Alienation in The Scarlet Letter

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Scarlet Letter – Alienation and Isolation

by luolawrence1

Isolation and Alienation in Puritan Society

by Lawrence Luo

                In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne examines the effects of alienation and isolation in the darkness of smothering Puritan morality. These effects are presented largely in a negative light; a theme of the book is that alienation and isolation are detrimental to finding true happiness and achieving true moral redemption. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, the main characters demonstrate these adverse effects that isolation from society can have on people.

After her adulterous affair and fall from decent society, Hester Prynne leads a solitary life on the outskirts of Boston. Though she finds solace from a community that scorns her for her former actions, Hester ultimately suffers as a result of her isolation from other human beings. Her retirement from public life leads her to ponder, alone, the hypocrisy that is and was Puritan morality. She is forced to reexamine her life, and live from day-to-day seeking forgiveness and redemption. Hester never does repent for her actions, but it is a cruel torture that is augmented due to the hypocritical nature of the populace that has condemned her. Hester’s pain at her alienation is apparent in the devotion she holds towards her daughter Pearl, her (and Pearl’s) only company.  “But she named the infant ‘Pearl’, as being of great price – purchased with all she had – her mother’s only treasure!”  (Hawthorne 83). Their relationship is a tenuous one, but Hester’s maternal bond to her daughter helps her cope with alienation. Through Pearl, Hester learns some measure of empathy again and finds comfort in the fact that someone will accept her for who she is. Pearl does exactly that and more; she intuits the “inner sinfulness” that Hester holds in her heart and displays on her breast, and accepts Hester. When her mother sheds the garments that have held repressed her for so long, Pearl cannot bear, among other things, the changes that come across in her mother. Yet with the company of Dimmesdale in the forest after so many years of separation, Hester experiences true happiness and rejects a Puritan “redemption” from her fall.

Both Arthur Dimmesdale’s role as a preacher and his redemption from sin are in stark contrast to his alienation from society. As a preacher, Dimmesdale disseminates social values to his church’s constituents; it is a public role that he assumes that benefits the community as a whole. He is viewed by his community as a prophet, a beacon of truth that enlightens his followers.   However, he feels that his important role in public life is marked by hypocrisy; Dimmesdale cannot overcome his guilt, and is even less able to admit to society his moral travesties. Yet his appearances as a preacher benefits the community and gives him a reason to exist. In a self-detesting isolation, he inflicts bodily and mental harm on himself in a physical attempt to repent for his moral and spiritual sin. These acts are entirely misguided, and shows us the danger that lies behind self-induced alienation.

Symbols and setting in The Scarlet Letter also reflect the theme that isolation and alienation prevent one from finding happiness and true salvation. Hester’s scarlet letter serves as a symbol that reminds us of her alienation from society, a brand on her person that stigmatizes her and her sin. As a representation of the differences between her and her society (Puritans regarded themselves as morally pure and virtuous), it separates her from others, and increases the rifts between those who condemn her for her actions. Ornately embroidered and fiery, it symbolizes the pain that is wrought upon Hester due to her separation from society and marks the barriers between Hester and the rest of the world. “Man had marked this woman’s sin by a scarlet letter which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself.” (Hawthorne 93). The author explains that what separates Hester from her community is ultimately her sin, across which rift no overtures of acceptance can be made. Three central scenes in The Scarlet Letter take place on the scaffold; each case Hawthorne demonstrates the consequences of isolation. In the opening of the novel, Hester is by herself with an infant Pearl in her arms, but she and her lover are separated. One’s guilt is revealed publicly and the other privately. While Hester’s public display of sin in the form of the scarlet letter eventually allows her to overcome the revulsion of society, Dimmesdale holds his sin hidden in his heart, where it takes a mortal toll on him. Isolated in his shame, he is driven mad by his conscience. The trial that Hester and Pearl endure on the scaffold together, with the whole town watching, symbolizes Hester’s ostracization. In the second scene, Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl hold a vigil in the middle of the night. The scene itself illustrates the social alienation that the three of them suffer, although not normally as a group. The rest of the town is deep in slumber, which could be interpreted as their shunning and ignoring of those “sinners” in their society, those who must stand alone on a pillory of shame to serve as an example and source of ridicule to the community. In the last scene, Dimmesdale finally confronts his inner demons, and atop the scaffold, confesses his sins. Soon afterwards, he collapses and dies. Yet this death is more like a spiritual release; in casting off his isolated self-hatred, and sharing it with the community, he finally is able to uncover his guilt and shame and as a result, find true peace. According to strict Puritanism, what sins Dimmesdale has committed will be forgiven with his repentance and acceptance of the error of his ways. Yet whether or not Dimmesdale goes to heaven after death is not so relevant than the fact that he finally conquers his fears and finds moral peace and happiness in his confession.

Weaving characters, symbols, and setting together, Hawthorne presents us with a startling depiction of the injurious effects of social alienation and isolation. In an unforgiving, hypocritical society that castigates its members for their misdeeds, it can be seen how the alienation that Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale suffer pains them, in Dimmesdale’s case even eating away at his life. The Scarlet Letter casts society in a light that is at once both condemning and bitter. What his novel shows readers, however, is that social alienation and isolation breeds despair but no sense of redemption. Only society’s uncorrupted acceptance can help its members rise from ignominy and find peace and virtue.


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    Alienation in The Scarlet Letter

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    Lauren Boivin

    Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master’s degree in literature.

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    Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is rife with alienation. Sometimes it is overt, sometimes less so, but it is pervasive and a central focus of the story.

    All Alone Together

    Is it possible to be in a room full of people and yet feel completely alone? Such is the case in the Puritan society Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts in The Scarlet Letter. This culture is governed by such strict and severe Puritan guidelines that it seems all members of society suffer from alienation of some kind.

    Alienation is the sensation of being isolated or separated. If the Puritans’ strict rules weren’t enough to make one feel alienated in this society, one also had to labor under severe penalties for breaking those rules (which most people inevitably did at one point or another). Transgressors would endure harsh punishments and be ostracized from society. Alternatively, people would hide their guilt inside and worry themselves away with it. All this and more is at play in The Scarlet Letter.

    Hester Prynne

    Hester Prynne, the main character of the novel, is perhaps the most obvious example of alienation. She is branded from the beginning of the story by a large red ‘A’ to be worn always on her bosom as a punishment for the sin of adultery. She cannot escape this marking — it is there for all to see. Thus, she is marked and labeled as ‘different’ in her society, which opens her to much scorn and subsequent alienation.

    Despite Hester’s significant involvement and participation in her society, thanks to this indelible mark, ‘there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it.’ Her fellow citizens treat her in such a way that ‘every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere.’


    Pearl, Hester’s daughter from her adulterous relationship, is ostracized like her mother. We learn that even the Puritan children (whom Hawthorne refers to as ‘the most intolerant brood that ever lived’) treat Pearl and Hester as though they were shady characters who did not belong. We are told that even these children ‘scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues.’

    Pearl responds to this treatment with fiery impudence, however, lashing out at these children in a fit of anger if they ever approach her. Despite this and despite how unpleasant this must have been for a child, we learn that ‘Pearl wanted not a wide and various circle of acquaintance.’ Instead, she was content to amuse herself with her own imagination, and was content with her mother’s companionship.

    Arthur Dimmesdale

    Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the town minister and the person with whom Hester committed adultery, experiences another kind of alienation. He is always thronged with people who love and admire him. Everyone praises him and thinks him to be the best sort of person they’ve ever known. No, he is not alienated by other people as Hester and Pearl are. Instead, his alienation comes from within.

    Dimmesdale describes the ‘unutterable torment’ of a person who is hiding sins inside the way he is hiding his adultery with Hester, saying those who do that ‘go about among their fellow-creatures, looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of which they cannot rid themselves.’ He is tormented by his own secrets and feels himself completely blocked off from the rest of humanity because of them. Instead of basking in his own popularity, he feels condemned and isolated by it because he knows it is not deserved.

    Lesson Summary

    The alienation in The Scarlet Letter takes on various forms, but it all derives from a single source: Puritanism. Puritan law is strict and the consequences for transgression are severe. This creates divisiveness and the desire to hide all misdeeds.

    Hester Prynne and Pearl are both alienated by their society because of the sin with which they are associated. Hester has committed adultery and must wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her bosom because of it. This labels her and sets her apart from society. Pearl is likewise tainted because she was conceived in adultery.

    Arthur Dimmesdale alienates himself by hiding his own sins. He is aware of his own guilt, so all of the praise and fond attention lavished on him by his parishioners only serves to make him feel more separate. He is not what they believe him to be, and living this lie fills him with ‘unutterable torment.’

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    Ch 3. Themes in The Scarlet Letter

    • Guilt in The Scarlet Letter


    • Transcendentalism in The Scarlet Letter


    • Revenge in The Scarlet Letter

    • Isolation in The Scarlet Letter


    • Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter


    • Conflict in The Scarlet Letter


    • Archetypes in The Scarlet Letter

    • Adultery in The Scarlet Letter

    • Religion in The Scarlet Letter

    • Biblical Allusions in The Scarlet Letter


    • Alienation in The Scarlet Letter

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      Hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter

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    The Worshiped and the Damned

    There are many
    ways in which one can describe the idea of alienation and the
    relationship between an individual to a society. Whether or not
    people believe alienation to be beneficial to a person or group, the
    fact is that it has become a large part of what makes humanity so
    diverse. For this reason, alienation tends to be an underlying theme
    in a great number of novels. The uses and benefits of the alienation
    theme can vary from author to author, likewise, the portrayal and
    understanding of what it means to be an individual in a society
    differs greatly with each. Dependent upon an author, alienation can
    be considered a form of exclusion, a self-imposed act, or even the
    basis of a belief.

    Within The
    Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes the theme of alienation
    to characterize Hester Prynne. She is set aside from the strict
    Puritan society, which is increasingly captious to her every move.
    Once she is put on the scaffold, Hester loses her identity, and
    becomes no more than her sin and her letter. The use of the “A”
    is a tremendous symbol of alienation, which is not often seen rather
    than implied by an author. This usage of a “visual alienation” is
    affective in conveying the demeaning nature of alienation. Hawthorne
    describes the abrupt change in Hester’s identity in stating, “It
    was whispered, by those who peered after her that the scarlet letter
    threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the
    interior”(Hawthorne 65). It is evident that the townspeople no
    longer feel that Hester is worthy of being accepted by society, but
    she is forced to live as a letter of shame. Although alienation, in
    this case, is imposed by a society, it can also be conveyed as a
    self-imposed way of life. Self-alienation is very much an idea that
    has become associated with Transcendentalist thought.

    Henry David
    Thoreau is a Transcendentalist who strongly believes in the idea of
    self-alienation. Although he literally removed himself from society,
    this is not the only form that self-alienation can take on. Through
    ideas that differ from that of the societal norm and understanding of
    what it means to be an individual, one has gone past the standards
    and in turn has been alienated. In writing Walden Thoreau
    materializes the experiences and ideas of separation and
    misunderstanding of what it means to be an individual. His
    explanation of the actual act of leaving society conveys that he is
    fed up with how society views individuality as a curse rather than a
    blessing. Here he describes, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile
    from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore
    of Walden Pond.”(Thoreau 1). His independence and free mind have
    alienated him from society, but this view does not give alienation a
    negative connotation. To take alienation another step further, one
    can say that some societies base all of their beliefs on the
    alienation of one being.

    Although it is
    quite a drastic statement, Kurt Vonnegut in writing Cat’s Cradle
    portrays alienation in precisely this way. The basis of Cat’s
    Cradle is the belief in Bokononism, which is outlawed by society, but
    practiced by all. It is the type of dramatic irony that gives
    Vonnegut’s novel a revolutionary take on what it means to be
    alienated and worshiped at the same time. Bokonon himself, who is the
    god-like figure, only obtained his infamous role through exile and
    forced exclusion the society in which he lived. The idea of
    worshiping the hated individual was in a way rebellion to the
    conformity of government and society. Because everyone is a
    clandestine worshiper of Bokonon, the feeling of individuality by
    each of Vonnegut’s characters is rather counterproductive. The
    beginning of the worshiped alienation of Bokonon is described by
    Vonnegut in saying, “He had escaped, had evaporated, had lived to
    preach another day. Miracle!”(119). The worship is developed by the
    awe in which alienation holds. It is somewhat intriguing in
    Vonnegut’s mind to love and idolize a man that has become rejected
    and alienated from society. Individuality in this sense does not
    exist because within the novel all believe alienation to be the basis
    for life lessons and understanding.

    Literature has
    always produced common themes, understandings, and moral issues, but
    the way in which each is portrayed varies according to the author.
    Each idea is based upon inner knowledge and life experiences. This
    understanding of variety within one theme is perfectly evident in the
    analyzing of alienation in The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Cat’s
    Cradle. The three authors portray alienation as what they feel it
    should be or currently is within society. Hawthorne takes a stand in
    saying what is common to most when describing an individual in a
    society. His basis is upon exclusion and harshness. Hawthorne’s
    description is similar to that of Thoreau’s, although in this case
    the alienation has become meaningless and petty. Thoreau believes
    that one may only understand society through alienation, which as a
    result produces the individual. In Vonnegut’s radical view of
    individualism and alienation, he goes as far to saying that the
    qualities are to be idealized and worshiped. It is conveyed in his
    view that one can only reach their maximum potential and exceed
    others through alienation and severe individuality within a society.
    Each view, though extraordinarily different, conveys lessons that
    make alienation important to the structure of a society. Without
    alienation, the world would not function, for there would be no basis
    of what living means.

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