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A study of the theme of oppression in The Scarlet Letter

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has committed adultery, and her subsequent bearing of an illegitimate youngster has cast her beyond the pale of polite society. It is challenging for us, in the late twentieth century, to comprehend exactly what this indicates. She is permitted to remain in Salem, and to perform amongst the townspeople and interact with them. But she is in no way to be permitted to forget for a minute the enormity of her sin. To reinforce this, she is obligated to wear on her chest a enormous embroidered “A” at all occasions. This could, on the surface, seem like a peculiar punishment everyone in town already knows Hester’s story, and with Pearl in tow it would be tough for Hester to act as if the thing never ever occurred. But the wearing of the “A”, and more generally the way Hester is required to live, shows the extent of the religious oppression below which the Puritans lived.

Initially it would help to recognize something about the background of the Puritan movement. The separation of the Puritans from the mainline Anglican church started in England in the late sixteenth century. Although England was nominally a Protestant country, the Anglican church had been developed for political reasons, not religious ones, and the church established by the English monarchy was quite related to the Roman Catholic a single they had just left. Carroll and Noble point out that many fundamentalist minded Protestants felt that Henry and Elizabeth’s reforms had not gone practically far adequate: “The Protestant dissenters objected to the ‘popish’ practices in the established church and hoped to additional the reformation by eliminating such ‘impurities’. In specific, they wished to simplify the religious service by curtailing particular ceremonies, and they advocated the removal of higher church officials such as bishops and archbishops” (Carroll and Noble, 30).

All of these dissenters wished to purify the church, though not all wanted to separate from it. Carroll and Noble continue: “The Puritans, far more moderate and a lot more many than the Separatists, believed that the Church of England was a correct church even though it desperately needed reformation. The Separatists, on the other hand, insisted that the established church was beyond salvation and felt that a believer who worshipped in that church would be contaminated by its sins” (Carroll and Noble, 30).

Both groups, which in America soon became practically indistinguishable, have been strongly influenced by the teachings of sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, who believed that God chosen a couple of saints as His selected men and women and condemned the remainder of humanity to eternal damnation. “Whether 1 was saved or damned depended not on human action or the high quality of one’s life but rather on the inscrutable will of God. The Lord, according to the adherents of Puritanism, imputed His grace into the souls of otherwise corrupt people, thereby confirming their eternal salvation. This act of conversion became the central aspect of Puritanism, the single event that separated the saint from the sinner for eternity. Though in theory, a belief in these principles of predestination freed the saints from specific moral obligations in this planet, Puritans expected believers to live godly lives on earth as a way of preparing for the comforts of heaven” (Carroll & Noble 30-31). And Edmund S. Morgan in his Visible Saints: A History of the Puritan Thought, observes that “A church, the Separatists insisted, should be composed completely of persons who understood and accepted the doctrines of Christianity, submitted voluntarily to the church, and led lives free of apparent sin” (Morgan, 53).

Officially, Puritans had been willing to acknowledge that occasionally even godly people fell from grace, possibly not as drastically as Hester, but at least a little bit. They felt, nonetheless, that in order to return to communion with God’s saints, a public confession, not only of sin but also of repentance and abject subjugation to the will of God and the church neighborhood, was essential. Edmund S. Morgan notes that amongst the Separatist churches, “in situations of adultery, the church refused to forgive unless the offender publicly expressed his repentance before the church. So attentive had been the Separatists in their workout of discipline that they ultimately located themselves maintaining that the failure to punish a single identified offense was sufficient to destroy a church” (Morgan, 52). Seeking at this in the context of Hawthorne’s novel, we can see that this is what the elders had been looking for from Hester in Chapter 3, when Governor Bellingham says to Dimmesdale, “It behooves you, for that reason, to exhort her to repentance and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof” (Hawthorne, 64).

What they claimed to want was the name of the child’s father. What would this have achieved? Undoubtedly it would have ended Dimmesdale’s career, and subjected him to the very same variety of treatment provided Hester. On this point, the Puritans had been no supporters of the double normal. And, except for allowing Hester to take away the letter “A” from her chest, identifying the father would not have helped her at all if in fact she does not think that confession will save her immortal soul.

Craig Milliman has written an complete post for the magazine The Explicator on Hester and Dimmesdale’s veiled meanings when they address every other in this scene. Dimmesdale is caught in between a rock and a difficult location the Governor has ordered him to attempt to get Hester to identify the father of her kid, who, of course, is Dimmesdale himself. To have Hester confess this would ruin him therefore he phrases his words in such a way that they sound great for the basic public, but contain an entirely separate level of which means for Hester alone (Milliman, 83). He speaks, Hawthorne tells us, in a voice “tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken” (Hawthorne, 65). The audience perceives this as reflecting the depth of his pastoral feeling for the young sinner. It surely reflects his depth of feeling for Hester, he loves her, but it reflects just as considerably his terror at the situation in which he finds himself, and his fear at what she may say.

Think about his words: “If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be created far more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne, 65). What he is hoping is that she will make a decision that ruining his reputation would in no way add to her soul’s peace. He twists the knife by pointing out that not only is he a fellow sinner with her, but he is a fellow sufferer as effectively. He concludes his speech with: “Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest operate out an open triumph more than the evil inside thee, and the sorrow with out. Take heed how thou deniest to him who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!” (Hawthorne, 65). Once more he is speaking on two levels, attempting to say what a caring pastor would say on the one particular hand and trying to get her sympathy on the other. He is saying, “Your element in this is out in the open, manifested in the presence of the kid. What very good would it do you to involve me, who has not the courage to involve myself? Cannot you see I’m suffering with you as it is?” She apparently buys this argument, because she refuses to inform the crowd his name, and keeps her letter “A” with pride. In Mara Dukats’ words, “Hester transforms the sign into a complex and ambiguous symbol, a single that signifies each Puritan manage and domination, and the refusal and delegitimation of this control” (Dukats, 51).

John K. Roth notes that “The Puritan intention of bringing the sinner into submission has the opposite impact upon Hester, who, with a pride akin to humility, tenaciously makes a way for herself in the neighborhood. As an angel of mercy to the suffering, the sick, and the heavy of heart, she becomes a living model of charity that the townspeople, rigidly enmeshed in their Puritan theology, are unable to emulate. Hester’s banishment hardens her pride till, as she says to Dimmesdale in the forest, their act has ‘a consecration of its own.’ The adultery, in short, achieves a validation very outside the letter of the Puritan law” (Roth, 78). As Roth points out, in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne presents Puritanism as an intense kind of legalism: a reduction of moral values down to a list of do’s and don’ts. Hester, on the other hand, finds her own moral guide in the witness of her heart.

We could ask why she does not move out of town to a location exactly where she is not recognized, someplace she could just set herself up as a widow with a tiny youngster and continue living the virtuous life she would have led below standard situations anyway. Admittedly, there are numerous critical strikes against her making such a move. To commence with, she is a lady, and it was unheard of and most likely suicidal for a woman to travel alone unaccompanied in addition, it is unlikely that there would have been any settlements nearby exactly where her reputation would not adhere to her in really brief order. Nonetheless, she shows herself to be a lady of great ingenuity and recourse, and it would seem that with some help she certainly has an ally in Dimmesdale a covert relocation to one more colony could have been managed.

Nonetheless, Hester provides no indication that she desires to leave. On the contrary, she seems to feel that her presence there makes some sort of moral statement to the townspeople. She has identified a method of making a stable living, undertaking fancy needlework for ceremonial and ritual use, which enables her to support herself in a respectable style. As busy as her clients preserve Hester, even so, Hawthorne tells us that she still has time to put her needle operating to personal use as nicely. The two factors she chooses to ornament with such intricate embroidery are substantial: the letter “A” she is forced to wear on her chest, and Pearl’s little clothes.

On the surface, it may possibly look odd that Hester ought to embroider with pricey gold thread the scarlet letter she is forced to put on as a badge of her shame. That she does so shows that in reality, she does not put on this letter as a badge of shame at all, but as a badge of pride. The adulterous act gave her Pearl, the becoming she loves most in all the world and, it ought to be noted, she also dresses flamboyantly. By adorning her “badge of shame” with the kind of embroidery usually reserved for magistrates and proscribed for plebeians, she is really deliberately setting herself apart from her society, just as she reminds the community of her presence there.

And why is it so crucial for Hester’s presence to be clear? Because by her virtuous behavior she casts shame on the society that cast shame on her. She will not accept Salem’s religious oppression, but she will not enable herself to be chased out of town, either. Just simply because she has borne a child out of wedlock does not make her bad, or even fallen she is, on the other hand, imbued with a extremely special grace. But it is a grace she has forged herself, rather than a grace extended to her by Puritanism. Hester lives within, and but “beyond the pale” of, the oppression of Puritan society since by her really presence there she is setting an instance of self-actualization, and that is the loudest statement she can make.

Works Cited

Carroll, Peter N. and Noble, David W. The Restless Centuries, Burgess Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1973.

Dukats, Mara L., The Hybrid Terrain of Literary Imagination: Maryse Conde’s Black Witch of Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, and Aime Cesaire’s heroic poetic voice. (Third Globe Women’s Inscriptions)., Vol. 22, College Literature, 02-01-1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, Aerie Press edition.

Milliman, Craig A., “Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter.'” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)., Vol. 53, The Explicator, 01-01-1995.

Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1963.

Roth, John K. American Diversity, American Identity. Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1995.
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