Redemption. It’s such an ambiguous concept, yet also something that so many people strive for. But what exactly is “redemption?” Can anyone ever truly be redeemed? And if so, how? These are essential questions that playwright Arthur Miller and author Nathaniel Hawthorne set out to address in their respective works – Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible and Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. Although over a century separates their writing, these two works, both set in the Puritan New England of the early American colonial period, share many of the same themes and messages. Both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter prominently feature downtrodden, victimized individuals who, in their own, unique ways, each find redemption by the end of their journey and, through this, find peace within themselves. This theme of redemption is one of the things that binds these two seemingly unrelated works together, and Miller and Hawthorne show the world that redemption is never out of reach.
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Over the course of The Crucible, John Proctor emerges as one of the most dominant and significant characters of the play. Far from a mere farmer or supporting character, he comes to represent so much more through his actions and has a profound effect on the events and outcomes of the play. Proctor, though pressured to confess to performing witchcraft and thus save himself from hanging, tears up his confession after learning that it will be used to persuade others to falsely confess, choosing death over the renouncement of his convictions and moral beliefs. Rather than allow himself to be carried on the misguided judgements of the Salem courts, Proctor “stands at the end on the judgement of the only tribunal he acknowledges: his own conscience” (Schoenberg and Trudeau). Through this last act of defiance and courage, Proctor truly finds his own personal redemption, even after his earlier inaction and the harm that he has caused, either directly or indirectly. As Thomas E. Porter writes in “The Long Shadow of the Law: The Crucible,” John Proctor “goes to his death purged of guilt and seeing meaning in his sacrifice.” By choosing to literally tear up his confession – and thus make his own death all but certain – Proctor and his own conscience emerge victorious over the judgement of the outside world (Schoenberg and Trudeau). Through this, Proctor finally achieves the redemption that he sought, and as June Schlueter and James Flanagan argue, Proctor, through his redemption, is “one of the few who survive the crucible” (Schoenberg and Trudeau).
Similarly, in The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Dimmesdale each find themselves seeking their own personal redemption. Hester must cope with the initial public shaming, and ridicule that comes with her actions and her scarlet letter “A,” while Dimmesdale suffers through his own torture. Dimmesdale’s suffering, though, comes not from the outside world but from within himself, as he is torn apart by guilt and inner conflict over his affair with Hester. But by the end of the novel, Hester and Dimmesdale each manage to redeem themselves in their own way. Hester’s response to the ridicule and scorn directed at her is to simply “bear the consequences of her transgression with quiet dignity” (Bomarito and Whitaker). Instead of retreating into herself or letting the hatred get to her, Hester goes out and helps the community – she cares for the poor and elderly and does other good deeds around the town. As a result, the stigma around her is gradually lifted, until the scarlet letter on her chest bears none of its original negative connotations. “Hester’s good deeds eventually transform the meaning of the “A” in the view of the townspeople, who claim that it stands for “angel” or “able,” rather than “adulterer” (Bomarito and Whitaker). Dimmesdale’s story concludes in his own fiery act of redemption, as, as his last act, he finally admits his adultery to his parishioners before collapsing in Hester’s arms, finally triumphing over and freeing himself of his inner torment and anguish.
Through each of these characters’ stories, Miller and Hawthorne illustrate the many forms that redemption takes in peoples’ lives. As the individual stories of John Proctor, Hester Prynne, and Arthur Dimmesdale are woven in their respective works, they each struggle to redeem themselves, both in their own eyes and the eyes of their communities, and a greater story of this long and often difficult journey to this redemption takes shape. Without a doubt, these works and their lessons will survive through the ages, as will the never-ending human quest for redemption.
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