Scarlet Letter Research Proposal

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Sin and Redemption in the Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Latter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece of a novel, deals with the fall-out of an extra-marital affair in pre-Revolutionary Boston, Massachusetts. Specifically, the novel centers on the lives of Hester Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and a doctor newly arrived in town who goes by the ominous name of Roger Chillingsworth. The novel deals with many themes and contains a lot of symbols that comment on the nature of religion, government, society, and what it means to be human. Central to all of these themes, however, are the concepts of sin and redemption. This is the area that this novel really explores. Boston, like almost all settlements on the American continent at the time the story is set, was a Puritan town. This means that the church, religion, and God was seen as central to everything, especially government. Sin, then, was equated with crime, and was almost always made public when it was known. As the book shows, though, there are many kinds of sin other than the ones seen, described, and punished by the Puritan townspeople. Though they see a lot of sin, the people of Salem do not really see a lot of redemption -- they seem to believe that sinners can't change, and that evil is at least as eternal as good. However, as this book shows, there are many different kinds of sin, and many different paths to redemption. The book's thesis, if a work of fiction can be said to have a thesis, seems to be that redemption is a function of acceptance; that as long as we dwell on our sin, we can never be redeemed.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Research Proposal on Scarlet Letter Assignment

The opening of the novel introduces the idea of sin even before any characters or plot points of the story are known. Hawthorne describes the crowd of people outside the prison, and in the second sentence of the entire novel says, "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison" (Hawthorne, 55). The prison is the community's way of punishing sin, and in this sentence Hawthorne links this punishment with death by mentioning the prison and the cemetery together. This also suggests the inevitability of sin, which questions the drastic and unyielding punishments for it found in the book. This reading is borne out by another line describing the prison that comes a little further on: "Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era" (Hawthorne, 56). Crime and sin went hand-in-hand without much difference in Boston at that time, so again Hawthorne is stressing the ever-present quality and absolutely inescapable nature of sin. Interestingly, he does not mention a church or prayer house -- a typical symbol of redemption and also a building and institution of immense importance to the Puritan pilgrims. This community, as is shown by the action and characters of the novel, is more concerned with sin than with any possible redemption from it, and Hawthorne brilliantly and subtly hints at this in his opening passage by giving only symbols of punishment and decay.

The start of the actual story of the novel deals with the immediate outcome of Hester Prynne's adultery. She is led out of the prison carrying the infant that was born from her sinful act of adultery, and wearing the scarlet "A" for "adulteress" that gives the book its title. Hawthorne does not start with the sin itself, which despite the mores of the time in which he was writing would have been possible to at least hint at. Instead, he begins with the community's reaction to the sin and the effects this has one Hester and her infant daughter. The fact that the rest of the novel takes place without any recurrence of the affair, and only one benevolent hint and unfulfilled hint that Hester and Dimmesdale might find happiness together, but instead spends much time on Hester's modesty, industry, and general goodness seems to bring the focus of the novel far away from the sin that began it. Hester seems almost already redeemed at the novel's outset; it is her attitude that redeems her. She has accepted her sin and come to terms with it, and so she is relatively at peace even when the further disturbing events of the novel take place. She shows this in her calm and un-angry defiance of the Reverends Wilson's and Dimmesdale's requests that she reveal the name of her lover (which is ironically Dimmesdale himself). Reverend Wilson even tells her that the letter might be removed from he clothing if she reveals his identity, and her reply is "Never!...It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!" (Hawthorne, 81). Her acceptance of not only her own sin, but of Dimmesdale's as well, creates a great amount of peace for her. This is the first instance of one of the ways that Hawthorne displays sin and its effects -- there is almost always a physical manifestation of it. For Hester, the first manifestation was her pregnancy, which could not be hidden and so was proof of her adultery. Her calmness when the reader first sees her reflects the inner peace she has found in that acknowledgment of her sin, and the resolve we see in the rest of the novel to make up for it.

Of course, there are many struggles and hardships that Hester encounters because of her sin. The first group of these hardships are the direct punishments inflicted upon her by the community.

First, before the action of the story even begins, there is the public discovery of her very private sin. This is the first message that Hawthorne sends about sin in this novel. Sin will reveal itself, and there is now way to truly hide away from guilt. In this way, Hester is actually the first -- and perhaps the only -- character to be redeemed in the entire novel. Hawthorne's major message seems to be that bout sin and redemption, condemnation and salvation, come from within. This is again rendered physically by Pearl herself. This child of the illicit affair symbolizes the redemption possible for Hester, whom Pearl has literally come out of as a result of Hester's sin. This child is seen throughout the novel as sweet and innocent -- she could hardly be anything else, given her age -- but it is at the end of the book that we see the true redemption she provides. After many years' absence, Hester returns to her old cottage and her old life, still wearing her scarlet "A." Hawthorne never says exactly what happens to Pearl, using an interlocutor as he often does to cast doubt on even the most basic elements of his story, but he provides a hint "that Pearl was not only alive, but married, and happy, and mindful of her mother" (Hawthorne, 320). This is after she inherited Chillingsworth's money and property, by which she "became the richest heiress of her day, in the New World" (Hawthorne, 318). Pearl is Hester's redemption, and Pearl would have been impossible without the sin -- was, in fact, the very reason the sin was discovered. This is the great irony that Hawthorne points out; the glory of redemption is impossible without sin.

This does not mean that sin leads always to redemption. The case of Reverend Dimmesdale illustrates this. For most of the novel, Arthur Dimmesdale does not reveal his sin, despite clearly being wracked by enormous feelings of guilt. His sin is dealt with only in private. Though Hester spent much of her time alone, she did have Pearl, and because her sin had already been made publicly known, there was nothing she really could do but come to accept it. It is the secret of Dimmesdale's sin that torments him, and leads him to flog himself both mentally and physically as penance for what he has done. The inevitability of discovery occurred for Hester before the novel begins; for Dimmesdale, the issue is never forced, and he wallows for years in his misery. Finally, after long torment at his own hands and secretly and subtly by Chillingsworth, who is actually Hester's husband in disguise, Dimmesdale realizes the futility of trying to run and hide away in Europe as he and Hester had been planning. He publicly acknowledges his sin in the same spot as Hester had in the beginning of the novel, though it is not easy for him. He first calls to Hester and pearl to join him, and "it was a ghastly look with which he regarded them; but there was something at once tender and strangely triumphant in it" (Hawthorne, 307). It is only through acceptance and acknowledgment of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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