The uninstructed reader, that is to say, all of us raised in the age of television and celebrity, may wonder on first reading The Scarlet Letter how adultery, however much some might think it wrong, could have been made a crime, and not just a minor crime, but an offense punishable by death. The reason for our confusion is that while we were taught that the English colonists who first settled New England came to escape religious persecution, we were not told that they came to practice a religious persecution of their own.
The Puritans who founded Salem braved the hazards of a three month voyage across the Atlantic, and then braved life in an uncharted wilderness, because they knew, knew with every fibre of their being, that everything they did, everything they had to do, was commanded by God. These were people, Hawthorne tell us, “among whom religion and law were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful.” That was why they were waiting outside the jail for Hester Prynne, convicted of adultery, to be taken to the scaffold. That was why the women in the crowd were angry with what they thought the leniency of men.
“‘At the very least,’ said one, ‘they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.’” A young wife, holding a child by the hand, insisted that “‘let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.’” Another woman, “the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges,” gave voice to what most of them felt when she said Hester Prynne should die. “‘Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scriptures, and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!’”
Holding her three month old daughter, Hester Prynne steps out of the jail, and with “a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed,” looks around at her neighbors and townspeople. On the breast of her gown, “in fine red cloth,” with “fantastic flourishes of gold thread,” and a “gorgeous luxuriance of fancy,” blazed the scarlet letter, signifying her crime. Everyone was “astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.”
And thus begins The Scarlet Letter, perhaps the greatest American novel ever written. Hester Prynne’s husband who, two years earlier, had stayed behind in England to put his affairs in order, was presumed lost at sea. The question was who the child’s father had been, and on that question Hester Prynne preserves a complete, unbroken silence. Her secret, however, is shared with you, the reader, who from the beginning knows everything, and knows it in a way you have seldom known anything before, and all because Hawthorne has achieved what Ford Madox Ford would later say every serious author should aim at in a style: “something so unobtrusive and so quiet – and so beautiful if possible – that the reader should not know he is reading, and be conscious only that he is living in the life of the book….”
The mystery of The Scarlet Letter goes much deeper than the identity of the child’s father. The father is the young Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who had come from “one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest-land.” Standing on the scaffold with Hester Prynne, he instructs her “‘to speak out the name of they fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!’” He urges her, and there is no doubt he means it, to “‘Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him….What can thy silence do for him, except to tempt him – yea, corrupt him, as it were – to add hypocrisy to sin?’”
“‘Never!’” she replies, with a fierce, determined look.
Hester keeps her secret. She will bear her shame alone. The question is why? She does not have to stay. She can leave, return to Europe and live a normal life. No one will stop her. But she stays. Hawthorne tells us that the place had “given color” to her life, “a fatality…a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom.” There is another reason. Arthur Dimmesdale was here, “one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution.”
In his own way, Arthur Dimmesdale suffers more than she. Time after time he resolves to tell the congregation that he is “utterly a pollution and a lie!” And he does! He tells them that he is “the worst of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity.” And what happens? – They revere him all the more. “He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood.” But “he loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore, above all things, he loathed his miserable self.”
And Hester Prynne? Her suffering has a different effect. The life of an outcast has allowed her – forced her, if you will – to assume “a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter.” Like Eve, Hester Prynne has learned to think, and, her mind liberated by her isolation, she makes a bold suggestion to Arthur Dimmesdale when they meet by chance one day in the forest. Go back to Europe, she tells him. “‘There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done! Exchange this false life for a true one….’” He lacks the courage, but Hester is unafraid. “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.” Their love, “aroused from a deathlike slumber,” brightens their eyes and settles the question: they will leave Salem together.
But later, when Arthur Dimmesdale is all alone, he confronts the reality of what he has done. What few today would think worth troubling themselves about, the young Reverend Dimmesdale thinks the only thing worth consideration. “It was an age,” Hawthorne tells us, “when what we call talent had far less consideration than now, but the massive materials which produce stability and dignity of character, a good deal more.” Days after meeting Hester in the forest, days after agreeing that would leave their sin, and their country, behind, Arthur Dimmesdale preaches his last sermon.
When he finishes, and the procession has left the church, he turns toward the scaffold and, pale and tottering, calls Hester and their daughter to join him. Announcing to the “‘People of New England’” that her scarlet letter “‘is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast,’” he tears away “the ministerial band from before his breast,” and tells Hester that God has proved his mercy, “‘by giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast.’”
As he lay dying, Hester asks: “‘Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another with all this woe?’”
He tells her that it is not to be, because when “‘we forgot our God, – when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul – it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter in an everlasting and pure reunion.’”
After Arthur Dimmesdale’s death, most of those who had witnessed it said that they had seen a scarlet letter, ‘imprinted on the flesh.” Some thought he had inflicted it on himself; others thought that someone working for the Devil, had made it appear. Still others thought it had been produced by the remorse growing from within, “and at last magnifying Heaven’s dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter.”
Hester’s daughter lived, a young woman, in another land, but Hester never leaves. She becomes a source of counsel, especially for woman, telling them “of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between men and women on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
And yet, we somehow know that Hester Prynne had known that unrevealed truth all along, known it from the moment she met Arthur Dimmesdale and they together conceived a child, and, knowing that, knew something else as well, that Arthur Dimmesdale had been wrong and that they would “meet hereafter in an everlasting and pure reunion.” The just and merciful God whose existence they had never doubted would make sure of it.