Everybody knows that Hester Prynne has committed adultery because the bright red A she is sentenced to wear everyday announces it to the world. The result of the act, her daughter Pearl, is the living example of a fit of passion. Alternately referred to as an elfin child, spirit child, or fairy, Pearl bounces her way through life displaying none of the usual manners of children her age and disregarding all social norms. Meanwhile, the mystery of the father remains a secret – at least to the town. As the reader, we know that the minister Mr. Dimmesdale has been screaming his guilt in silence, faithfully performing his personal penance away from the eyes of the public because his position in the community does not allow him to make it known. Even when he tries to make it known, his role as a minister makes it seem as if he is merely finding fault with himself, not admitting to a crime of passion. Further complicating matters, the physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth vindictively exacerbates the minister’s personal agony while publicly appearing as his closest colleague. In a previous world that remains unknown to the town, Roger Chillingworth was the husband of Hester Prynne, so he is a private victim of the public scandal, but he expertly channels his anger into the demise of the minister. In a tangled circle of love and hate, God and Satan, grudges and forgiveness, how can the matter be settled?
The Scarlet Letter is a study of dualities. After her public humiliation, Hester moves to the edge of town and lives on the border between wilderness and civilization. Removed from society, she has a new perspective from which to observe and criticize the institution that forced her out, but she does so in the same way she bears her public shame – silently and without show of emotion. Hester’s public appearance, aside from the scarlet A she wears, is limited to shades of gray, while her daughter Pearl is always decked out in the most elaborate fashions. The minister dutifully carries out his responsibilities during the day, but announces his guilt and punishes himself in the night. Above all, there is the distinction between God and Satan. In the story, Roger Chillingworth takes the part of Satan as the hateful, despicable man who seeks to destroy others in ways so subtle that it only makes them more painful. God takes the role of God because the minister cannot forgive himself – he is constantly seeking a Higher expression of mercy. While this makes for excellent literary analysis, it sometimes felt contrived and too blatant. The author goes so far as to point out the lack of civilization in the wilds beyond town leading to questionable activities like witchcraft and personal conversations between sinners.
I loved The Scarlet Letter the first time I read it because there was so much to analyze – I felt like I was finally understanding my 11th grade English class! – but I liked it more this time for the issues that weren’t quite resolved. Hester bears her public shame without complaint for the rest of her life – how does the public shame contribute to and limit her future actions and choices? Alternately, why is the minister incapable of forgiving himself? This ultimately leads him to self-destruction (although it he is aided in the process by Roger Chillingworth), but does he have to admit guilt publicly in order to find peace? Could the minister eventually have forgiven himself without making a public confession? How important is public acknowledgment of personal lives? And how do we balance all those dualities to find a life that suits us personally? How important is it to follow all those social expectations? The last chapter is written in a way that tries to inspire speculation about the veracity of the story and characters. The story mostly resolves itself, but I like that it leaves some issues open to questions and interpretation.