Stand By [Her]

The technique of narration Nathaniel Hawthorne employs, to me, is very creative. It allows Hawthorne in “The Custom House” to write a quasi-autobiography, while tying his personal beliefs, second-hand, into the revelation of the story of Hester Prynne to the reader. By way of this, and through the classic tendency of storytelling’s one-sidedness, Hawthorne imparts his views on the reader as the plot is developed; most prominently, Hawthorne stands by Hester Prynne in her adultery.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, raised in nineteenth century New England, could easily see the powerful impact of religion in the area, and he foresaw conflicts and societal questioning of the boundaries of religion and law, as well as absolute morality. Hawthorne chose the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts — his hometown — as the setting of his discussion of sin and religion. Hester Prynne, who was rushed into marriage with someone she did not love, and from whom she was separated by an ocean, slept with Reverend Dimmesdale, her only acquaintance, once, in the New World. During her first interaction with her husband since her punishment, Hester explains that she “felt no love, nor feigned any” for him. (The Recognition). Soon thereafter, Chillingworth reveals that he has travelled across the sea to torment and punish the person with whom she had sinned, Reverend Dimmesdale. Even innocent Pearl, wholly unaware of the situation, observes a connection between Chillingworth and “the Black Man”: the devil. (Another View of Hester). Chillingworth goes on to torment Dimmesdale both physically and spiritually, solidifying his role in the novel as a purely negative character. After one such torturous interaction between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, Hawthorne describes Chillingworth’s behavior as “how Satan comports himself”. (The Leech and His Patient). In his lack of portrayal of Chillingworth’s sorrow regarding being cheated on, Hawthorne seems to be approving Hester’s adultery in this situation.

Many other themes are explored in The Scarlet Letter regarding Hester’s situation, including the hypocrisy of the townspeople (Mistress Hibbins practices witchcraft and is left undisturbed due to her husband’s prominence; the townspeople refuse to believe that Dimmesdale sinned) as well as the sheer magnitude of Hester’s punishment. This all is intentional. At the time of its publishing, the world was at a crucial divergence in the future of Western religion: would religious fundamentalism and literalism pervade society still, or would a more progressive, open approach supersede? Hawthorne, in his support of Hester Prynne’s adultery, advocates progressivism, and stresses redemption over punishment.


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