The Scarlet Marxist
There have been many critiques of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some critiques are far-fetched. Some indict society’s views of religion and the guilt of women in the downfall of the human race.
However, when taking a modern Marxist view of The Scarlet Letter, the scope of the entire novel takes a dramatic spin, not just for the characters Hawthorne utilizes to bring passions to light, but for society and its conventions used towards certain persons. When evaluating the characters of The Scarlet Letter, the characters represent a particular station and social structure within the time.
According to Associated Content, Governor Bellingham is one who “. . . free to stand tall as judge of right and wrong, good and bad, but seemingly never commits wrong himself. ” (2009). This Marxist evaluation of Governor Bellingham may not make sense unless you apply it within the realm of Marxism as an indictment on the society and how the classes tend to be separated. Governor Bellingham would then represent those who are of affluence or those who are on the upper end of the economic ladder. This separation of the upper class from the other classes then allows Bellingham to make the judgments that he makes ue to his financial status within the community. Had Bellingham not had this type of financial influence, then he would not be allowed to make any kind of judgments on anyone. Bellingham’s position as governor gives him certain rights that ordinary citizens would not have. The position in society gives Bellingham a reason, whether good or bad, to hand down what he feels to be justice for all involved. The justice may not be beneficial but for a few. Yet, when looking at the classes, in Marxist theory, if it benefits the upper class, then it is a benefit.
The benefit does not carry or trickle down to the lower classes, which leaves those who are not apart of the upper class at a disadvantage. The character Pearl, daughter of Hester Prynne can be considered a very animated and active. She is the product of the physical relationship between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. The child suffered the isolation and condemnation that had been handed to her mother for becoming a part of an adulterous affair. Pearl is a stark representative of what happens to persons born or placed into a lower stature in society. Regardless of how witty, bright or un-loving Pearl was as a child, the society within the Puritan community would never accept her because she was the embodiment of higher society deemed inappropriate for persons to participate in. In looking at Pearl in this way, it is not a stretch to say that she is the form of the content presented by the society at that time.
Terry Eagleton states that “Marxist criticism sees form and content as dialectically related, and yet wants to assert in the end the primacy of content in determining form” (Eagleton 537). In other words, Pearl’s form is created by the content of her character, to take a phrase rom Dr. MLK, Jr. The circumstances in which she was conceived puts in her the essence of being one who is deeply enthralled with passion. Also, Pearl is one who is stubborn to a fault, just as her mother who refused to give up the name of her lover. Knowing these things about Pearl would allow one to cast judgment on her and never allow her to ascend to a higher station or class in life. It is this creation of her within the confines of the Dimmesdale and Prynne relationship that would keep her limited to a specific class and socio-economic status in life, had she decided o live within the small Boston neighborhood in which she grew up. Roger Chillingworth’s character illustrates a different kind of class and form altogether.
Chillingworth returns to town to find that his wife, Hester Prynne has not only been accused of adultery, but has a child as proof. Prynne never reveals her lover, pushing Chillingworth to a level of sinister evil that had not been presented within the novel. He never revealed his true identity to anyone but Hester Prynne. He acted as caregiver and doctor for Dimmesdale. It was also at this time that Chillingworth befriended Dimmesdale o find what was eating at his very soul. This type of deception is contemptible to say the least. However, from the Marxist point of view, the true character or form of Chillingworth is a valid indication of the content of his soul. Being a doctor represented being a person of an esteemed stature in society. It also gave him as a member of high society privileges that others in lower classes would never have. He took those privileges and misused them for his own selfish gain (which was to find Prynne’s lover).
Chillingworth is the classic example of how the privileged iphon from others to achieve the goal ahead. Eagleton would define Chillingworth’s character as the following: “. . . is not the first place a set of doctrines; it signifies the way men live out their roles in class-society, the values, ideas and images which tie them to their social functions and so prevent them from a true knowledge of society as a whole. ” (Eagleton 534) In other words, it is Chillingworth’s class in society that does not allow him to show mercy to Prynne. His class also allows him to be cunning and crafty to find the real illness that afflicts Dimmesdale, use the guilt from the sin to rive Dimmesdale into a chasm of self hatred and loathing, while he simultaneously decays into the demonic fleshly figure that imposes hatred and merciless upon all who dare cross him. Yet, this ghastly figure was indeed Chillingworth’s true form and content. It is his functioning within the upper class of society that not only gave Chillingworth his form, but also allowed him to participate in the actions leading to Dimmesdale’s without repentance. For Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, society’s position came with a price.
He ended up denying his own flesh and blood in the body of Pearl, and he et the woman he loved (Hester Prynne) carry the weight of the sin they both committed. After the town branded Prynne and adulteress, Dimmesdale could not bring himself to admit to the public that it was he who shared the night of passion with Prynne which led to the conception of Pearl. His station or class in society would not allow for such a confession. Associated Content refers to Dimmesdale “As the ultimately religiously pious figure of the town and he is held in high regard. . . ” (2). It is the status of being the reverend for the town along with his education “ a young clergyman, who had come from one of the reat English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild-forest land” (Hawthorne 62) that keeps Dimmesdale from initially admitting what had taken place between himself and Prynne. In comparison to Eagleton, Dimmesdale is the representation of the society and the superstructure that is in place (532). Regardless of how he may want to become a permanent part of Prynne’s life, the superstructure in place would never allow it to be so.
It is this superstructure of society that Hester Prynne rebels against and causes her to live a life of isolation with her daughter , save her lients who come to her. Hester Prynne has been called an adulteress by many. Even within the religious community, Prynne is thought of at the least, wrong for her actions, including not revealing the father of her child. It is the content of her life that takes form in this novel. Prynne, strong-willed and determined, did not give in to the demands of the community which asked of her to give Pearl’s father’s name. Prynne refused to do so and in her refusal, lost her status within the community, never to have it returned to her. Relating her character to Marxist literary theory is relatively asy. Prynne is one of the few who would gladly give up his or her station or class in society to the protection of one if not al l. Prynne would not be accepted within the upper class of Boston at this time for she did not conform to the way the higher classes, both religious and social, decided that life should be conducted.
Dr. G. B. Loring declared that “It would be hard to conceive of a greater outrage upon the freezing and self-denying doctrines of that day, than the sine for which Hester Prynne was damned by and for which Arthur Dimmesdale damned himself” (1). Prynne’s refusal to become part of the culture that denied itself for form and fashion is what pushed her to the outskirts of society. However, even with the refusal to bend in tow, Prynne went on to live a productive life and see her daughter become a elegant young lady. Evaluating The Scarlet Letter from the Marxist point of view is interesting to say the least. Yet, the Marxist point of view gives the reader a broader look at the characters and society as a whole. Through Marxism, it is not just the sin that is looked at, but the condition of the heart, the station and class of man, along with his content and form that makes up society then and now.