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Set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts, Romantic author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter follows the life of adulteress Hester Prynne as she faces consequences for the failure of conforming to Puritan values. Forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” as a reminder of the sins she has committed, Hester finds herself completely isolated from Puritan society except for her daughter Pearl and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne provides an alternative perspective on Puritan society, as he utilizes Romantic elements to convey that the individual is at the center of all life and experience, contrasting with Puritan beliefs on one’s role in society. In the piece Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses the effects society has on one’s development as a true version of themselves. Hawthorne and Emerson both utilize the Romantic element of Individualism to convey that conforming to the entirety of a society’s norms prevents one from discovering their true self and creating a strong moral and social influence on others.
Hawthorne emphasizes that although the Puritans brand Hester with the letter “A” for adultery, it is truly a sign of her resistance and nonconformity in society and its role in shaping her true emotions and values as an individual. Hester decides to raise her daughter Pearl on her own, and “for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society… she had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness… The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss” (Hawthorne 195). Although she faces isolation after giving birth to an illegitimate child, Hester remains a member of Puritan society, which is a demonstration of her resilience as an individual. Hawthorne suggests that the scarlet letter has allowed Hester to develop an identity in a way “other women dared not tread,” as she is truly able to break the boundaries set by Puritan society to follow her own values. Following the “shame” and “despair” she faces, Hester continues to follow the influence of her socially unaccepted emotions, which indicates her decision to act according to her own will rather than the norms of Puritan society. Although the narrator claims that Hester’s isolated experiences have guided her “amiss,” Hawthorne clarifies that they have also “made her strong” and allowed her to overcome the sins she has committed. Ironically, Hester’s punishment, which was intended to set an example for the community and to help her reflect on her wrongdoings, was what allowed her to drift off into the “moral wilderness” without any “rule or guidance.” Instead of continuing life with the guilt of her past sins, Hawthorne uses her isolation from society Hawthorne conveys that due to her unaccepted beliefs, Hester faces isolation from the Puritan society and is truly able to develop as an individual, allowing her personal values to flourish. After the death of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl move to Europe to start a fresh life away from the harshness of the Puritan community. However, years later, Hester chooses to return, and “here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed . . . the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale . . . the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too” (Hawthorne ). Hawthorne demonstrates that the scarlet letter has assisted Hester in reshaping her public image while helping her discover her true identity. The “A” becomes a symbol of Hester’s personal growth rather than a sign of failure and sin that it was in the past. Through Hester’s self-redemption, Hawthorne highlights that being a nonconformist in a rigid society helps one find their true identity.