Society Affecting Characters Research Proposal

Pages: 5 (1655 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature

Conformity and Oppression in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

"In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne portrays the seventeenth-century Puritan settlers of New England as seeking liberation from religious persecution in Europe only in order to establish their own rigorous moral and religious strictures in the New World. Hawthorne suggests that the Puritans' understanding of liberation cannot be separated from strict adherence to their own dogmatically certain moral code" (Hunt 2009). The Scarlet Letter portrays the illicit romance between the married Hester Prynne and the righteous Reverend Dimmesdale. Because Hester becomes pregnant from the affair, she is condemned by her society. Dimmesdale initially escapes moral censure, but grows physically and emotionally sickened by his status as someone reckoned righteous by society, but not in his own moral estimation. Ironically, Hester's husband, posing as a doctor, is asked to treat Dimmesdale's condition, although he cannot cure the Reverend's physical complaint, because Dimmesdale is so afflicted by guilt.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Research Proposal on Society Affecting Characters Assignment

Hawthorne's novel indicates that although Hester Prynne and the Reverend Dimmesdale feel an illicit passion for one another, they are unable to fully extricate themselves from the confining and conformist strictures of their society. While the reader might cheer these characters in their resistance against sexually oppressive attitudes, Hester and Dimmesdale's modes of resistance ultimately emerge as half-measures. They have an affair, but they do not fundamentally challenge their society's attitudes towards sexuality. Hester commits herself to a nun-like existence, healing the sick, after she is branded with the scarlet letter 'A' for adultery on the scaffold. She returns to Puritan New England at the end of her life. Dimmesdale remains within the world of the Puritans, and is tortured with guilt for his crime, yet does not reveal that he is the father of Hester's illegitimate child Pearl until the end of the story. Hester and Dimmesdale feel guilt and accept their punishment, but do not leave Boston or challenge the idea that they are wrong. Hester shows her resistance only with silence, Dimmesdale with silence, guilt, and a self-imposed sentence of asceticism.

Hawthorne does note that there are models of resistance to the Puritan authoritarian regime. But according to Hawthorne, Hester is no Anne Bradstreet, a woman who did challenge Puritan doctrine about female preaching and teaching. Hester's critique of Puritanism and her modes of resistance are sexual and emotional in nature, rather than radical and theological. Dimmesdale is so cowardly in his resistance he only admits his guilt after Pearl, the child born of their union is a toddler. Constance Hunt has said that two of the most significant puzzles of the text is that of Dimmesdale's behavior and why Hester remains in her setting and even returns to it, after her daughter Pearl settles in Europe as an adult (Taylor 2005). Rather than logic, the pressures of conformity and routine seem to be the answer to both of these questions: Dimmesdale and Hester cannot think outside of the terms of their society, despite their physical passion for one another

The Scarlet Letter has been described as a novel of "the destructive nature of silence, the false unity felt by fellow sinners and the sense of solitude which stems from culpability" (Taylor 2005). Rather than feel sorrow, at first Dimmesdale "draws a 'long respiration' of relief when Hester refuses to reveal his guilt" as if the socially invisible nature of his complicitness erases the crime (Taylor 2005). Hester withdraws to margins of her town but cannot bring herself to entirely leave the community, even though she is ostracized. She feels "as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere" yet cannot draw herself away (Taylor 2005).

Out of a sense of guilt, both Dimmesdale and Hester seem compelled to remain within the community. Dimmesdale wishes to confess his sin, but cannot. "Only in conversation with Hester -- the sharer of his sinful secret -- can Dimmesdale be 'true,' and to her he describes his state: he wishes for 'one friend' who would recognize him as 'the vilest of sinners,' for even 'thus much of truth' would keep his soul alive (Taylor 2005). More so than Hester, Dimmesdale is physically sickened from his sense of guilt, and grows emaciated, as if the life force is drawn from him, even while the keeps up an appearance of respectability and religiosity.

Hawthorne himself expressed his belief in the dangers of conformity, and how it could strangle the human spirit: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil" he wrote of his own sense of confinement in his native town (Clark 2009). "For Hester and Dimmesdale, despite their differing situations, the claustrophobic conditions of community life give rise to constant suffering" (Taylor 2005). The homogenizing unity stifles both of them and they cannot even summon the psychological wherewithal within themselves to resist that conformity. Only two people offer mercy to Hester when she is on the scaffold, a young wife, who feels compassion for her as a mother, and Hawthorne's imaginary "Papist" who he writes would see her as an example of Divine Maternity, condemned (Taylor 2005). Only an alternative, outsider's perspective -- ironically, that of a hated Catholic -- can provide compassion in Puritan society. "The papist perspective & #8230;clearly parallels the compassionate view of Hester expressed by the young mother at the prison door" (Taylor 2005).

"This fusion, or confusion, required by the Puritan theocracy, is at the heart of Dimmesdale's tragedy. He cannot openly acknowledge his private guilt without undermining his public position in the community. Initially, it seems as if he has deluded himself into thinking that his heartfelt public sermons can serve as a kind of private penance….Dimmesdale's hypocrisy goes to the very heart of the inner tension within the Puritan theocracy between belief in original sin, its corollary that the individual can only be saved by God's grace, and a social and political order intolerant of human beings' imperfect and fallen nature. Consequently, the pursuit of moral perfectionism at the political and social level requires that individuals conceal their private imperfections. What appears to be Dimmesdale's personal hypocrisy is, in fact, consonant with the tenets of his faith and the moral norms of his community. Given the tenets of Puritan faith, the moral perfection sought in this life can only be hoped for in the next" (Hunt 2009). The community and conformity is all-important, almost more so than moral compassion to the individual and true righteousness. Ironically, members of the congregation, even after Dimmesdale's confession, cannot believe the truth of his adultery, because it so explicitly conflicts with his social role as a minister. Social norms have no congruence with truth, and a person can have a social mask that is pure, as in the case of Roger Chillingworth, even though his heart is black and cruel. Although he is a poor husband to Hester when the doors of the house are closed, in Puritan society the surface means more than what is actually true, and conformity becomes a substitute for morality.

The contrast between outer surface and inner truth is also seen in Hester: Hester gives up her life in service to the community, even while she resists the idea that the scarlet 'A' means evil, because of the worth of her daughter Pearl. Yet after Pearl's marriage, Hester returns to Boston and takes up life in her sequestered cottage, as if she is unable to shake off the constricted morality and nature of Puritan society. Like Dimmesdale punished himself in private, Hester continues her public and private penance. One interpretation of Hester: "is that she understands that her penitence is unfinished. The community no longer imposes this penitence; she chooses it for herself. Her decision suggests that her self-understanding… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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