of the community abominable sin he has committed. His dependence on society makes him abstain from revealing his own guilt and even when he decides to flee with Hester later in the novel, he is only ever half-heartedly convinced of the plan to escape the restraints of society, because he longs to stay a respected part of the society he knows. (Colacurcio in The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings 307-330)

3.5 Hester and Pearl

Pearl is closely linked to the symbol of the scarlet letter. As the illegitimate child, born as the result of the adultery of her mother and Dimmesdale, she shares her mother’s exclusion from society and is Hester’s joy and her reminder of her punishment at the same time. The Puritan community links her with the sin of her mother and although Pearl would probably want to belong to society, she cannot. She is special in her own way, described as an elf-like child, close to wilderness and wild.

When Hester throws down her letter in the scene in the woods, Pearl feels rejected as well, because she is the embodiment of the letter’s meaning. The way for overcoming the letter’s punishment is another for her: “Not by escaping the implications of the letter, but by acknowledging its full meaning, Pearl seems so say, can any of them realize their full human potential and assimilate that meaning into the imaginative life of the future” (Person 76).

What on first sight seems to be a subservience to a punishment, is a rather indiviual outlook on the future and implies that the individual should accept itself and become more the person it really is. (Person 74-76)

3.6 Hester’s Comparison to Anne Hutchinson

The fictitious Hester Prynne and the historical Anne Hutchinson seem to be linked through a series of similarities.The antinomian philosophy Anne Hutchinson believes in, stresses the importance of an individual experiencing of God – although “For Hutchinson individual behaviour played no role in salvation”(Person 18). Hutchinson also defied Puritan elders, as did Hester in the novel, and refused to take their judgements on unchallenged.

A direct allusion to Hutchinson at the very beginning of the book itself, “This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history […] or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door […]” (46), makes the reader immediately suspect a connection between the two women. Hutchinson and Hester do not accept authority unquestoningly and have their own thoughts concerning society. Their male-dominated surroundings feel this to be impardonable and both are forced to live away from society as a punishment. (Murfin 13)

The inner similarities between Hester and Anne Hutchinson are visible, but Hester can be seen as a mixture of different characters, a fictitious woman containing various aspects, living in a historically realistic Puritan world. (Colacurcio 309)

4. Individual versus Community in The Scarlet Letter

Even at the beginning of the novel, Hawthorne illuminates the tension between Hester as an individual and the society she lives in. (Baym 12)

She is removed from society and “her compassion and creativity constitute a substantial step towards a more enlightened conception of social relationships”. (Cowley 87)

To counteract her liberal thinking Puritan society is deliberately described with rather negative aspects and sets a background for Hester’s individualism. But Hester herself is no faultless character; she is portrayed as a human being, which brings about closeness to the reader. (Baym 10-12)

Even though the community is regarded very critically in the book, Bercovitch even argues that the real protagonist of the book is neither Hester nor Dimmesdale, but the Puritan community itself. (Bercovitch 47)

5. The Author – Nathaniel Hawthorne

5.1 Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne, famous writer of the 19th century, was himself very well-read and included a variety of techniques in his own work. During his youth he became more and more

fascinated by nature and the freedom he felt in it. This picture of nature as a place where an individual can be free from all restraints of community is mirrored in The Scarlet Letter – the main characters act more freely and are more themselves in the wood, where society has no claim on them – they can act as individuals. (Murfin 4-5)

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5.2 Nathaniel Hawthorne and Puritanism

Had Hawthorne chosen any other society for the setting of his classical story, the result and impact would have been different. Puritan values and beliefs are tantamount to a strict societal structure and breaches of society’s rules have severe consequences in his New England. So Hawthorne does not idealize his Puritan ancestors, but even has an ironic view on them. He keeps reminding us that obedience is a key factor for being accepted by this society and also tells us about “the repressions required to produce good citizens”

(Thomas 183)

However, the author does not claim subservience to be necessary for integration into society. Hester starts thinking independently and therefore stands for a new kind of citizen. Thomas argues that “it [The Scarlet Letter] illustrates how important it is for liberal democracies to maintain the space of an independent civil society in which alternative obediences and loyalties are allowed to flourish”.

The Scarlet Letter seems to be a genuinely American novel, not only focussing on the nation’s past, but also portraying a liberal attitude and a spirit of independence struggling with society’s prescriptions. (Thomas 183-185)

Hawthorne himself had read a lot of material on seventeenth-century history and felt obliged, due to his own Puritan ancestors having persecuted other people, to create a story dealing with the topic. (Person 16,17)

6. Conclusion

The Scarlet Letter offers a wide range of interpretations. Throughout the novel, aspects of individual thinking are noticed and one’s own picture of Puritan society and the individual in it emerges.

Although one may at first sight regard Hester as the unquestionable heroine of the book, this is not so obvious on second sight. The society itself has an enormous role to play and contributes essentially to the meaning and message of the book.

Without her punishment and near-exclusion from society, Hester would probably not have made this enormous development as an individual. By way of adapting to her life as an outcast, she begins to no longer rely on society and on its rules, but forms her own perspective on the world and on human beings. On the contrary, the Puritans are nearly always referred to as “the Puritan community, the Puritan society”, which makes them appear as one mass, not as individuals.

Dimmesdale on the contrary, seems a conformist, who just longs to be a respectable member of society. His desire is not to be individualistic and intellectually independent, but to be accepted and estimated by society.

Hawthorne himself has succeeded in imagining a story that does not cast an entirely glorifiying light on the Puritan history of America, but which subtly ironically describes a conflict between the individual and the laws set by society.

In conclusion, Hawthorne’s work can be regarded as a story of individualism versus conformism, but it does not regard individualism as impeccable and distance from community as the one way worth following in life.


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