The Scarlet Letter as a Story of Crime and Punishment
“Crime” and “Punishment” are legal terms, and in that respect, it is a society that imposes its code of conduct on the erring individual. “Sin” and “Regeneration” are religious, Christian terms and they mean that the code of conduct that the individual offends is not legal but religious and/or moral. By good deeds and penance, the individual can make amends for his sin (as in ST Coleridge’s famous 19th century poem “The Ancient Mariner“). We shall consider The Scarlet Letter from both the social (legal) and the individual (psychological or religious) points of view.
We have already said that the Puritan society of Boston was a theocracy, this is, it was a religious as well as a political organization. Individuals who defied or offended the society were dangerous, as they might cause anarchy in the society which was itself still trying to adjust itself in a new country in which there was danger from the Red Indians, the Spaniards, and from Nature itself. The crime that Hester has committed is over before The Scarlet Letter begins. In this sense, The Scarlet Letter deals, not with crime and punishment, but with the effect of a particular sin on a group of people-Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. The crime, that is to say, is antecedent to The Scarlet Letter. We are shown, mainly, the punishment that the sinners, Hester and Dimmesdale, suffer.
Externally, as Hawthorne insists in the book, the social instruments of punishment are the prison-house (chapter 1), the scaffold (chapters III, XII, XXIII), the crowd (chapter 1) and the magistrate, Governor Bellingham (chapter VIII). Pearl is threatened by Hester that she would be “imprisoned” in a dark closet if she does not keep quiet (chapter XV). This shows how the Puritan mind was obsessed with the idea of “dark” imprisonment for the defiant and the recalcitrant Puritan (like Pearl threatens to become). Hester herself is a prisoner of her past, as the scarlet letter constantly isolates her from her community (chapters V and XIII). Her ostracism is a form of imprisonment also. She is isolated on the scaffold (chapters II and III) also, and the “rigid” stares of the Puritans make her feel like a prisoner. The only time she is freed from this “imprisonment” is in the forest (chapters XVII and XVIII), where the sun shines and her lost beauty is restored.
In chapter XXII, we learn that Hester is surrounded by a group of curious onlookers, as Dimmesdale is surrounded by a group of listeners. Each of them is in a separate sphere”, as she herself realizes, and they can never meet. Their isolation due to the surrounding crowd, Hawthorne implies, is a form of imprisonment; even death is an imprisonment, and the sad lovers are separated from each other even in death. Hence punishment “by imprisonment is complete both physically and symbolically in the book. Similarly the scaffold plays an important role as an agent of social sanction of punishment in chapters II and III (where Hester is raised up as a criminal), chapter XII (where Dimmesdale raises himself up as a criminal in the quiet of the summer night), and chapter XXIII (where Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, as also Pearl, find themselves raised on the scaffold as sinners).
The symbolism of the “heart” as a “mine” and “the dark maze”, of the “dark” forest and the “dark” grave also repeat the idea of the imprisonment of the individual will in the Puritan society of the 17th century Boston. The jeering woman of chapter I and the wanton children of chapters V and VI are also forms of punishment for the sinner. The minister, Dimmesdale, punishes himself behind a closed door in the dark of the night (chapter XI). The scarlet letter and Pearl are also “punishments’, as they constantly remind Hester of her sin. Perhaps the only criminal in the book is Chillingworth, who impiously “burrows” into the human heart. Each punishment, on the other hand, takes various forms, and each form of punishment–the prison-house, the graveyard, the stocks, the pillory, the crowd, the scarlet letter and the scaffold-has the social sanction of the Puritan society, which cannot tolerate any opposition.
Yet, Hawthorne is concerned not only with the social, but also with the personal “matter”, i.e. subject. Externally, as we have said, the punishment of Hester and Dimmesdale is symbolized by the instrument of society–the prison-house, the pillory, the scaffold, the pulpit, the scarlet letter-but internally, i.e. psychologically, the “punishment” is a matter of the individual conscience. Hester’s inner suffering is especially stressed in chapters V and XIII. She suffers internally because both Pearl and the scarlet letter are constant reminders of her sin to her. Therefore, she refuses either to give up the child (chapters VII and VIII), or to divest herself of the scarlet letter chapter XIV). That is, she accepts her punishment internally or spiritually, and is willing to correct herself by accepting the coercive punishment of her society. Arthur Dimmesdale also suffers terrible agony in secrecy. His tormented conscience forces him to devise ways and means to “play out” his “punishment” in private. He keeps vigil, fasts and whips (scourges) himself. His habit of holding a hand over his heart indicates his mute confession of guilt. Both he and Hester are likened to “spirits”, i.e. ghosts in chapter XVII. This means that their “punishment” – both external (or physical) and internal (or psychological or spiritual) has killed them, i.e. left them without life” (which means beauty and activity). Each of them has accepted his or her ‘punishment” in public or private and suffered the consequences of his or her crime.
The question of sin and redemption, on the other hand, is not a social, but a religious question. The very fact that Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s “punishment” is not only external (physical and social), but also internal (psychological or spiritual), suggests that the problem is not only a matter of law (external) but also a matter of religion (internal). Given good Puritans like Dimmesdale and Hester, their tragedy is not only a legal punishment sanctioned by their society but also punishment which is much worse their consciences prick them. They may be criminals by the standards of Boston Puritans, but they basically think of themselves as sinners”, i.e. alienated from “God” or “conscience” (a Freudian psychologist would say, “the super-ego”). Whereas the sanction behind the crime and punishment theory is the coercive nature of the Puritan social organisation, the sanction behind “sin and regeneration” is a private matter of conscience and relation with God. “Crime and Punishment” are, therefore, external cause and effect: “Sin and Regeneration” are internal convictions, a psychological state, as Coleridge has so movingly shown us in that great poem, “The Ancient Mariner”. Hester and Dimmesdale are punished by society, but also by their consciences.
As a critic has remarked, The Scarlet Letter deals with the effect of sin on people’s lives. Hester and Dimmesdale’s “sin” is antecedent to The Scarlet Letter, but their suffering is described in the book. If chapters II and III describe Hester’s external “punishment” in general, chapters V and XIII describe her mental agony in the main part. She is worried constantly by the stares of people, the scarlet letter, the jeering of the Puritan children and by Pearl, who teases her– with a vengeance. [Her refusal to leave the settlement (chapter V). to surrender the child, Pearl (chapters VII and VIII), and to tear off the scarlet letter (chapter XIV) show. Hester’s courage, but more, they show her willful acceptance of the consequences of her own sin. She accepts insults as well as her humble position in society, and though she externally remains as a beacon-light to would-be sinners, internally, she does achieve a harmony with her society with her dutiful behaviour and good deeds.)
This internal “change” is symbolised in the varying meanings of the letter “A”. She could be capable of “duplicity” (see especially, chapters XIII and XXI), but it is her undaunted courage and inner acceptance of the consequences of her sin that win our admiration. The scarlet letter as well as Pearl, the symbols of her sin, assist Hester to achieve redemption (if not in the eyes of her society, at least, possibly, in the eyes of God) with her mission as the Sister of Charity. Hester triumphs over her circumstance (fate) with her goodness and resolve. In this sense, she achieves a spiritual victory over her society, which acknowledges her changing status in her community.
Dimmesdale also passes through a similar crisis. He does not suffer publicly as a criminal (as Hester does), but his raw conscience chares him into constant self-torment through self-laceration and mortification. He hurts himself physically for his sin- but he “punishes” himself in secret in darkness). Notice that Hester stands on the scaffold at mid-day in June Dimmesdale at mid-night in Mayor June. Chillingworth as the Puritan community recognizes, has been sent by Providence (Fate or God) to punish Dimmesdale for some secret sin. Yet, the community believes, Dimmesdale is sure to emerge triumphant from his ordeal (chapter IX). It is also suggested in the book that the earthly torture of Chillingworth’s animosity towards Dimmesdale may be Providence’s (God’s) way of salvaging the “lost” (or corrupted) spirit of Dimmesdale. The good minister, Dimmesdale, overcomes Chillingworth (in the second half of the book), Hester (who “tempts” him in chapters XVII and XVIII, but is rejected in chapter XXIIT) and “the black man”, i.e. Satan (who seems to have affected his mind in chapter XX).
Both Chillingworth and Hester are too late (chapter XXIII) to tempt him to go on living in sin. In a flush of triumph, he acknowledges Hester as his fellow-sinner, and Pearl as his daughter, tells Hester to leave everything in the hands of God, and dies on the Election Day to mean, possibly, that he has been “elected by God to go to heaven). In this sense, whereas Hester’s “regeneration” is more social, Dimmesdale’s “regeneration” is actually a “salvation”. Like King Arthur of the legends, he has overcome sin, temptation and evil to emerge triumphant in his public confession of sin and death. Yet, his spiritual salvation is, perhaps, more subjective than actual, as it should in a deeply ambiguous book like The Scarlet Letter.
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