Modern day movies rarely do justice for the classics. The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne falls into that category. Even Demi Moore could not meet the genius of the original writing. "Demi Moore plays the strong-willed Hester Prynne brilliantly, and Gary Oldman (I want to marry him) turns Reverend Dimmesdale into an extremely complex and passionate character. The love between Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale lasts throughout the movie with great intensity - all of it rooted in the one amazing love scene which leads to Prynne's pregnancy." (When Love Becomes Sin) I loved reading The Scarlet Letter much more than the I did seeing the movie and this report is an attempt to explain why I think so highly of the written work.
Nathanial Hawthorne was a writer from Salem, Massachusetts where his famous home, the House of Seven Gables, still stands to this day. Surprisingly, Hawthorne was not known as an out and about author - instead, he was best known in his lifetime as an introverted recluse. It is said that he rarely left his room during the twelve years after graduating from Bowdoin College. The majority of the time he spent in isolation was consumed with reading and writing about his current world and New England history.
Hawthorne researched his Puritan ancestry which was the basis by which he wrote the Scarlet Letter. Through his work, one gets the sense that Hawthorne was obsessed with the Puritan's philosophies and may even have completely adopted their line or reasoning into his own isolationism. "The Scarlet Letter continually reenacts an unfulfilled or thwarted desire... For a discourse that can carry Hawthorne back... into the lost mother's presence." (Savoy) Historians have discovered that Hawthorne was very deeply concerned about sin, guilt and the alter ego phenomenon that we could compare to the concept of Dr. Jackal and Mr. Hyde.
The Scarlet Letter takes place in 1642 Boston where at that time the community was nothing more than a tiny Puritan settlement. "Hester Prynne enters this small Puritan town in the colony of Massachusetts alone and determined to live her life as she sees fit. She undermines many of the stifling rules that serve as moral guidelines for women. She buys a house on her own, explaining that her husband would arrive shortly. She also begins women's meetings with other ladies of the town." (When Love Becomes Sin) The main character, Hester Prynne, has been convicted of adultery and as the punishment of the time suggests she is to do public service. This public service is nothing like our chain gangs picking up litter on our highways. In fact, a small band of onlookers was awaiting the adulteress to be publicly humiliated as only the puritans could do. Hester appears before the crowd carrying a baby and on her clothes is a badge of disgrace - a large scarlet letter 'A' which stands for Adulteress.
The ironic thing is that Hester did not give into the humiliation tactics bestowed on her by her peers; she seems to be wary of only her recently arrived husband who had sent her ahead from Europe just two years before. "The figure of the wife ideally contains the biological female, the obedient daughter (and perhaps sister), the faithful mate, the responsible mother, and the believing Christian, and harmonizes all the patterns that bestow upon her these differing identities. But if the marriage starts to founder, then the different identities and roles fall apart or come into conflict..." (Eagen, Jr.) Hester's husband decides to disguise himself with the sole intent of discovering who Hester had been unfaithful to him with. Hester ends up in prison for a few years and is eventually released. And, just like our prison system today, once released, ex-convicts are often not accepted back into the community whole heartedly. The community prejudicially calls her the woman of the scarlet letter.
The story is full of intrigue and secrecy and at one point the community, lead by the governor, attempts to separate Hester and her child Pearl. Hester is resourceful and therefore overcomes that assault by a frontal attack of her own on the Governor. "Both Hawthorne and Hester can be seen as subversive artists who must enter "the market-place" with a scarlet letter, signifier of pride and shame, achievement and alienation. However, we have not paid sufficient attention to role of adultery in this "allegory of art." Though Hester's "sin" is never openly announced, the text cleverly alludes to adultery and "adulteration" throughout, creating a kind of fetishistic fascination with the "nameless" crime." (Eagen, Jr.) Her husband, Chillingworth, still disguised as a doctor actually becomes the physician for a local minister who it turns out was Hester's adultering partner. Chillingworth investigates until he discovers what he is looking for: an A on Dimmesdale's chest just like Hester's.
The story has an unusual ending in that when the husband Chillingworth passes on he leaves his wealth to Pearl so both Hester and Pearl are able to escape New England and return back to Europe. Pearl finds and marries an aristocrat and Hester returns to Boston. After several years she dies and is buried next to the minister where they share a tombstone engraved with the letter A. "Here, Hawthorne recognizes the impossibility of a fruitful intervention in a temporal hermeneutic and attempts, through affiliation with the dead, a compensatory re-figuring (or remembering) of the writer's gendered identity and consequent obligations." (Savoy)
After having read The Scarlet Letter, one can view the setting in a pluralistic way. For example, one way the story is set can focus on the emotional overtones of locations like the Market Place or the forest where Hawthorne gave insight into the public and secret worlds that existed in the times. Or a more broad way to see the setting could be through Hawthorne's interpretation of the Puritan society as a whole. Hawthorne captured the overly pious, jealous, opinionated society full of fearful people living in a male dominated 1640's Boston.
Hawthorne painted the most important scenes of his novel in two locations -- the public market-place and the forest. Hawthorne creates opposite worlds in these two locations but may have actually been trying to present two different sides to people at the time.
The market-place is public represents more than simply the heart of the physical community. The enclave's market-place is represents civilization which include the aspects of law and religion. In this world all must be proper and never stray in thought or spirit or, like Hester, the non-pure-of-heart would be publicly punished. Dimmesdale would also face his fears and weaknesses in this public light.
But in an almost Yin and Yang tradition, the forest represents the other side of the human spirit and also the coming out of the public light. The vast untamed forest entailed keeping secrets and releasing inhibitions. People went there to free themselves of convention. The forest track meant that there were no established laws or religious mandates put on the overly burdened Puritans. The market-place and the forest also represented the choices the characters made for themselves. The choice that Dimmesdale made to inform his congregation of his discretions let him back into the public eye from the vast and empty forest.
Chillingworth hid in the public arena to investigate what had occurred in the secretive forest. The contrast also shows the market-place as a safe haven from the gates of hell whereas the forest is an opening of those gates. Hawthorne paints a cold and unhappy setting for the Puritan settlers. One may wonder if this dreary world represented his own lonely isolated hell. The Puritans as a society focused a great deal of time and energy into establishing right from wrong and maybe the author needed this morbid thinking to release some of his own inner demons..
Like setting, there are a few ways to appreciate the intention Hawthorne had in regard to theme. For example, the concept of law and nature shows that society expected compliance in 1640. By today's standard, we may never fully grasp how significant it is for a society to rule all aspects of the community and every citizen's life with an iron fist. Puritan New England was almost a complete opposite of what we know today. Their laws covered every aspect of life. "Hawthorne seeks connection to the Puritan fathers by writing his participation in the transhistorical project of surveying and containing women's resistant energies." (Savoy) The human spirit however, would not be denied so impulse, passion and emotion were too. Hester and Dimmesdale were lovers and were therefore seen as criminals. Their love for each other was a breach of the rigid Puritan religious policies. Who is right? "The Scarlet Letter' continues the effort to contain female rebellious energies." (Savoy) Hester, through the laws of nature fulfilled her desires of love but can we say the Puritan society was wrong in regard to adultery statues.