Violence carries several meanings. It is commonly defined as an action causing pain, suffering or destruction, but can also refer to a great force, or an injustice, a wrong. Actually, violence is not only physical, it may also imply a moral dimension. In other words, it plays both on the field of the outer and inner worlds. In all cases, violence stages a relation between domination and subjection which are entangled in it. In The Scarlet Letter, violence seems to be the leading string of the plot: Hester Prynne has to undergo the ordeal of penance in a Puritan society that harshly condemns adultery. One can see here the atmosphere of violence she is plunged into. More generally, or rather more specifically, violence is present on various levels in this story: it manifests itself in the Puritan society, to which the notion of gaze is intimately connected, but also in the very minds of the characters who are haunted by their guilt, or even in Pearl’s character in its complete opposition to the stern and strict principles of Puritan society.
The question of the relation between the sinful Hester Prynne and the highly religious society she lives in illustrates notably the conflict, on a greater scale, between the individual and the group, the we and the I. This very theme would be most likely to represent violence in all its forms. And the most surprising fact in The Scarlet Letter is that though Hester is not forbidden to leave this society, she yet decides to stay, even though it hurts her. Accordingly, it would be then interesting to study how the relation between the individual and society is depicted in The Scarlet Letter, and in what way on can consider it as a inevitable conflict? I will first concentrate on the main features of Puritan society, which is actually a metonymic feature of society as a whole before analyzing the effects it has on its people. I will finally focus on the individual’s possibilities of resistance in the face of society.
First of all, the oldness of society is a theme Hawthorne, through the persona of the narrator, constantly explores in The Scarlet Letter. Whether it be in the Custom House or in the Scarlet Letter, the characters live in a society where decay and the ancient are always underlying, more or less clearly, throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, in The Market Place, the narrator refers to Hester’s life in the New England colony as “a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn material” (44). The illustration of oldness is even more violent since the illustration is here one of rottenness of the big institution of society. In the Scarlet Letter, oldness is most relevantly embodied by the Puritan characters in the portraits of Governor Bellingham’s house, who are said to gaze with “harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men” (71). Here, the oldness of society is depicted through the question of the Puritan genealogy, whose ancient representatives are judgmental about the acts of the people of the present time. Thus, in Puritan society, there is a great importance regarding the past and its traditions that must be kept.
In keeping with this idea, society is thus deeply rooted in its traditions (that is, the keeping up with oldness) and is consequently oppressive: it is given a forceful and fateful aspect, just as in the Custom House where the narrator is in a society of tough men where they pass on their jobs from father to son. In addition to this idea of oldness, society is given a very impressive aspect. Its power can be seen through the swords and halberds of the prison keepers, or Bellingham’s armor, which is a representation of Puritanism’s military and missionary aspect. There is an idea of conquest, of crushing the others who disagree. The persecution of Quakers, Indians and witches is quite revealing of the Puritan’s society wish for domination. Also, the way a Puritan colony would be built is also significant of the importance given to their authoritative aspect: that is, prisons and cemeteries are the first monuments to be constructed before anything else. The Puritan society is actually extremely discriminative, particularly against women, who may be incriminated for being witches, and with the common religious belief that a mother’s sin engenders the miscarriage of a “demon offspring” (67).
One can fully realize the prevalence of religion over human matters with the execution of Mrs Hibbins, Governor Bellingham’s sister, because she is suspected of being a witch. Then, society gives religion greater importance than to family ties, and, to a larger scale, human feelings. Actually, it doesn’t hesitate to dominate people and abandon them at the same time: Hester and Pearl are both secluded from the rest of society while pertaining to it. The image of the Eagle in the Custom House, representative of the Republic of America, is revealing of this paradox between domination and abandonment: it is represented as being “fierce” through her beak and eye and “apt to fling off her nestling” (8-9). Thus, The Scarlet Letter imparts society with pitilessness, and the narrator’s experience in the Custom House was actually an introduction to what would be depicted as such in the Scarlet Letter: the “axe” and “guillotine” (32) are used against the political side that loses and represent the violence of one dominant ruling group against individuals in disagreement, or at least with different views from theirs. Society is actually about the relation between the strong and the weak, the latter who must cope with the situation as best as possible.
Eventually, what is characteristic of the Puritan society is that its people play a great role in the assertion of its dominance. Indeed, the people are the representatives of it and, as a group, contribute widely to its crushing feature. The violence of the women’s words at the incipit of the Scarlet Letter proves that there’s no solidarity, no possible dialog between Hester and the people. She’s being secluded, and in that sense, one can say that people take on the torch of religious violence that the Puritan society embodies. When people gather into a group, they become intolerant and extremely powerful. The crowd’s continuous stare at Hester when she is on the pedestal shows their potential of being violent, in a sort that could be described as passive aggressiveness. For there was never a moment in the Scarlet Letter when Hester was physically touched, beaten, or mugged.
Therefore, the violence of society is not physical, but mental and psychological. The crowd is able to thrash Hester’s reputation as she tries to redeem herself: the word spread that the letter was red-hot with “infernal fire” (61). This devilish reputation made Hester feel that her pardon for the people who despised her might be turned into a curse. The crowd, by their words, has the power to destroy one’s self confidence. But the most violent feature of the people is its inconsistency. “The public is despotic in its temper” (106), changes its mind and in a way, disturbs the individual because of the different behaviors it takes with him/her. For example, the people seem to pardon Hester for her past sin, and consider her as the mother of all, and the letter shifts in their mind from A for adultery to A for Able. However, in the procession, their judgmental stare comes back to her bosom, and figuratively crushes Hester for its unexpectedness. Finally, the crowd, and the society it represents, are violent in that they don’t let people have the last words on their lives: for instance, some people kept denying that Arthur Dimmesdale had committed a sin, no matter how obvious it was. By doing so, they go against his will of disclosing the truth.
We have thus seen that society, through the crowd, is highly judgmental and paradoxical with the individual. By their stare, they force people to a specific demeanor which abides by the law. In a logical way, all disrespect to it puts a burdensome responsibility on the individual about what he did/thought and what he should have done/thought. In that way, the image given by society of the individual’s role is a source of great pressure for the characters who act differently.
The most significant example and victim of this sense of responsibility is Arthur Dimmesdale. His function as a priest requires him to be faultless and a faithful representative of the Puritan authority. However, he is not irreproachable, since he committed adultery, but the crowd’s adulation for him and its raising him to the rank of an angel is a deadly burden for him, because inside, he knows he doesn’t deserve it. “a pure hand needs no glove to cover” (104): Arthur Dimmesdale is almost sanctified and it puts great pressure in him since he is not worth the compliment. As a result, he feels highly guilty for lying (or rather keeping silent about the truth), and this sense of responsibility he disrespected leads him to punish himself with a whip or vigils. It is said that Arthur Dimmesdale “watched (…) each breath of emotion, and his every thought” (128). Thus, one can see the destructive consequence of a judgmental and authoritative society on the individual whose identity is crushed by the image society gives to him/her.
Society actually needs landmarks which it can rest upon not to get lost. One can see that in the fact that Hester is somewhat constrained to take up the others’ sin, and thus to become the scapegoat of society, so that the latter knows what it has to struggle against: Hester is made the personification of the whole society’s sins, “sins of perhaps as deep a dye as the one betokened by the scarlet letter” (118). This very token she has on her bosom is the mark left by society to make her feel guilty and responsible for her sin. It scorches and sears her, which can be interpreted as the fact that the individual cannot escape the laws of the group he/she belongs to. In short, society is looking for people to be stigmatized, culprits to assert its power. It then plays on the overwhelming burden of guilt and responsibility so that people understand their mistakes. “no outrage more fragrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame” (42): this is a good illustration of this idea of burden through humiliation.
This constant burden of guilt leads to the fact that the individual, once crushed by his remorse and torments, eventually becomes alienated. And this is one of the main dangers the narrator warns us against, in a clearler way in the Custom House. Indeed, the basic rationale is that there is a discrepancy between the roles of the individuals which are imparted by society and the individuals themselves: Arthur Dimmesdale is a priest and Hester a married woman, there are forbidden to commit adultery, yet they do. This discrepancy may be a result of the strict assignment of the roles imposed by society. This rigidity, preventing people from acting as they would wish, turns the individuals into controlled beings, and finally leads to their alienation, the transformation of their identity. As an illustration, Hester, because of the garb (a dark dress and a cap) she is forced to wear, is somewhat puritanized and ceases to be a woman. All the power of her sex has been killed. In the forest, when she puts the letter she’s just flung off back on her bosom anew, she becomes a shadowy being again. Thus, the characteristics of her human nature have been greatly ‘trimmed’ (“from passion and feeling, to thought”, 107).
In keeping with this idea, Arthur Dimmesdale, because of the weight of society (and of Roger Chillingworth) and the weight of the lie he cannot reveal, is said to be “on the verge of lunacy” (109). One can notice the violence of society in that it steals, strips people off their proper identity, and in a way, makes them stranger to themselves. This phenomenon is not limited to the characters of the Scarlet Letter, since the very narrator in the Custom House is in a way conditioned and alienated by his environment: all is made for work and commerce, there is no room for literature, and his ancestors, representatives of the Puritan society, would anyway despise him for his writings. The alienation of the individual’s nature may find a very important illustration in the story of the witches: indeed, Puritan society cannot tell a crazy woman from a witch. It may be that society created this very fear of the witch and finally convinced crazy women that they were really witches.
Thus, the Puritan society alienates women without even realizing it. At last but not least, the main characteristic of human nature is the need for entertainment (“panem et circenses”). Once again, society alienates this aspect of human nature by managing to have the people satisfied with very little activities in the festival of the procession. This leads to the question of control and dependence. That is, the alienation of people’s identity transforms their freedom into a state of slavery, and this institution ruling and dominating them makes them lose their state of autonomy. In short, society gets a hold on its people, and this is illustrated by the fact that Arthur Dimmesdale, when Hester asks him to flee with her, doesn’t want to leave his place at first, in the same way that Hester, at the end of the book, eventually returns home: there is an unbreakable link with the place, with the society one has evolved into and suffered into. The narrator in the Custom House, though he eventually left Salem, knows he will always belong to the town. This is as much as the mental attachment to the land is concerned: society acts on the mind of the individual.
But it also acts and intends to establish control in their very lives. Indeed, through Governor Bellingham’s action, Puritan society tries to deprive Hester of Pearl, and thus tries to act against the human nature according to which mother and child are unavoidably linked. Also, the Puritans condemn adultery, which is an imposition of a restriction against the natural impulse of humans towards sex. Therefore, society is like a prison keeper, keeping people hostage of its principles.
Hester is significantly referred to as a “life-long bond-slave” (144), while the narrator’s interests in the Custom House are said to be “within the control of individuals who neither love love nor understand him and by whom (…) he would rather be injured than obliged” (32), which proves the fact that the individual’s life depends on society and on the people making it. This dependence has several consequences: in the Custom House, working for the Republic makes the officers scared of being fired: they become linked to their job, in an almost material way, and society disconnects them with their souls. As the narrator says in the Custom House, by focusing too much on the materiality of things that society proclaims, the man loses “if not his soul, many of its better attributes” (31) and looks for a “quest of support external to himself” (31).
However, the individual is not doomed to be submitted to for all that. Indeed, there are various possible ways for them to react against the overwhelming and crushing feature of society and to assert themselves as having their own identity without too much external influence.
First of all, one of the means of struggling is the power of creation and imagination. At the very beginning of the Scarlet Letter, in the Market Place, Hester’s mind and memory become “preternaturally active” (43), that is, she plunges into the meanders of her imagination and memories, as to escape the people staring at her. The world of the mind is then a protection, a shelter, against the burden of the reality Hester has to face. The power of imagination is also illustrated by her handiwork, which plays a great part in her resistance to society: Hester has sewn the letter A on her bosom with a very refined and luxuriant material, in gold and red embroidery. This is an indirect way to defy society because she turns a token of shame into a token of pride, and partly breaks the meaning of the letter A as a consequence. In the same way, she dresses her daughter Pearl in a flamboyant garb which echoes the scarlet letter. Pearl is then the out-and-out opposition of the Puritan model of pudeur and unassertiveness.
Therefore, Hester’s handiwork is a provocation which is some kind of violence to the Puritan society, but the point is that it is also a way for her to redeem her sin, to “soothe the passion of her life” (58), and that is paradoxical. Indeed, if her handiwork materializes some kind of resistance, sewing in order to subdue her passion is a form of submission to society: for passion is constitutive of mankind, and by trying to soothe it, she abides by the law of pudeur and desexualization of the Puritan society. In other terms, she kills her own identity. Pearl is probably the character most revealing of the movement of resistance against society in the Scarlet Letter. She is only a child but already seems to struggle against religion and its dogmas in the colony. For example, in The Leech and His Patient, it is said that she dances on the tombs in the graveyard and has bespattered the governor himself, which is a perfect illustration of blasphemy and disrespect towards Puritanism and religious monuments.
She represents some sort of a pagan spirit, or at least an anti dogmatic one. In the Governor’s Hall, she asks her mother a rose and clearly associates it with the rosebush by the prison door: this very rosebush is said to have sprung up under the footsteps of Ann Hutchinson, a woman that questioned Puritanism in the 17th century. The association of Pearl with Ann Hutchinson seems to prove Pearl is fighting Puritanism. Pearl is also compared to the “old land”’s sunset (74), that is, with England, which is a country that persecuted Puritans. Thus, the child is the representation of a free mind that would not be subjected to any force but her own temper. In the same way she doesn’t listen to her mother, she ignores the society rules (“ could not be made amenable to rules”, 62) and secludes herself from the other children, most representative of the Puritan society, whom she despises and doesn’t hesitate to chase.
Through her character, the authority of the rulers is given a hard time, and it can be seen through two elements: first, in the fact that she is authoritative herself (for instance, she orders the sun to shed its beams on her), and thus establishes a provocative rivalry between the society and her (an individual); and second, in the fact that she lies in the center of the open conflict opposing Hester and the religious leaders, in the outcome of which society bows to Hester’s will of keeping the child. Pearl is thus fully implied in the process of the individual’s resistance against the pressure and strict principles of society. Finally, resistance to society is illustrated by the question of fleeing and all the effects resulting to it. When Hester, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl meet in the forest, the weight of society seems to have gone away. Nature is untouched and still virgin of any human enterprise, and therefore, there is a feeling of purity: “that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law” (130).
The brook in the forest enables Hester to be in peace and feel serene. This is precisely during this little escape that Hester decides to fling off her letter and take off he cap, which enables her to find back her identity: “Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty came back” (130). Fleeing from the colony, the core of society, is thus apparently liberating of one’s mind. Arthur Dimmesdale himself, while returning from the forest, finds a new kind of strength that gives him the courage to take responsibility for his sin and love for Hester and later reveal it in front of the whole crowd. Actually, the prospect of leaving makes him feel free. This idea of leaving, of escaping society is highly present in the characters of the mariners and the way they are described during the procession: since they spend more time traveling, they are not subjected to the principles of society, and consequently, are free men. They smoke, drink, offer drinks to people while it is normally forbidden, the way they’re dressed is opposed to the Puritan style, but they’re not punished. One can see here the power of the ones that have escaped the undefeating power of the land and of society.
The narrator in the Custom House also talks about the unavoidable attraction to one’s land and one’s past and realizes staying in the same place, in this “worn-out soil” (13) as he puts it, prevents him from breathing. Therefore, one could think that changing place would be enough to feel freed from society. But it is not that true. Otherwise, why would Hester come back to New England, in the same town that condemned her, many years after Arthur Dimmesdale’s death? Arthur Dimmesdale understands that the guilt of society would always be on his mind if he didn’t disclose the truth about his sin. Fleeing would be a temporary relief, but staying and saying is the true remedy, even though it may lead to death. Thus, one can say that the individual has very few powers to resist society as it represents part of his identity. He is always dependent on its judgment, and has only the power to make it less violent, to limit the damages on his identity, by accepting in the eyes of all who he truly is, no matter how shameful it is.
To conclude, one can say that violence in The Scarlet Letter is very much about the conflict opposing the I in the midst of a leading institution, whether it be a Republic, a religious colony, or just a crowd. Throughout the novel, with the help of the light brought upon it by the introductory passage of the Custom House, one comes to understand that the inner conflicts of the man are linked to his relationship with the world around him, and that creation and imagination is the key remedy to soothe this antagonism. However, as the outcome of the story supposes it, this tension is actually never ending, and the very last words are significant and revealing of this matter of fact: “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules”. These are the words written on Hester’s and Arthur Dimmesdale’s tomb.
The image implies that society tries to swallow the individual in its darkness while the latter tries his best to shine through it and claiming his identity; or that society sheds light on the individual to humiliate him, while he tries his best to turn that shameful light into something new that he would be proud of. This epitath, by its very nature, shows that the violence between the We and the I goes beyond the grave, and represents the resistance of the individual in keeping society at bay, even after he died. However, though Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne share the same tomb, were they really united, on the same line of resistance, in this fight? Or was there a discrepancy between each other?