Since the beginning of time, man has gathered himself in communities in order to better facilitate the needs and interests of individuals. As institutions developed to govern these communities, the idea of a collective good emerged. Central to the idea of a collective good is the responsibility of the community in forming a sense of national morality. Should this morality come from the government or religion? Perhaps, individuals should take responsibility to constitute a morality for themselves. Nathaniel Hawthorne addresses the question of national morality in his work The Scarlet Letter.
Through a careful examination of the central characters of the work and an understanding of the underlying ideas of Hawthorne, a view on national morality emerges. Hawthorne criticizes the fundamentalist Puritan characters, particularly Dimmesdale, by showing their hypocrisy and displaying the failures of Puritans and their form of a national morality. The treatment of the outcast Hester Ledbetter-2 reveals Hawthornes desire to form a national morality founded on individual accountability and Transcendentalist beliefs.
Before disclosing his notions and beliefs on national morality, Hawthorne begins his story, The Scarlet Letter, with a discussion of the Puritan state of Salem set in the 1600’s. It is often problematic to discern Hawthornes views about Puritanism due to his ambiguity. He reveres the Puritan conviction and their ability to conform to the controls of their faith (Gerber, 34). However, he condemns them for the bigotry and utter intolerance they show for opposing viewpoints and perspectives (Leavitt, 88). This ambiguity causes the reader to question Hawthornes attitudes and tone throughout the course of the work.
No where in The Scarlet Letter does Hawthorne criticize in particular the doctrines of the Puritan religion. Hawthorne only discusses the Puritanical beliefs such as predestination and the Doctrine of the Elect in the context of his narrative. In fact, Nathaniel Ledbetter-3 Hawthorne himself was a second generation Puritan. Hawthornes grandfather was a prominent judge during the Salem Witchcraft trials. Indisputably, Hawthornes chief ideological complaint rests in the theocratic Salem where the government is heavily influenced and even dominated by the church.
When the authority of the church in state affairs is addressed, Hawthornes tone changes to one of disdainful contempt. This becomes evident as Hawthorne portrays the scene of Hesters punishment upon the scaffold at the very beginning of the story (Hawthorne, 65). Hawthorne regards Puritan Salem as a battleground in the early struggle for political liberty in America (Gerber, 36). Before the battles against the British crown and the ultimate formation of the United States, the rights of privacy and personal liberty were fundamental to the early settlers.
The government suppression of individual thought and even individual morality is contemptuous to Hawthorne. For Hawthorne, subjugation of individual expression should never occur, but Ledbetter-4 especially not by governmental forces. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne chooses a very effective method to show his great distrust and hauteur of the theocratic Puritan state. He creates a major character, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is a highly respected member of the Puritan community who commits adultery, a crime against everything the Puritans believe in (Leavitt, 90).
Arthur Dimmesdale is the leader of the Salem community as minister of the local congregation. He is an ordained minister and highly educated at the best universities of Europe, nevertheless, he is not perfect despite what many of his parishioners may believe. Dimmesdale has numerous flaws which are illustrated to the audience by his adulterous affair with Hester Prynne. However, fornication is not Dimmesdales chief crime in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne shows that it is Dimmesdales concealment of the affair that is the true sin.
The shielding of the affair from the town becomes a great burden on Dimmesdales heart and ultimately leads to him to Ledbetter-5 self-inflicted torture (Dibble, 63). Hawthorne utilizes dramatic irony when addressing the relationship between community members and Dimmesdale. As the story progresses, the townspeople begin to increasingly view Dimmesdale as the holiest man amongst them. However, Dimmesdale begins to see himself as a corrupt and withered old man far different from the holy man the town perceives him to be (Gross, 65).
The character of Dimmesdale is used by Nathaniel Hawthorne to demonstrate the insufficiencies and failures of the Puritans lifestyle. In spite of the communion between the church and state, the ruling body of Salem could not discover Hesters co-conspirator. They made repeated attempts to discover her accomplice, but were unsuccessful in all of their tries. The failures of the Puritans way of life becomes exacerbated when the one person who was supposed to guide Salem spiritually was a corrupt and morally incapable man.
The weak and tortured soul of Dimmesdale becomes a validating point for Hawthornes opinion, that it is Ledbetter-6 foolish to reside complete spiritual leadership in a single man. A man who could falter as easily has anyone. The rigid and stringent controls around Dimmesdale and the entire Puritan society did not result in the formation of a moral consciousness. The governmental controls of their society simply created an air of hypocrisy among the obstinate Puritans. Hawthorne chiefly designs the character of Arthur Dimmesdale to be a point of contrast to the Puritan example of moral virtuosity.
Hawthorne also utilizes the character of Dimmesdale to manifest his views and beliefs on where the heart of moral control should rest. While society was oblivious to Dimmesdales crime of adultery, he certainly understands the underlying implications of his trespass. The burden of the offense takes a toll on him. He becomes weakened spiritually and even physically as he appears more frail as the narrative progresses. While seen as a vibrant and energetic man at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, the story progresses Ledbetter-7 emonstrating his poisoning by Chillingworth and his physical decay due to his own self-inflicted torture.
At several instances throughout the work, Arthur Dimmesdale appears holding his hand over his heart. This is his only outward appearance of the pain that the crime and resulting torment it is causing his soul; forming his own scarlet letter. Arthur Dimmesdale judges his own actions even though the state is unable to punish him. He finds his adultery morally unjust and totally unacceptable. This leads him to punish himself and torture his soul in repentance of his unthinkable crime. It is not the state that punishes Dimmesdale; for it is he who takes it upon himself to administer the punishment.
This is the individual moral responsibility that Hawthorne advocates. He is scornful upon the rigid controls of Puritan society, because he sees morality as the responsibility of the individual. Nathaniel Hawthornes view of national morality becomes extremely evident through an evaluation of the character of Hester Prynne. The greatness lies Ledbetter-8 in the character of Hester Prynne. Because she dared to trust herself and to believe in the possibility of a new morality in the new world? Carpenter, 47).
Hawthornes heroine achieves moral greatness in defiance of her human weaknesses. She also overcomes the prejudices she is forced to endure from the Puritan society who condemns her and her child, Pearl. Hester uses her talents and good deeds in an attempt to gain forgiveness. She continuously helped the unfortunate in the Salem community. However, those she helped treated her with haughtiness and disgrace. Throughout her entire ordeal, Hester embodied the vision and the idea of transcendentalisms positive freedom as she achieved her moral independence and originality.
She is free-spirited in a type of moral wilderness where she can determine her own morality. The laws of the world did not confine Hester; her only law was that of her mind. (Sherman, 43) Hawthorne and his transcendentalist brethren envisioned a society where individuals determined Ledbetter-9 morality. The transcendentalists believed that the state should have no role in the determination of a national moral code. They believed that government had no place legislating morality to its citizens.
The transcendentalist idea of a persons innate goodness led to Hawthornes individualistic moral integrity ideas. The transcendentalists believed that inside each person was a true morality, that no one was truly evil. By believing in peoples innate goodness, transcendentalists are able to justify their beliefs. Individuals are capable of determining their own morals if they contain the goodness Hawthorne believes. This is the way to gain a national moral consciousness according to Hawthorne. Hawthornes transcendental views of nature and morality are also evident in The Scarlet Letter.
The Puritans see nature as the purview of evil, as demonstrated by the fact that the town witches, in particular Mistress Ann Hibbons, live in the woods. However, Hawthorne views nature and indeed uses it as a source of freedom. Hester is Ledbetter-10 only able to remove the scarlet letter in the freedom that the woods offers her. The one place where Dimmesdale and Hester can be true to themselves and their feelings is in the woods (Johnson, 41). The controls of the Puritan culture are nonexistent because here they are hidden and can say and do the things that the Puritans find lawless and immoral (Johnson, 41).
The Puritan way of rigid religious controls is clearly abhorrent to Hawthornes belief in the role of the individual and their ability to determine morality for themselves. Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter provides two contrasting views of the role of the state and the individual in determining national morality. Hawthorne sees national morality more has a collective morality, therefore he relies on individuals to realize morals for themselves which results in a consensus national morality.
The use of Arthur Dimmesdale shows major weaknesses in the Puritan theocratic state, and paves the way for Hawthornes transcendentalism. Dimmesdale judges Ledbetter-11 himself and then determines the appropriate punishment just as Hawthorne advocates. Hester follows the same self-judgment and sentences herself with retribution of a life filled with charity. Moreover though, Hester Prynne is the embodiment of the purely American dream of life in the new worlds wilderness, and the self-reliant action that is necessary to attain such an ideal (Carpenter, 47).