Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one of the most well remembered romantic novels in history. Although written in 1850, its influence and literary greatness still force themselves onto English teachers’ syllabuses every year. A strong question brought forth by this action is: “How and why does this novel manage to survive the change in society and taste over the years?” The answer to this is quite simple.
It is Hawthorne’s ability to project his main themes throughout the story. The themes have been able to somehow fit into every different society, even up to our time. The major themes seem to be: first, a law vs. nature idea, one that poses the laws of society against the nature of human beings.
The next major theme fits into the first. It is an individual vs. society idea; Hester and her lover, Dimmesdale, become fugitives of the law of Puritan society. The next is the effect of sin, whether good or bad, on the novel’s major characters. The final major theme is the public vs. private self. It shows that people are much, much different in the public than they are privately.
These themes, as the reader acknowledges, are apparent just as much in today’s society as they were in the 17th-century society that Hawthorne writes of. This similarity between the societies of the last 300 years has kept The Scarlet Letter, and the love for the pure romance novel, alive.The first major theme, the law vs. nature theme, runs very deep throughout The Scarlet Letter. Although today’s society is very tolerant to the wrongdoing of its citizens, Puritan society was very strict.
Its laws covered every aspect of life. Human nature was constantly bubbling because of the stranglehold that Puritan law put on its liberties. Its is only obvious that the reader would be drawn to the idea of two people rebelling from these ideas, and looking not at the law for authority, but to their love and the freedom of their human nature. Hester and Dimmesdale are two such rebels, and their love asks the reader to weigh the justice of society’s laws against the claims of human nature, the needs of every human being to love and companionship.The next theme is the individual vs.
society theme. This, although strongly relating to the fist major theme, greatly draws the reader to the story. Many popular novels today are based on the same theme: two lovers, torn apart by society, trying to find a way to be together.
This idea, although tacky at times, has found a way to stand the test of time, and keep readers drawn to romance novels from generation to generation. Hester and Dimmesdale are fugitives from society, and they have a leech, in the form of Chillingworth, constantly eyeing them, and trying to eliminate their ability to be with each other. The reader wants to know what happens next, what will become of the two lovers, and if they will succeed in their chance to be with each other.The next strong theme in The Scarlet Letter is sin, and its effects, whether good or bad, on its characters.
The Scarlet Letter is, in a sense, a study of the effects of sin on the hearts and minds of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. In every case, the effect is devastating. Once these characters stumble into evil, it keeps a strong grip on them, and they are not able to separate themselves from it.
Sin changes the sinners. It darkens their vision and weakens the spirit’s defenses against further temptation. In a sense, sin can be seen as so evil, that it will send a man, Dimmesdale, to his death. It can also be seen that Chillingworth, because he connected himself so much to the sin of Dimmesdale and Hester, forced his death as well. However, in another sense, the sin in The Scarlet Letter can also be seen as, somehow, a maturing force. Sin strengthens Hester. It humanizes Dimmesdale.
The reader can see that very clearly as the story progresses. The atmosphere of sin gathers itself around the major characters, and the ones they are involved with. Pearl is very symbolic of a sign or medal that hovers over Hester, even worse then the scarlet letter does, that never lets Hester escape sin, and the effect of this on Hester is excruciating. Sin should always be in the mind of the reader while reading The Scarlet Letter, and they should always try to see for themselves how sin effects the major characters. The effect sin has on people hasn’t changed very much since the end of the 17th century, and this has kept readers still familiarizing themselves with the characters of The Scarlet Letter for almost 150 years. The last major theme that has kept The Scarlet Letter so popular is the public vs. private self.
Hawthorne’s Puritan New England is a world that almost encourages all of its citizens to ignore most of its rules. So much is forbidden that almost everyone has something to hide. Of course, Dimmesdale is the biggest example of this. A Puritan minister having an affair with a married woman is definitely something that went against many Puritan laws, and while it was going on, publicly, Dimmesdale was not seen as any different from normalcy. Maybe the only change was his newfound energy that was seen in his strong sermons. However, the secrecy aspect of this theme is what drives readers to it.
People strive for privacy and secrecy, and they see such a large change in themselves between their public and private lives that they can only imagine what others are like behind the closed door.These themes, along with Hawthorne’s ability to write beautifully, have kept readers drawn to The Scarlet Letter. Each major theme is displayed just the same in today’s society as it was in the societies of old. When readers are able to compare themselves to the characters of a novel, they enjoy the novel even more. Though not everyone can commit adultery with a minister, we can all see the effects that love, rules, sin, and privacy can have on us all. A story today written with the same boundaries could be just as popular as any other bestseller if written with the literary genius of a Hawthorne or other great author. The Scarlet Letter has stood the test of time and the changing of society.
Its influence will be felt for many years, because it seems that many years from now The Scarlet Letter will have just as much of a strong place in classrooms and bookshelves as it ever did.