Alienation is a common theme in literature as it is often used to critique society.
Alienation is defined as the state of isolation or disconnect from the values, norms, practices, and social relations of a society for a variety of social structural reasons. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter depicts a protagonist from Puritan society named Hester Prynne, who is alienated from society for violating the societal beliefs. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, one can see Hawthorne’s criticism toward the close-minded, harsh, and judgmental characteristics of Puritan society.
The novel is set in the 17th century Boston and presents a town dominated by men and the principles of Puritan practices, where strict religious beliefs are fused with the law. The main character of the novel, Hester Prynne is presented as a figure alienated from society as result of an adulterous affair, which in Puritan society adultery or any kind of sexual sin was ostracized severely. Hawthorne discusses how judgmental and cruel the Puritans were toward those who have sinned, writing “On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking or ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern dignity as the punishment of death itself.” (Hawthorne 12). What Hawthorne is stating is that in the present Hester’s sin wouldn’t have been so disastrous. Be that as it may, the Puritans saw this as a consequential issue warranting death. Luckily, Hester wasn’t sentenced to death, but instead, she is punished by being forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her dress for the rest of her life as a reminder of her sin.
While Hester’s sin is the initial cause of her alienation, Puritanical convictions sustain the void between Hester and community. Sinners were rejected by both church and state, as Puritan colonies were established on strict ethical standards. A common practice of the Puritan society was to make an open spectacle of sin as a hindrance for others who may be tempted to commit similar crimes. Publicized sin led to everlasting shame; one was never able to regain full redemption. Hester’s sin separates her from society permanently. “In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it” (84). Even years after her offense, she is still unable to forge a connection with other townspeople. Every encounter with them refreshes her isolation. The letter is a constant reminder of her sin; some people are never able to see past the mark meant to shame her.
Hester Prynne is publicly shamed and humiliated on a scaffold. Hester’s position on the elevated platform physically separates her from others just as her sin separates her socially, “taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself” (54). Associating with someone who had been shamed upon would have made anyone look bad by association. Communal shaming was a common demoralizing practice in this time period. Parents attend with their children to look upon the punishment of what they viewed as a terrible sinner. Hawthorne criticizes this practice commenting that the children “too young to comprehend wherefore this woman should be shut out from the sphere of human charities” still express the same disdain that their parents have (81). Their society has even twisted children to condemn what they cannot understand. This highlights the blind judgment that often overcomes the minds of those focusing on the sin of others.
Additionally, Hester refuses to reveal the name of her lover while on the scaffold. She stands alone and unjustly bears the sin of the Reverend out of selfless love. Those witnessing the public shaming of Hester Prynne experience a detrimental change internally. Her sins seem much greater than their own; therefore, her shame is used as a means to forget about their own sins. “If truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom” (87). No one was sinless. They were simply operating under the delusion that they were holy by default or by comparison to Hester Prynne. Selective shaming of only grave sins creates a situation where every other sin is less deplorable. When this concept is in effect, Hester does not only endure the weight of her sin and Dimmesdale’s, but rather she bears the burden of the entire community’s sin as well.
Hawthorne’s strongest argument against Puritanical practices occurs in the absence of society. Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale escape to the woods as a sanctuary from the harsh reality found in the town. The wilderness does not have the capability to recognize sin or to pass judgment. Pearl “was gentler here than in the grassy-margined streets of the settlement, or in her mother’s cottage” (216). In the woods, Pearl is no longer an outcast from society. She becomes her true self. Hester’s letter has no meaning among the trees. When Hester and Pearl are without the bondage of society’s judgment they experience freedom from the alienation of society. Hawthorne uses this situation to communicate that the strict confines Puritanical practices are both obsolete and more harmful than beneficial.
The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is full of passion and sin in a society that prohibits it. Consequences and shame reveal the flaws of this system. Hester Prynne is isolated for her actions. While society treats her as an outcast she is still able to survive and become a loving mother and better person. Society is an exclusive group to which not everyone is able to agree with. However, while the Puritanical town of early Boston was meant to crush Hester, she became stronger through isolation.