Ambiguity And Romanticism: The Scarlet Letter, By Nathaniel Hawthorne

1135 words - 5 pages

The main objective in a nonfiction piece of writing is to deliver information. To do this, the writer must choose the diction and syntax most representative of what he is trying to convey. But, in a novel this is not the case. The Scarlet Letter, a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells a story of an adulteress living in Puritan society with an “A” embroidered upon her chest as punishment. Part of the difficulty of this novel can be attributed to the narrator; he is never perfectly clear about what is happening. The narrator deliberately includes ambiguities in his prose when commenting on the town of Boston, the scarlet letter, and Hester to display Hawthorne’s romanticized beliefs.
Ambiguities in the actions of the town of Boston exhibit the Romantic belief that the individual should avoid the corrupting influence of society. The novel begins with a description of the town of Boston and the air of gloom that permeates the community. The prison of Boston, a voice of law, was also one of the first structures built when the town was established; this suggests that one of the founding principles of Boston is its strict order. This legacy of uniformity is carried on by the inhabitants of Boston, which causes them to dress in “sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats” (Hawthorne 33) because there is no place for individualism in the rigid structure of puritanical Boston. Additionally, it is this strict order that gives Hester her punishment, and with it, presents the ambiguity. The scarlet letter is meant to bring shame to and ostracize Hester, but she expresses the exact opposite: she gives “a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed,” and is conscious of “a shelter in the presence of these thousand witnesses” (37, 44). Here, the contradiction resides in the different definitions given to the scarlet letter by the two characters (under the assumption that the town of Boston is one character). Hester openly defies the intentions of the town of Boston, and this signifies that the thousands in the town and their leaders are powerless against the will of an individual. Hawthorne, therefore, is arguing that the town is incorrect in trying to constrain people. Another ambiguity that gives additional insight on the town of Boston takes place in the final scaffold scene, more specifically, the climax. There, Dimmesdale reveals the symbol on his chest and shocks the town, with many “testified to having seen…a SCARLET LETTER…imprinted in the flesh” (176). The paradox, however, lies not in the fact that Dimmesdale sinned as a minister, but in the town’s attempt to explain such a revelation. The narrator presents a multitude of possible explanations offered by the town of Boston, but ultimately asserts that “the reader may choose among these theories” (176). By giving the reader the final say on what happened in this crucial scene, the narrator acknowledges that the town is unable to form a conclusion and the reader needs to step in. In...

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