The Visible and the Invisible Letter "A" - Puritanism and the Dualism of Confession and Concealment in Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

20 Pages, Grade: 1.5


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Setting the Stage: Puritan Society and its Mores as Portrayed in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

3. The Visible and the Invisible Letter ´A´ - Puritanism and the Dualism of Confession and Concealment in The Scarlet Letter
3.1 Hester Prynne and her Life in Confession, Ignominy, and, Yet, Secret Rebellion
3.2 Arthur Dimmesdale, his Dilemma, and his Motives for the Concealment of his Adultery
3.3 Arthur and Hester in the Forest and on the Scaffold: The Scarlet Letter’s Revelatory Culmination


Works Cited

“The scarlet letter was [Hester’s] passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers – stern and wild ones – and they had made her strong ...”[1]

Arthur Dimmesdale said: “Then, and there, before the judgment seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand together. But the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!”[2]

1. Introduction

Since its publication in 1850, Hawthorne’s masterpiece romance The Scarlet Letter has been hailed by average readers and literary critics alike as one of the finest pieces of literature ever to have come out of the pen of an American writer.

Not only regarded as “Hawthorne’s most widely read and admired novel”[3],The Scarlet Letter has also given numerous generations of critics bountiful opportunity for in-depth analysis of the novel’s plot, characters, and meaning. A fair amount of scholarly attention has, for instance, been devoted to Hawthorne’s “imposing splendor of portraiture”[4]. In the case of The Scarlet Letter, this has been evidenced by critics´ particular interest in Hawthorne’s portrayal of two of the novel’s central characters: the Boston townswoman Hester Prynne and the pastor Arthur Dimmesdale.

Against the backdrop of mid-17th century Puritan society in the newly founded American colonies, Hawthorne describes how these two characters´ lives are, each in its very own way, dramatically changed by one moment of adulterous passion.

It is the aim of the present paper to deliver a careful analysis of Hester and Arthur at the center of which shall be the difficult social and psychological circumstances the two characters encounter in the wake of their adultery. It will equally be shown that Hester and Arthur embrace different strategies in dealing with their situation. A plot analysis reveals a clear dilemma and duality of a confession versus concealment theme which impacts greatly on the two characters and their behavior. Having been forced to confess to adultery charges, Hester manages to reshape her life by confronting present demands while also hoping for future opportunities. By contrast, Arthur is tormented and obsessed by his moment of moral weakness in the past, wavering between reve-lation and dissimulation of his deed as he doubletalks his way through the novel’s plot.

The first chapter of this study intends to establish a framework for the ensuing character analysis. Its aim will be to portray Puritan society as shown in Hawthorne’s work, so that Hester’s and Arthur’s situation in the novel’s plot will become clear.

An interpretation of the two characters will follow in chapter two. First, Hester’s behavior and the role she plays in the novel shall be analyzed under the aforementioned confession theme. The second part will render a similar analysis of Arthur, albeit under a concealment perspective. Part three will focus on the revelatory elements of the forest and final scaffold scene as central culmination points in the novel.

The remarks in the conclusion will sum up this paper’s line of argumentation while also pointing to areas that might present further worthwhile opportunities for research into The Scarlet Letter’s intriguing plot and meaning.

2. Setting the Stage: Puritan Society and its Mores as Portrayed in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

A considerable part of the significance that critics have long since accorded to Hawthorne’s famous work The Scarlet Letter can be seen in the novel’s insightful portrayal of Puritanism and Puritan society. The reader is both introduced to the abstract theological tenets of Puritanism and, at the same time, receives particular insight into how life in a Puritan settlement in the early days of the American experiment might have looked like. Indeed, the author goes to great lengths in underscoring the authenticity of the events described in his novel, even adding an extensive preface to the work for the sole purpose of detailing the origin of the historical material he claims to make use of.

Set in the 1640s,The Scarlet Letter’s central theme is a thought-provoking portrayal of the mores governing Puritan life and of how individuals could come into conflict with them. As can be seen in light of the situation and events described in The Scarlet Letter, 17th century Puritan society in the American colonies consisted of tightly knit communities in which people often found their individual freedoms severely curtailed. All laws, especially those conceived to establish moral and ethical ground rules, were strictly enforced, with authority resting both with the secular and religious leadership. Not surprisingly, insubordination was not tolerated and, if it did occur, was met with all harshness of the law. Possible means of punishment at the hands of the authorities could include imprisonment, exposure to indefinite public ignominy, or even outright expulsion of unyielding and unrepentant individuals from the community.

It can therefore not surprise much that Hawthorne, who was often concerned with the human condition in his literary works, adopted a critical view of Puritanism. In The Scarlet Letter, this is for instance evidenced at one point where the author-narrator refers to the “incomplete morality of the age, rigid as we call it”[5].

It is in the midst of this harsh Puritan environment that the reader finds the young Boston townswoman Hester Prynne. Hester is subjected to the full and stern severity of Puritan law when it is discovered that she has been involved in an adulterous relationship. An illegitimate child, which she gives birth to before the novel’s plot unfolds, is not only the product of, but also the visible evidence for, her sinful union with a partner in crime whose identity she adamantly refuses to reveal. Made to assume “the role of public transgressor”[6], Hester is depicted by the male elders of the community as a threat to the moral well being of the Boston settlement and its inhabitants.

Given Puritan society’s intolerance toward any transgression of its laws, it can hardly surprise that it is the town prison that comes to symbolize the Puritan leaderships´ determination to crush Hester’s demand for greater individual liberty and freedom as expressed by her deed. It is against the backdrop of the prison that the reader is first introduced to Hester amid the grim images that make up the opening scenes of the novel, whereby Hawthorne clearly sets a somber tone for the events to unfold. The prison evidently assumes the role of “a reminder of the present actuality of moral evil”[7], as Waggoner terms it in his interpretation of The Scarlet Letter.

Upon being released from prison where she was held until she had given birth to her child, Hester is put on public display on the city scaffold. Symbolism abounds as the scaffold assumes the role of a powerful symbol for the authorities´ intolerance, heartlessness, and lack of mercy, while the scarlet letter, which Hester is made to wear on her clothes, becomes a token of the Puritan leaders´ exercise of ownership and power. Subsequently, Hester is forced to live in isolation on the outskirts of the city where she receives all but no support by the rest of the community, surviving only on her needlework skills.

A few other important aspects must also receive critical attention when it comes to outlining Hester’s initial situation in the first pages of The Scarlet Letter. First and foremost among them is Hester’s role as a female protagonist in a novel that depicts, as Gable points out, “Puritans [as] ... a masculine society”[8].

Seeing a woman come into conflict with a world that is so clearly dominated, controlled one might say, by males, critics have often found it easy to “stress the feminist implications of the novel”[9]. In this context, it has often been stated by critics that Hester obviously becomes a victim of the repressive Puritan sexual mores imposed by a male society.

Living alone and with the fate of her husband in the old world unknown, as Bensick argues, Hester “had nowhere to go with her sexuality except into adultery”[10] and is subsequently made to suffer the consequences of her deed at the hands of males. Gable reaches a similar conclusion when he argues that Hester, essentially “a stranger in the community ... had no other outlet for her sympathies except the young minister”[11] under whose spiritual guidance she stands and for whom she must have developed a fancy.


[1] Hawthorne, p. 170.

[2] ibid, p. 130.

[3] Waggoner, p. 118.

[4] Ripley, p. 26.

[5] Hawthorne, p. 198f.

[6] Doherty, p. 17.

[7] Waggoner, p. 120.

[8] Gable, p. 91.

[9] Waggoner, p. 138.

[10] Bensick, p. 103.

[11] Gable, p. 73.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Visible and the Invisible Letter "A" - Puritanism and the Dualism of Confession and Concealment in Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"
University of Freiburg  (English Department)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Visible, Invisible, Letter, Puritanism, Dualism, Confession, Concealment, Hawthorne, Scarlet, Letter
Quote paper
Christian Jacobi (Author), 2001, The Visible and the Invisible Letter "A" - Puritanism and the Dualism of Confession and Concealment in Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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