The message Hawthorne won't let you miss.
When was the last time you saw someone padlocked onto a scaffold in a public square?
But The Scarlet Letter is not just some dusty puritan morality tale. It’s an allegory about identity, and how identity is defined. And it’s as relevant today as it was when Nathaniel Hawthorne committed it to paper.
Like that scarlet letter A, Hawthorne’s intent burns on the page. He’s created a world, populated it with characters, and choreographed their conflicts to show what happens when you let the actions or opinions of others determine how you see yourself. He’s calibrated the details of his story so that readers won’t miss his message: Your identity is yours to shape, regardless of what others say or do.
Take a look, for example, at Hawthorne’s portrayal of Roger Chillingworth.
When he finds out about Hester Prynne’s adulterous affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, Chillingworth is transformed from introverted bookworm to jealous psychopath, a man whose all-consuming goal is revenge. His rage leads him to cook up a diabolical plan to destroy Dimmesdale, one he sets into motion by moving into the colony, opening up shop, and … adopting a new identity. That’s right: Chillingworth allows his life’s purpose to be defined by Dimmesdale’s affair with Hester, so much so that he changes his identity. Literally.
Problem: When your identity is defined by what others say or do, you no longer control your fate. In Chillingworth’s case, that means once Dimmesdale confesses to his sin and dies, he finds himself without any reason to exist. Yikes.
Now look at what Hawthorne tells us about Hester Prynne. Hester has been convicted of adultery. Her co-conspirator Dimmesdale remains unidentified and, therefore, unjudged. Which means Hester bears her sentence, unjustly and alone.
Does she curse her accusers? Reject the penalty? Cook up a scheme to get even?
No. She accepts their sentence, wears their scarlet badge of shame, and moves on with her life. Her subsequent actions are directed by her innate talents and by a moral compass unaffected by anyone or anything but her own sense of what’s right. She does not define herself by the scarlet letter sewn onto her blouse. In time, no one else does, either.
Hester’s triumph is so complete, Hawthorne writes, that among those who once shunned her, “the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe…”