A Critical Review ofThe Scarlet Letter

Great literature has iconic characters, memorable stories, and lasting lessons; it is well-written, compelling, thought provoking ... and generally depressing. Literature uses two basic models of plot development: “comedy” and “tragedy.” Statistically speaking, stories of each type should exist in equal quantities. In “great” literature, however, tragedy predominates. Thus, the landscape of literary greatness appears as a field a desolation—sadness upon sadness, fear upon fear, death upon death. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is certainly no exception. The Scarlet Letter tells the tragic story of Hester Prynne, a women found guilty as an adulteress, her alienation from society, the inner-conflict of her condition, and how these things affect the city and its inhabitants.

Hawthorne does not sew only seeds of despair in his plot. Nevertheless, he reaps a rather grim harvest. His story does do an excellent job of expressing the concept of paradox in human nature and gives an interesting comparison of the his own romantic ideas and the Puritan culture he describes. Nevertheless, while subplots meander and join, the main story arc suffers from a depressingly predictable, and predictably depressing, development.

As the book opens, Hawthorne introduces us to the character of Hester. Despite her position of ignominy, he presents her immediately as a strong, likable personality. Through her trials and triumphs, we gain insight into her conflict and her complete dismissal of her own worth. Ultimately, the reader becomes very empathetic and emotionally bound to Hester's character. Because the reader identifies so strongly with Hester's position, he naturally wishes her happiness. Thus, the predictable problem develops.

Above all, Hester personifies the ideal of the tragic hero. An attentive and experienced reader will perceive this quality and will know, therefore, that Hester's story will not, CANNOT end happily. Throughout the story's development, this reader will watch and await Hester's inevitable downfall. Even so, he will hope, in vain, that it will never come. Hawthorne even has the bad taste to explicitly dangle that fleeting hope of redemption over the reader, toying with his sensitivity.

I speak, of course, of Hester and Dimmesdale's plans of escape to England. Late in the book, Hester and the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale (with whom, despite their terrible positions and contrasting nature, she still desperately loves) hatch plans to escape to England,. Here they could live happily together where their love was not societally shameful, but “legitimate.” This concept strongly appeals to most readers, but to the astute reader (who recognizes the pattern), it should also appear infeasible. An attentive reader knows and—at least my personal experience would suggest— despairs at this reality. The rest of the story comes as no surprise: Dimmesdale admits his sins and dies, scandal engulfs the town, Hester steals away with Pearl but later returns, lives alone, and dies.

Many would consider this a wonderful ending, the very definition of great literature. I pose a simple response, why must Dimmesdale die? Why couldn't he and Hester escape to happiness after Dimmesdale has revealed all? Quite a few people would claim that great art is inherently depressing; they characterize happiness as too vulgar, too convenient, and too unrealistic. For this work, such persons would cite the tragic end as driving home Hester's nature, the nature of human paradox, human depression, the “human condition.” There exists a disease amongst much of the literary community, and much of the philosophical/theological one (epitomized in the very Puritan society described), that the “human condition” means suffering, and that, whether the result of original sin, Freudian dichotomy, or simple tradition, sin defines “human nature”. Personally, I find this conclusion, which Hawthorne echoes (with some reluctance), hollow and depressing. Many would call happy endings a cop-out which fails to reflect reality, but I find the tragic ending just a cop-out from further discussion of the subject.

Hester's fall into self-abasement and paradox and the development of Dimmesdale's holy/sinful dichotomy are certainly interesting subjects. They do provide profound insight to the human condition, but the slip to depression is not a one way road; Their recovery could provide just as interesting an account, if not a more interesting one. Had Hester and Dimmesdale escaped to England, they could have lived there in peace. They would face their pasts and likely overcome them. Their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in this endeavor would provide equal insight to that past and would provide a more complete picture of humanity, not to mention just a generally happier reader . Overall, The Scarlet Letter does a quite good job of exploring a part of the human condition. Nonetheless, this condition manifests both triumphs and tragedies, and while while the novel does try to show Hester's limited triumph over her external condition, it never allows her internal victory. Thus, it creates an incomplete and largely depressing portrait of the world.