The Scarlet Letter Characters Analysis
Table of Contents
As we must realize, The Scarlet Letter is a Romance and not a novel. Therefore, characterization in it is of much less importance than in a novel. As Yvor Winters in Moule’s Curse says,
“Hawthorne had small gift for the creation of human beings even the figures in The Scarlet Letter are unsatisfactory if one comes to the book expecting to find a novel, for they draw their life not from specific and familiar human characteristics, as do the figures of Henry James, but from the precision and intensity with which they render their respective ideas: the very development of the story is neither narrative nor dramatic, but expository.”
Now, this is too extreme a criticism of Hawthorne’s fiction, but it does contain a germ of truth in it. None of the characters in The Scarlet Letter really develops, as they would do in a European novel. They are “transformed” (to use Hawthorne’s own favourite word in the story) rather than developed in relation with their circumstances.
1. HESTER PRYNNE
Hester is the hero of the Romance, The Scarlet Letter. She is presented to us ambiguously. When the story begins, she has already sinned. The story deals with her punishment and with her “transformation” from a sinner to a saint, or the Sister of Charity (or Mercy). We remember Hester alone, with Pearl, moving in and out of the village on a series of errands. Her punishment might have made her a witch (chapter VIII), a prophetess (chapter XII), or the founder of a new dissident sect (chapter XIII). What “saved” her from such a fate was Pearl’s “redeeming” presence.
Pearl, we are told, is the living embodiment of the scarlet letter. Gradually, Hester “transforms her punishment into a virtue. She becomes the Ambassador of Mercy, an Able person and an Angel (the various meanings of the letter “A”). Though not completely acceptable to her society, she triumphs over the evil circumstance by an exercise of her will. She is, as Yvor Winters points out the complete repentant. Her “art” helps her to overcome her circumstance, Her punishment also gives her an insight into the evil in the human breast.
Yet, even she shows fear on three occasions. Firstly, when the Puritans give her rigid states when she is alone with the little Pearl on the scaffold. Secondly, when Chillingworth visits her in the prison house and obliges her to promise him secret. Thirdly, when Dimmesdale becomes enraged in the forest, she pleads with fear, for his forgiveness. Hence she is not all perfection in her heroism.
She can also hide her real self behind her mask of the scarlet letter and her smiling face. In chapter XIII, the writer comments that a real rebel is the one who outwardly conforms to society but inwardly subverts it. In chapter XXI we see Hester moving through the crowd with her mask-like face hiding her secret plans of escape.
She is at her best in the Forest Scenes with Dimmesdale. Her initiative and courage stand out in comparison with the weak-willed minister’s lack of these very qualities. She is an activist, a person who “transforms” her situation, while the minister (ironically), listens to her sermons to him. Yet, she shows an incomprehensible respect to the minister. Does she remember him as he had been rather than as he is in the story?
After a long disappearance after the minister’s death she returns to the village, having married off Pearl in Europe. She spends her last days as an Angel of Mercy, and she is buried next to the minister after her own death. The ambiguity of her character is represented by her symbol-a spot of red against a black background,
2. ARTHUR DIMMESDALE
Arthur Dimmesdale, the divine (religious minister) and an Oxford University scholar, is the most ambiguous character to understand in The Scarlet Letter. We always remember him as a pale, weak young man, trembling easily and holding his hand over his heart. We wonder, as he does, why the Puritans have not found out his secret sooner.
He lacks energy and will. He is the pastor and Hester his spiritual ward. Yet, he commits adultery with her. He is also (ironically) sermonized to by Hester in the Forest. He is a man and Hester a woman. Yet, Hester has more courage and initiative than he has. He wants to confess his guilt, but the words never come out. When they do, people deliberately misunderstand him. This is why there are conflicting views even about the hour of his death and his “confession”. Ironically, his congregation is affected by his sermons because he has suffered, while the other priests fail to reach the hearts of their listeners. He is humble; yet he wants to disappear from the village in a blaze of glory. He must deliver his Election Sermon before he goes. In the blindness of his suffering, be never understands Chillingworth as others do.
He is a hypocrite, as Mistress Hibbins recognizes. As Hester’s scarlet letter gives her certain privileges, his minister’s black cloak gives him benefits. He can wear a mask and hide his real feelings in public. People of instinctive sympathy discover him easily. This is why he is uneasy in the presence of Pearl. After his return from the forest, he is in a strange exhilaration. He wants to utter blasphemies and makes his secret jokes with Chillingworth, all the time laughing privately.
Yet, he, too, is “transformed at the end. Hester, Pearl and even Mistress Hibbins recognise saintliness in his new mood. After the success of his Election Sermon, he decides to bow out with a confession. Even the reports of his death are ambiguous. He never directly admits his guilt in his final confession. He utters a few conventional words about God and sin and pardon before he dies.
Even his grave is separated from Hester’s. As in life, so in death, we always remember him as a lonely, suffering, incomprehensible man.
3. ROGER CHILLINGWORTH
As his name suggests, Chillingworth is a compound of “worth” and “chill”. He is in the tradition of Hawthorne’s cold blooded villains who destroy the human soul- Rapaccini, Aylmer, Aminadabb and Ethan Brand. His worth is that he has been betrayed by Hester and Dimmesdale. Yet he sins more than he is sinned against. He betrays the sanctity of the human heart”, as Hester and Dimmesdale never did.
His appearance suggests the Devil. Hunchbacked and with a stooping walk, he comes from the list of Devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book I. The fire in his laboratory and his blue eyes suggest that he is connected with hell. His cold efficiency and skeptical mind are in opposition to the conventionalized Puritan religious morality. Yet, his sin is that he is not sufficiently detached or scientific. His systematic destruction of the minister’s soul owes its inspiration to a motive of revenge. His, like Dimmesdale’s and Milton’s Satan, is the case of a man who was good and who has fallen. He provokes hatred and dislike. Yet, he is indispensable to the village. As Dimmesdale is a hypocritical minister, Chillingworth is a hypocritical physician (or a quack, or a charlatan) and friend. In his role of friend and physician, he, ironically, does more harm than good to Dimmesdale. He has a diabolical insight into the human heart.
Yet, ambiguously, he is the wronged husband who may exact his revenge by Elizabethan standards. Hester admits his goodness and generosity in the past. His Ruling Passion of Revenge has now made a villain out of him. His goodness in the past may be gauged by his generosity in leaving all his considerable property to his enemy’s child, Pearl. He can be sarcastic (chapter XIV), ironical (chapter XX), and mischievous (chapter XXI). As Hester is identified by her scarlet letter and the minister by his hand over his heart, so the physician is identified by his stoop and his hunchback.
His monomaniac Revenge comes to engross his complete being so much so that he cannot live without his enemy, the minister. He
He tries to feels betrayed when the minister makes a “confession”, stop Dimmesdale with promises of a happy future (Satan as the Tempter). He fails in “saving” the minister’s, and ironically, his own life, with his promises. He dies within a year of the minister’s death, following him even in death.
From all the ambiguous characters of The Scarlet Letter Pearl is the most ambiguous. She is, as we are told, the living embodiment of the scarlet letter. Therefore, like the scarlet letter, she also is a symbol, and her meanings must frequently change through the story. We see her grow from a child in arm to a girl of three to a girl of seven. We later hear that she has married into an aristocratic family in England. Even she is “transformed as other characters are. “Transformed, not developed or changed
To her mother, in her younger days, she symbolizes a punishment, like the scarlet letter itself. She constantly reminds her mother of her sin in public. She is gaily-dressed, due to the “art” of her mother which “transforms” the scarlet letter from a word of dishonour to a beautiful picture. Pearl may often torment her mother with her antics, but she will also defend her against Puritan children. Her mother refuses to part with her not only because Pearl is her only solace, but also because her presence has saved Hester from becoming evil. Pearl has an instinctive nature and feels an early sympathy towards Dimmesdale. Yet, she is the most cruel where she sympathises the most. She always harasses the minister with the question as to when he is going to acknowledge Hester and herself publicly. She also understands that Chillingworth is destroying the minister’s soul (chapter XI).
She is a link between Hester and Dimmesdale. Roy R. Male has made an interesting discovery in his book, Hawthorne’s Trapie Vision The letter “A”, of which Pearl is a living symbol, shows two lines of a ladder ” “” “converging towards the summit The horizontal line “_” helps to form the letter “A”. The two converging lines are Hester and Dimmesdale. Pearl is the horizontal, linking line. She is also the child of Nature. She is compared with the red rose” and the “birds” (both symbols of hope) in the story. Nature pays homage to her.
As she is modelled on Hawthorne’s own daughter, Una, she is psychologically studied. Her sudden dislike of the minister (chapter XIX) and of change in her attitude toward her mother can be due to motives of jealousy of a rival in her mother’s love.
Like other characters, she too is transformed at the end. We hear that this complex child has grown up and married respectably. She has been “humanized” to use Roy R. Male’s words.
THE MINOR CHARACTERS
(1) The Crowd
The crowd, as has been noticed by various critics, plays the role of the Chorus as in the Greek tragedies and in Hardy’s novels. The crowd appears, significantly, at the beginning and at the end of the story. In other words, it appears at critical moments in the story. The crowd we meet in chapters I and II in this “cloister” tragedy is individualized in the form of buxom women and tall, strong men with their three-cornered hats. These women in the early chapters are old gossips. Most of them are old and ugly. They not only pass comments on Hester’s sin, but also introduce the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, to us. Most of these women are harsh and Puritanical in their views. They feel that imprisonment and public shame, and the compulsory wearing of the scarlet letter than death is a “lenient” punishment for Hester.
The “leniency towards Hester, we are told, is due to the minister’s (Dimmesdale’s) stand on Hester’s behalf. Another woman suggests that Hester should have been tortured and a mark of shame burnt into her forehead. The ugliest woman in the group demands Hester’s death. In these representatives of the Puritan society, we see the psychological limitations of this society. The most outspoken members of this society are those who have had no happiness or pleasure in their life, like the ugly matron. It condemns because it hates.
Yet, the same crowd takes kindly to Dimmesdale’s weaknesses. It takes him to heart only if because his own secret sinfulness have brought him closer to their hearts than the bookish pieties of the other priests. At the end, also, it seems to defend its beloved minister by offering a variety of explanations for his “confession” and death.
It can be appreciative and generous. It allows Hester to become a useful member of the community, and it is even proud of our Hester” (chapter XXII). It also has an insight. It understands Chillingworth’s evil intentions. Yet it does nothing to help the minister. Ambiguously enough, it wants Dimmesdale to struggle against evil and come out triumphant. People like the sexton (chapter XII) represent its various moods, similar to Pearl’s various moods.
(ii) The Venerable John Wilson
The old priest, John Wilson, is Hawthorne’s model priest. He is not only pious and sincere, but also open-minded (chapter VII). He is careful of his duties to Hester (chapter III) and the dead (chapter XII). He is humble and sympathetic (chapter XXIII).
Most important, he represents Hawthorne’s own position when he tells Roger Chillingworth that humble philosophy (1.e. science or psychology) should not enter God’s domain, which is the human heart (chapter VIII). To use Henry James’s phrase, he is “the directing intelligence of The Scarlet Letter, although he is not an important member of the main action in the story.
(iii) Governor Bellingham
Governor Bellingham, a soldier, a public man, and an administrator (like Hawthorne’s ancestor in “The Custom House” sketch) is a typical Puritan in his public zeal. His suit of armour completely represents him (even when not worn by him). He is a conscientious man of public spirit (chapter VII), who wants to take Pearl away from Hester on grounds of public welfare. Yet his private life shows a desire for a comfortable life. He is not a hypocrite. Like most Puritans, he draws a line between his public duty and his private life. He is a good man, but lacks in imagination and insight. He is proud of his garden, which abounds in “useful” vegetables like cabbages and pumpkins rather than in roses and apples.
(iv) Mistress Hibbins
Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham’s sister, is a witch who was hanged many years later after the main action of The Scarlet Letter was over. As a critic has pointed out, she is the suppressed side of her brother’s character. She joins witch parties in the forest. This shows her defiance of the narrow morality of the village. Her high position saves her from persecution (does this show Puritan hypocrisy ?). She reads evil in man’s thoughts. She invites Hester (chapter VID and the blasphemous Dimmesdale (chapter XX) to “The Black Man” in the forest. In her own incoherent way she knows Hester’s relationship with Dimmesdale. In an ambiguous way she tells Pearl that the minister is Pearl’s father (chapter XXII).
(v) Governor Winthrop
Governor Winthrop who shifted the seat of government of Massachusetts from Salem to Boston in 1830, plays a very small role in The Scarlet Letter. On the night of his death (which is also the night of Dimmesdale’s Secret confession), a light forming letter “A” appears in the sky. According to the sexton, this symbolizes the goodness and the purity of the dead governor’s life.