JULISA, Volume 9 Number 1, April 2009, Page 42 – 53.
Jumat Barus
Faculty of Literature
Islamic University of North Sumatra, Medan
The objective of this study is to reveal the emotional
reactions and internal states of the characters which
are influenced by and in turn trigger external events
in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.
Furthermore it focuses on the complex mental and
emotional lives of its characters, and explores the
various levels of mental activity. This study delves
deeply into the haunted psyches of the four
main characters:
Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Pearl and
how one sinful event of adultery haunts their past
and future. Hester Prynne living in the puritan
community during the mid-1600s commits adultery
with an unknown paramour. The community
condemns her to wear the scarlet letter as a
punishment. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth,
makes her promise not to reveal his identity to
anyone as he goes off to seek revenge against the
secret lover who has wronged him. The rest of the
novel deals with how the events of that single day
affect the futures of the characters.
Keywords: psychological novel, puritan, interior characterization, external
action, stream of consciousness technique
A psychological novel, also called psychological realism, is a work of
prose fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior
characterization, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which
springs from, and develops, external action. The psychological novel is not
content to state what happens but goes on to explain the motivation of th e
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a Psychological Novel, Jumat Barus.
action. In this type of writing character and characterization are more than
usually important, and they often delve deeper into the mind of a character
than novels of other genres. The psychological novel can be called a novel of
the "inner man", so to say. In some cases, the stream of consciousness
technique, as well as interior monologues, may be employed to better illustrate
the inner workings of the human mind at work.
In a psychological novel the emotional reactions and internal states of
the characters are influenced by and in turn trigger external events in a
meaningful symbiosis. This emphasis on the inner life of characters is a
fundamental element of a vast body of fiction.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850) is
America's first psychological novel. Set in Puritan New England in the 1600s,
The Scarlet Letter focuses on the effects of sin and guilt through the life of
Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a daughter after committing adultery, refuses
to identify the father, and works to forge a new life and new identity.
Hester’s scarlet “A” describes the letter as an object that contains
power. The power left in the little red piece of cloth represents all the
emotional toil that was associated with it—guilt, pain, betrayal, and
vengeance. Throughout the novel, the letter will stir all these emotions,
creating an intense psychological drama. Nathaniel Hawthorne attempted to
open a window to the human psyche during the novel to show that humans deal
with emotional tumult in complex ways.
The Scarlet Letter, a psychological romance, is proposed to study the
effects of sin on the lives of his characters. Far ahead of his time, Hawthorne
delves into human alienation and what it does to the soul. Doubt and self torture provide psychological shadows in the character of Dimmesdale.
Rebellion and defiance in the face of repressive laws can be seen in his
heroine, Hester Prynne. She may be forced to wear the scarlet letter, but she
mocks that sentence with her elaborate embroidery. The Puritan c oncerns with
man's depravity and its effect on individual characters is intertwined
throughout the plot.
JULISA, Volume 9 Number 1, April 2009, Page 42 – 53.
Hawthorne shows himself as a real great psychologist in the novel. It is
the inner life of the characters that constitutes the main them e of the novel.
The inner relationship of the various characters among themselves , and their
individual relationship to society, are worked out and developed through the
psychological point of view. It is the state of mind of the individual characters
that interests the author of the novel.
Both the hero and the heroine (Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne)
in the story experience a severe mental agony, and the author gives evidence
of the keen insight in revealing the nature of that agony and the cause and
(Chillingworth) does not undergo much mental torture, but in his case the
psychology of revenge has been closely examined and stated in explicit terms.
2.1 Hester Prynne’s Mind
Hester Prynne’s thoughts and feelings are laid bare at every step. When
she stands on the scaffold facing the multitude of citizens, she has a burning
blush and yet a haughty smile on her face. The burning blush reveals her sense
of shame caused by the public exposure, while the haughty smile shows her
defiance of society’s moral code and of the persons who are responsible for
enforcing that code. The scarlet letter that she has embroidered on the bosom
of her dress reveals the desperate recklessness of her mood.
Haughty as her demeanour is at this time, she suffers as agony when
she sees the people who have gathered to see her. It is as if her heart ha d been
flung into the street for the people to spurn and trample upon. However, Hester
goes on through her ordeal with a serene deportment because a sufferer never
knows the intensity of his or her suffering by its present torture, but chiefly by
the pang that rankles after it.
The memories of the past which comes to Hester, as she stands on the
scaffold, are psychologically true. Being exposed to public disgrace, anybody
would turn to his or her past life. It is the nature of human being to return to
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a Psychological Novel, Jumat Barus.
the past events and happenings which present a sharp contrast with present
occurrences. All the past events and happenings are merely a dream to Hester
at this time. She realizes that the only reality is the shame that she is facing,
and the child that she is holding in her arms. When she is led back to prison,
she suffers a nervous excitement which is a reaction from the cal m and serene
attitude that she had been able to maintain when she stood on the scaffold.
Hester’s decision not to quit Boston, in spite of the permanent disgrace
to which she is doomed, is psychologically true the special case of Hester’s
mind. The chain that binds her to this place is unbreakable in her eye s because
the man, whom she feels herself, united by the secret bond, dwells here in
Boston. Another reason which prevents her from leaving Boston is that this
place was the scene of her guilt, and it should be the scene of her earthly
punishment. Thinking such as viewpoint, Hester persuades herself to believe
that the torture of her daily shame would ultimately purify her soul.
Hester’s mental reactions to the strange, incomprehensible moods of
Pearl are also described in the novel. So perplexing and baffling is the
behaviour of Pearl, that Hester cannot help questioning herself, whether Pearl
is a human child or not. There are occasions when Hester cries out in great
“O Father in Heaven—if Thou art still my Father--what
is this being which I have brought into the world!”
(Hawthorne, 1959:97)
It is describing in Hester’s state of mind in relation to the stigma which
she has to wear. The scarlet Letter has the effect of turning Hester into a Sister
of Mercy. Without claiming any of the world’s privileges, Hester gives
evidence of “a feeling of her sisterhood with the race of man”. Whatever she
can spare from her own requirements is given to the needy and the poor, even
though she gets no thanks in return. Nobody was as devoted to the alleviation
of misery as Hester, when an epidemic raged in the town. At all times of
calamity, whether general or of individuals, this outcast of society at once
assumed the role of a helper and savour.
JULISA, Volume 9 Number 1, April 2009, Page 42 – 53.
Many people, impressed by her general helpfulness, begin to interpret
The Scarlet Letter “A” as “Able”. But this is only one of the effects of
punishment that has been imposed upon her. Another effect is of a different
kind. All the light and graceful features of her character wither up because of
this red-hot brand (The Scarlet Letter). She now hides her rich and abundant
hair by wearing a cap. Her looks and appearance no longer attract the amorous
attention of any man. The stigma and the shame seem to have totally crushed
Hester’s heart, even though the stigma and the suffering have made a Sister of
Mercy out of her. Much of the marble coldness of Hester is due to the fact that
her life has turned from passion and feelings to thought. This transformation
has a psychological validity. There is confusion in the mind of Hester.
A noteworthy feature of Hester’s life, is that she is not one whit nearer
repentance than she was immediately after the commission of her crime. At no
stage does she waver in her belief that her act of adultery, regarded as a
heinous sin by society, had a consecration of its own. Her mental suffering has
been great, but the purpose with which the magistrates had condemned her to
wear the scarlet letter, has not been served. That purpose was to force Heste r a
realization of the gravity of her sin, but Hester is unable at any stage to look
upon herself as a sinner.
Hester’s decision to reveal the true identity of Chillingworth to
Dimmesdale has a sound of psychological basis. She has witnessed the intense
misery of the minister. She sees that he stands on the verge of lunacy. She
realizes that she committed a wrong in allowing the minister to be thrown into
a position where he had to undergo so much avoidable suffering. Accordingly,
she determines to redeem her error as far as it is possible. And, after declaring
her attention to Chillingworth, she gives the shocking information to
Dimmesdale that the physician is her husband.
For a number of years, Hester wanders in a moral wilderness. Instead of
finding any justice in the attitude of her Puritan persecutors, she becomes a
critic of all that priests
and legislators have established. Shame, despair,
solitude: these have become her teachers during the past several years. These
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a Psychological Novel, Jumat Barus.
teachers have made her strong, but they have filled to establish in her eyes the
justice of the code of which she is the victim. She suggests plan of escape to
the minister, and would have doubtless gone ahead with it, if fate had not
willed otherwise.
In the Scarlet Letter, the author, in his study of Hester, shows the
strong and resolute mind of a woman who refuses to surrender to a code of
morality for which she feels an instinctive abhorrence. Not once does she fell
sorry for what she has done, because not once does she realize that the re was
any wrong in what she did. The manner in which she continues to wear the
stigma shows that she is made of heroic stuff. Her penance, first imposed upon
her by society, and then imposed by herself, serves not to give rise to any
feeling of repentance in her mind, but only to strengthen her romantic belief
that an individual should be free to seek his or her happiness wherever they
can find it, untrammelled by any social restraints.
2.2 Roger Chillingworth’s Mind
Roger Chillingworth personifies revenge. In delineating this man, the
author seems to show ‘the effects of revenge in diabolizing him who indulges
in it’. The author analyses the feelings and motives which led old
Chillingworth to marry a young girl. Chillingworth is a psychologist and,
speaking to Hester in the prison, expresses his sense of wrong in having
induced her to marry him. He says:
“I, a man of thought, the book-worm of great libraries, a
man already in decay, having given my best years to
feed the hungry dream of knowledge, what had i to do
with youth and beauty like thine own; misshapen from
my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea
that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a
younger girl’s fantasy.”
(Hawthorne, 1959: 78)
This is an excellent self-analysis. Once, Chillingworth has vowed
revenge upon the man who has dishonoured him. He knows no mercy.
Hawthorne tells that there was a time when this man was calm, gentle, and
JULISA, Volume 9 Number 1, April 2009, Page 42 – 53.
passionless. But this man’s resolve to avenge himself brings to the surface a
deep malice which had hitherto been dormant and latent.
In the course of time, the effects of Chillingworth’s revengeful passion
become clearly discernible on his face. All the blackness of his mind appears
in his countenance. Frequently stated that:
“There came a glare of red light out of his eyes, as if his
soul were on fire”.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 163)
And the author observes in this connection:
“In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking
evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a
devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time,
undertake a devil’s office”.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 163)
And Chillingworth himself is aware of the transformation. He calls himself a
fiend—a mortal man, with once a human heart, turned into a fiend, for the
special torment of the minister. Hester pities him and says:
“for the hatred that has transformed a wise and just man
to a fiend”.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 167)
When Hester appeals to him to relax his revenge and to pardon his victim,
Chillingworth sternly replies:
“Peace! Hester, peace! It is not granted me to pardon. I
have no such power as thou tallest me of”.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 167)
Towards the end of the story, when Dimmesdale has decided upon a
public confession, Chillingworth makes a desperate attempt to restrai n the
minister from his purpose so that his victim should not slip out of his hands.
And when the minister pays no heed to his words, Chillingworth says:
“Thou hast escaped me! Thou hast escaped me!”
(Hawthorne, 1959: 238)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a Psychological Novel, Jumat Barus.
The continuous gratification of his passion for revenge has become so
vital for Chillingworth that, once his victim is dead, Chillingworth finds
nothing to interest him to keep him alive. The author makes an observation
containing a deep psychological truth in the following words:
“This unhappy man had made the very principle of his
life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of
revenge; and when by its completest triumph and
consummation, that evil principle was left with no
further material to support it, when, is short, there was
no more Devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only
reminded for the unhumanised mortal to betake himself
whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and
pay him his wages duly”.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 242)
Within the year of the death of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth dies too, though
his destination after death is different from death of Dimmesdale.
2.3 Arthur Dimmesdale’s Mind
To portray Arthur Dimmesdale’s character, the author reveals his
greatest psychological penetration and insight. Chillingworth and Hester are
comparatively simpler natures.
Hester is a romantic woman believing in complete freedom for the
individual and in the individual’s unlimited right to find his own happiness.
Chillingworth is the embodiment of the passion of revenge, and he pursues his
revenge single-mindedly and relentlessly. But, Dimmesdale, on the other hand,
has a complex mind, and it demands a vast knowledge of the intricacies of
human nature to be able to portray such a mind.
Dimmesdale is oppressed by the weight of his crime. He suffers from
an agony of remorse. But he does not have the courage to make a public
confession of his guilt. He does not wish to tarnish the noble image which the
public has of him. The
author, therefore, rightly calls him a “remorseful
hypocrite”. Dimmesdale could have climbed to the highest peak of sanctity, if
he had not constantly been haunted by a deep sense of guilt. The public
JULISA, Volume 9 Number 1, April 2009, Page 42 – 53.
considers him to be a “miracle of holiness”. But public veneration serves
merely to enhance his agony. He is essentially a lover of truth and he is,
therefore, appalled by falsehood of his own life.
Dimmesdale wants to speak out, from his own pulpit, and tell the
people what he really is. More than once, he tells his hearers that he is
altogether vile and the worst of sinners, but his hearers attribute such
statements to his humility. He knows that, even in thus speaking the truth
about his sinfulness, he has been uttering a falsehood, and he loathers himself
for this hypocrisy. He undergoes a terrible penance in priv ate: he keeps vigils
and fast, night after night; he even flogs and scourges himself till blood flows
out of his body.
Dimmesdale sees hallucinations, sometimes a herd of diabolic shapes,
and sometimes a group of shining angels. But he cannot gather courag e enough
to confess his guilt openly.
In this way, Hawthorne shows himself as a true psychologist in
depicting the mind of a conscience stricken, hypocritical, and cowardly
The pricks and pangs of the conscience compel Dimmesdale one night
to go and stand upon the scaffold. The whole town is asleep and, therefore, no
eyes can see him. The author comments on the minister’s action: “Why then,
had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery indeed,
but in which soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and
wept, while, fiends rejoiced with jeering laughter”. It is his remorse that has
compelled the minister to mount the scaffold, but it is his cowardice that holds
him back from making a public confession. Thus, a s he stands on the scaffold,
Dimmesdale is overcome by a great horror of the consequences of his sin
becoming known. Thus, the author conveys the mixed feelings of the strife torn Dimmesdale—the haunting sense of guilt, the desire to confess, the fear
of consequences of a confession, the anxiety to keep his public image intact,
the impulse to shriek and thus attract attention.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a Psychological Novel, Jumat Barus.
The circumstances in which the minister experiences his second “fall”,
by agreeing to Hester’s plan of escape, are minutely describe d. The minister,
bewitched once again by the sensual beauty of Hester, has no power to resist
the temptation. His succumbing to temptation here is psychologically quite
convincing. Hester’s plan opens out a new possibility for him and Hester will
give him the support he needs to carry out the plan. He returns from his
interview with her in a light mood.
The chapter “The Minister in a Maze” in which the author describes the
minister’s impulse to utter profanities and obscenities is a masterpiece of
psychological writing, which shows a Freudian knowledge of the subconscious
mind before Freud framed his theories.
2.4 The Description of Pearl
Another example of the author’s psychological presentation is to be
found in his delineation of Pearl. In this case, Hawthorne conveys the study of
child psychology, of abnormal child-psychology. Pearl is an active, sprightly
girl with a mind which is exceptionally quick and alert, a remarkably precious
mind. But, there also seems to be something wrong with her mental make -up.
This child is not amenable to rules or discipline of any kind.
Pearl is an impatient, wayward, and rebellious child. The author
describes that her nature possessed both depth and variety. She is a being
whose elements are perhaps beautiful and brillian t; but all in disorder. Her
wildness, her defiant moods, and the flightiness of her temper are a case of
perpetual concern to her mother. There is something perverse about her. She
has no desire even to mix with other children because she is “a born outcas t of
the infantile world”. The author calls her an imp of evil, emblem and product
of sin, having no right among christened infants.
Pearl does not know any law, and no reverence for anyone. Her
behaviour is most erratic and unpredictable, as is seen in he r bespattering the
Governor with water, and screaming and making frantic gestures when Hester
has cast away the scarlet letter. It is Pearl’s unconscious kinship with nature
JULISA, Volume 9 Number 1, April 2009, Page 42 – 53.
which prompts her to her perversely to the Reverend Mr. Wilson’s question
that had made her. Her reply that she had not been made at all but had been
plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison -door
expressed her symbolism rather than her character, like other parts of her
conduct and speech.
Pearl is pure symbol, the living emblem of the sin, a human
embodiment of the scarlet letter. Her mission is to keep Hester’s adultery
always before her eyes, to prevent her from attempting to escape its moral
consequences. Pearl’s childish questions are fiendishly apt; in speech and in
action she never strays from the control of her symbolic function; her dress
and her looks are related to the scarlet letter. All these are the elements of
psychological presentation on the Scarlet Letter.
After doing an exegetical study on The Scarlet Letter, the writer comes
to the conclusion as follows:
Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of American fiction. The story is based
on Hawthorne’s note-book: “The Life of a Woman, who, by an old colony law,
was condemned to wear the letter “A” sewed on her garment, in token of her
having committed adultery.”
As far as moral is concerned, The Scarlet Letter is an exploration of
human morality. The story comprises a moral theme which concerns with
causes of sin. The scarlet letter “A” stands for adultery. Guilty of the sin of
adultery, Hester Prynne has been sentenced to a punishment that in the opinion
of the Puritan crowd of people is rather lenient.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an explorer of the dark recesses of human
soul. He shows himself as a real psychologist in the novel The Scarlet Letter.
It is the inner life of the characters that constitutes the main theme of this
novel. The interrelationships of the various characters among themselves, and
their individual relationships to society, are worked out and developed through
the medium of psychological analysis. Both the hero and heroine in the story
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a Psychological Novel, Jumat Barus.
undergo the severe mental agony and the causes which brings it about. The
psychological analysis is presented in Chapters V, VI, IX, an d XIII of the
novel, where the readers could find sufficient psychological materials to
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Stewart, Randal. 1948. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. New Haven: Yale
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Van Doren, Mark. 1957. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Critical Biography. New York:
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