The Scarlet Letter - Punishment and Death


Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter deals with many themes, among those
including punishment and death. Utilizing the theme of punishment, the
central character, Hester Prynne, was forced to wear an embroidered scarlet
letter on "her bosom" for the rest of her life as a sign of her sin of
adultery. This object; however, has the opposite affect as a punishment and
as people of the community begin to forget the original significance of the
letter it comes to bear a new meaning, able. In the thirteenth chapter of
this book, Hawthorne comes out and in the third person states "the scarlet
letter had not done its office."

Hester has gone beyond the letter of the law and done everything asked
of her. She becomes quite a popular seamstress, heralded all over the town
of Boston for her work. She herself wears only drab clothing of ordinary
clothing, punishing herself with humility. There is only one piece of
clothing that she is forbidden to make, the wedding vail, it is assumed
that she can not possibly represent the values of a marriage. It would be
most improper to have one who has committed as sin as she had to be
involved in the marital bonds of another couple. Nevertheless, she does her
work dutifully and completely.

She is emotionately worn out by all the work and penance for her sin.
Midway through the novel she no longer appears as a hidden beauty. Hester
now wears her hair in a cap, and the only effort of considerable worth is
that which she expends in her teachings to Pearl. She has earned the towns
people respect. People now regard the letter as representing the word
"able."

As the Reverend Dimmesdale refers to Pearl in his argument for
allowing the child to remain with her mother, "God gave Pearl as a blessing
and as a reminder of her sin." The girl herself is a much more considerable
punishment to Hester then the letter "A" is. Pearl is the living symbol of
her sin. All the evil and hate of this story is embodied in this little
girl. Hawthorne raises the question of how Hester actually sees Pearl by
referring to that "little, laughing image of a fiend" which appears to peep
out of Pearl; "Whether it peeped or no, her mother so imagined it." She is
a beautiful charismatic little child and thus a blessing, but the stress of
Hester's environment twists and turns the actions of the girl into evil
things. In that respect she is more of a punishment to Hester then a piece
of cloth she must over her clothing.

On her visit to Governor Bellingham's house to plead for Pearl's
custody, Hester passes by a suit of armor in which the breast plate so
magnifies the letter "A" she wore almost consuming her. In later chapters,
after a meteorite appears above Boston, a sexton so wonders if it
represented "Angel" coming from above. Ironically so, it was a fallen one
coming down so. And so the letter "A" takes on a new meaning once again. In
Chapter 13, Hester wonders whether it wouldn't be better if both she and
Pearl were both dead. The mere fact that Hester can contemplate suicide
indicates that "the scarlet letter had not done it's office", because
suicide is an unpardonable sin in the Puritan faith. This fact in
conjunction with what the scarlet letter was meant to be and was not as
well as Pearl herself being quite a punishment in herself, discussed in the
above paragraphs clearly supports my belief in the failure of the scarlet
letter to do its work.