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by William Golding

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Laura Amy Schlitz

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8. Motifs: Hawthorne's yin-yang ... and you.

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
Famous for: That scarlet letter “A”, the tormented Reverend Dimmesdale, and fiendish husband Roger Chillingworth.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad: A darker take on Light versus darknessAt first glance, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s motifs in The Scarlet Letter seem to be all about opposites:

Light versus darkness.

The wilderness versus civilization.

To put it another way, Hawthorne seems focused on contrasting freedom and oppression, and what’s societally acceptable with what has to happen in secret. If you dig a little deeper into Hawthorne’s motifs, though, things start to get muddier.
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Think about the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. At the end of the story, he stands on that infamous scaffold under the cover of darkness, making his sin public…sort of. But just when he thinks the cover of night will protect him and his transgression…

That meteor appears and lights the scene up.

Then there’s Hester Prynne. She escapes society’s repression by going into the wilderness surrounding the town to make a life for herself. Even as the forest swallows her up, that scarlet letter A—the very symbol of society’s repression—remains emblazoned on her chest. No amount of wilderness will separate her from that mark of shame that “civilization” has imposed.

And yet the wilderness is where Hester realizes that civilization has no ability, or right, to define her. The wilderness is where Hester sees the light and becomes free.

A is for appearances that deceive.

The Scarlet Letter is a study in contrasts more complex than they might, at first glance, appear. It’s a story about the false appeal of “black and white” conclusions that overlook life’s shades-of-gray. It’s a novel that reminds us not to judge a person by appearances. Like a letter sewn onto a coat.

In sum, it invites you to think for yourself and avoid the worst sin of all–hypocrisy.

 

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