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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: A Study of Isolation - a recurring theme in both

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The Grandeur of Isolation

Everyone has friends, some are closer than others. That is the difficulty in life; the human factor of closeness. Some would choose to live their entire lives in isolation rather than become close to others. Why would one partake in this solemnity by choice? For what reason would an individual give up their God-given right of companionship and choose to live their life as a forlorn solitary? The answer is simple; to ensure the quality of life deserving of one they love. Despite their isolation, multiple characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men rise above their circumstance to achieve personal victory.

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Without doubt Hester Prynne lived most, if not all, of her life in isolation; despite her isolation, Hester attempts to give Pearl a better life by rising above her circumstances. First, Hester’s time spent in prison was a unique punishment which had never been borne by another soul. The shadow of a grotesque and ghastly man hurls open the cell door of Hester Prynne. This silhouette of a man seems to represent the Puritanical society of the period as a whole. The face of a stranger no longer matters to Hester Prynne; she would be analyzed the same, regardless by whom, as the sinner she identified being. Hester’s “existence, heretofore, had…acquaintance only with the grey twilight of the dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison” (Hawthorne 39). This quote demonstrates that Hester began her life-long term of isolation in prison. Hester is strong-minded and pushes her silhouette of a guard away to walk freely; she understands the burden now on her existence. Pearl, the constant reminder of her sin, has known only darkness until this point. Hester will endure the burden of isolation and condemnation to raise Pearl in the most normalcy possible.

In addition to isolation, Hester feels remorse for her actions; she reminisces over the life that could have been. Furthermore, Hester subliminally realizes the land of opportunity that is Boston; she knows the opportunity and possibility she has thrown away. Boton’s puritanical society was enamored with the use of public-shaming and the like. Regardless, Hester willingly stays in Boston and chooses to brandish the scarlet “A” and endure the hardships which are sure to envelop her life as an adulteress. Hester is brought to the scaffolds to display her “A” to all; she looks around and sees the faces of the people she once knew and the buildings she once populated. In this moment Hester realizes what she truly has in life: Pearl. Hester “clutched the child so fiercely to her breast that is sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger…..they were her realities; all else had vanished” (Hawthorne 45). This quote demonstrates to the reader that Hester now knows she must take initiative and provide for Pearl the life she failed to attain. In that moment Hester clutches her child and feels for her scarlet “A” as all former aspirations disappear. These two symbols are physical reminders of her shame; never letting her forget the sin of her past, but giving her the needed tunnel-vision to see important undertaking of her existence: providing the quality of life for Pearl that she never had.

Furthermore Hester has quite literally traded her quality of life for Pearl’s. Her child is her only tangible reason to continue living; for what other reason would Hester not up and die? Hester lives in a continual sadness embodied by the scarlet “A” embroidered on her breast. The only release is her only happiness; her daughter. Pearl has grown up alongside her mother. As Pearl states in the reading, she knows no “Heavenly Father”. The only parental figure in Pearl’s life is Hester, who is also her closest friend. Pearl has seen the cruelty of the world. Her eyes have gazed upon the the land and her soul reflects what she has seen. Almost taken from her mother, harassed by peers, knowing no father, having no companions-Pearl’s life was quite literally a living hell. With this in mind one might think Hester failed her life’s one true task, but this is not the case. Hester has Sacrificed much for Pearl, and has made given her the quality of life she deserves, but not immediately. Hester wonders to what extent her child’s knowledge reaches. She inquires “‘Dost thou know child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?’” (Hawthorne 142)

This demonstrates the interest of Hester in her younger daughter Pearl. She has not given Pearl the material quality of life, but the intellectual quality. Does her child understand this sacrifice? Against all odds, Hester has raised her daughter, a symbol of her sin, and given her the tools to build a successful life. The compassion seen in Pearl’s care for her mother as she is harassed by children, consistent mother-daughter closeness, alike personalities-these things and more have all been give to Pearl by her mother. Hester has raised a daughter, and taught her, that even through adversity you must remain adamant about who you love and care about. She has been taught to never quit attempting success even if the odds are stacked against you and to stand up for what she believes in. The scarlet “A” was transformed from a symbol of isolation and strife into “able”. Pearl was transformed from a mere symbol of sin into compassionate young woman. Hester Prynne succeeded in her life’s one and only true goal.

In a similar fashion, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, George lives a life of isolation so Lennie is never required to. George Milton has spent most of his existence as the caretaker of Lennie Smalls as per the request of Lennie’s late aunt. The duo are polar opposites; George is “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features…..every part of him was defined”. (Steinbeck 2). Lennie is “a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders”. (Steinbeck 2). The diagnosis of Lennie Smalls is never shared in Of Mice and Men, but it can be observed through thought processes, activities, and lack of social skills that Lennie is somehow mentally challenged. George has ensured the safe keeping of Lennie, but part of him wants to be a free soul; he is conflicted. As anger gets the best of him George twists his true feelings to hurt Lennie “‘God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all’” (Steinbeck 11). This quote demonstrates the intricacy of the situation at hand. George wants to live, but he cannot leave Lennie to be alone. George realizes the stress he continually puts on his shoulders as he routinely cares for Lennie. George lives in this isolation, moving place to place, to give Lennie a life he could not obtain on his own.

Equally important is that George wants exactly what Lennie does; to settle down and live life in the slow lane. To accomplish this task for Lennie is to accomplish it for himself also. George has found the pair work and is attempting to save up for their farm. Lennie, anxious as always, ends up revealing the duo’s plan to Candy. Lennie asked “‘George how long’s it gonna be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’ an’ rabbits?’” (Steinbeck 56). This quote shows the disconnect between the two. George shroud their plan in secrecy whilst Lennie has no filter. The two are opposites, but yet are even more alike than they could possibly know.

Additionally George and Lennie have no one else; only each other. George, at times, may become frustrated with his situation, caring for Lennie, but he needs Lennie just as much as Lennie needs him. George routinely says hurtful things to Lennie, but he always stays. He cares about Lennie too much, being around him is George’s norm. George has lived in isolation in an attempt to provide a life of normalcy for Lennie for Lennie’s late aunt, but also for himself. Lennie is the brother he never had. Without each other they would both live a life of great destitute. Lennie’s favorite story “‘Guys like us that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place……’” (Steinbeck 13). This is the quote that solidifies the relationship between George Milton and Lennie Smalls. Who do they have without each other? Their bond goes far beyond a caretaker and an impaired man. This is brotherhood.

The bond between the two helps to explain George’s actions at the end of the novel. The entire event was foreshadowed earlier as Carlson shoots Candy’s old dog; leaving Candy to wish he had done it himself. Many would believe that George’s actions were not out of compassion, but there is evidence to prove it is. When Curley’s wife is killed and a pigeon flies overhead two things come to mind. The soul of an unhappy woman being released from her prison, and the symbol of Lennie running away as he would soon have to. George recites to Lennie his favorite story before pulling the trigger; he wanted Lennie to die happy. George did his best to provide a life of normalcy and happiness for Lennie; he was successful even if things ended poorly. There was truly no other alternative. With nowhere to run Lennie would either have been shot by Curley, imprisoned, or worse. Lennie Smalls died a happy man; which was George’s objective.

Nonetheless, even with isolation consistently seen as a key theme in The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men, both books share similarities and dissimilarities. The key similarity in both novels is the self-sacrifice by one character for the benefit of another character. This is demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter with Hester and Pearl, and in Of Mice and Men with George and Lennie. Main characters overcome adversity to help give those they love a chance at life. The duos in both novels succeeded, but the circumstances are somewhat different. The key dissimilarity is that Hester provides Pearl with the skills to lead the life of normalcy and happiness that she was unable to, while George provides Lennie with a normal life, and a reason to continue trying; a cause. Long story short; at the end of stories Pearl is alive and Lennie isn’t. That does not, however, negate any of George’s actions; simply that Lennie’s period of happiness was provided in the here and now while Pearl’s was ensured for the future.

Despite their isolation, multiple characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men rise above their circumstance to achieve personal victory. The characters in both novels live in some form of isolation to ensure a better life for a loved one. Do they succeed in their task? Yes, but should they have ensured a better life for themselves as well and found happiness? Who’s to say, but that’s the difficulty in life; the human factor of closeness.

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