I Spy With My Little Eye...No Evil People in the Scarlet Letter

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 Fourth Web Report

On Serendip

I Spy With My Little Eye...No Evil People in the Scarlet Letter

Marina Gallo

In many forms of entertainment there are usually some good characters and some bad characters. The bad characters can even go so far as to be portrayed as evil, but that takes a lot of convincing by the author of the work. Evil is a very strong word; it brings to mind the idea of an almost supernaturally bad being. In the book The Scarlet Letter, the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, tries to depict certain characters as being evil. Not one of the characters in the book is in fact evil even though some of their actions may give the impression that he or she is evil. Hawthorne wanted to show how citizens going against Puritan ways were considered evil at that time and he tries to do that, but is unsuccessful if one looks closely enough at the characters and the outcome of the narrative.

One of the most obvious characters to be considered evil to both the reader of The Scarlet Letter and the characters is Mistress Hibbins. She is an outcast from the very beginning of the story and it can easily be seen in the description of Hester's feelings toward Mistress Hibbins when Hawthorne wrote, "feeling Mistress Hibbins to be of infirm mind; yet strangely startled and awe-stricken by the confidence with which she affirmed a personal connection between so many persons (her among them) and the Evil One" (Hawthorne 153). Mistress Hibbins is thought to be a witch by members of the town because of her unusual behavior. For example, she frequently travels into the forest and many people suspect she does so to visit the "Black Man" or the Devil. The forest is a place of freedom where one can do whatever he or she pleases whether it be meeting a lover or performing witchcraft; there are no bonds and society's rules do not apply in the forest. Also, she went out at night and hours of darkness have the feeling of concealment and secretiveness. Her actions lead the townspeople to believe she is strange. Unfortunately for Mistress Hibbins, at that time, all Puritans had to behave a certain way or else they were labeled as outcasts or, in her case, witches. Mistress Hibbins is not evil though. She is just not similar to all of the other Puritans living in that Bostonian colony. Just like Hester and Dimmesdale who go into the forest to be free, this woman finds solace in the freedom the forest provides. Just because she is different from other people of her time does not make her evil. She may have been seen as evil because she went into the forest at night frequently and people did not know what she was doing so they made up reasons that just happened to sooth their consciences, but ruin her life. In modern times Mistress Hibbins would probably be seen as a pretty forward thinker, maybe even a bit of a rebel, but luckily we don't cast people out of society these days for thinking like that!

Chillingworth is the next character who is thought to be evil, but is just a guy who lets a feeling take over his whole life. Hawthorne tries to represent Chillingworth very harshly, yet I believe it only serves to increase the ability of the reader to see how Chillingworth is not truly evil. He wants revenge on the man (Dimmesdale) his wife cheated on him with. That seems like a reasonable urge, the only problem is he lets his feelings of jealousy and anger get out of control. Any reasonable man would be upset that his wife cheated on him and produced a child, but to want to seek revenge to the point of causing bodily harm is when one must question their own sanity. On Serendip Lauren said, "You can tell that Chillingworth is (literally and figuratively) twisted" (Lauren Comment 18610). Her statement is very true in the sense that Chillingworth was changed greatly after coming to Boston and experiencing the situation with Hester and Dimmesdale; it took away some of what was left of his niceties and left anger and hatred. He turned into a shell that could only focus on other's lives. For all intents and purposes, Chillingworth only was punishing himself, in the end, by punishing and seeking revenge on others. That shell that he became, though it lacked almost all of its kindness, did not turn evil. His saving grace that keeps me from believing he was is that after he died, he provided for Pearl in his will. Pearl was not even his own child and in essence he was taking care of the child that was created from what he was attempting to chastise between Hester and Dimmesdale. That final action showed that whatever hatred, anger, or jealousy Chillingworth had for Hester and Dimmesdale, he did not blame Pearl and he even felt sympathy for her. He was a generous, kind man in the end. An evil man would not do what Chillingworth did for Pearl.

Yet another character who Hawthorne tries to make appear evil in various aspects is Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is a pious man who is respected greatly among the townspeople. The fact that he has a weak moment when he commits a sin against God and breaks a Puritan belief upsets him terribly. He, for unknown reasons, lets Hester take the blame for the adultery, thus suffering horrific self-inflicted psychological and physical torment. Dimmesdale constantly tries to rid himself of his guilt though confessional-like sermons, but to no avail. He should have acknowledged Pearl as his daughter, but he didn't. He should have helped Hester earlier in the novel and again he could not. He could not help not because he didn't want to, but because he was too weak. His weakness is evident when he first is interrogating Hester on the scaffold and he said, "This child of its father's guilt and its mother's shame hath come from the hand of God, to work in many ways upon the heart, who pleads so earnestly, and with such bitterness of spirit, the right to keep her. It was meant for a blessing [...] for a retribution too; a torture to be thought of at many an unthought of moment; a pang, a sting, an ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled joy!" (Hawthorne 77). The quote clearly shows that Dimmesdale is trying to justify why this happened to them and also perhaps justify himself to his peers as well. He finds the only way to truly free himself is to make a confession of his own, however it kills him. Dimmesdale's real problem is weakness. He is not evil, he is a pushover. If he had found the strength in himself to do the right thing and not let Puritan life ruin his own life and others, maybe he would not have died and early death. An early death might have been a punishment that Hawthorne gave Dimmesdale to show the readers not to be like him and if you are similar to him the outcome will be unfortunate.

Pearl a.k.a. the spawn of the evil deed or the consequence of the sexual sin is the last, so called, evil character in The Scarlet Letter. She is thought to be evil for a few reasons. She is not only considered evil because she is the offspring of a sinful relationship, but she also behaves in a bad way at times. She is not evil though, only a pesky child who got the short end of the stick in life when it came to who her parents were. She is a punishment and a blessing to her mother. She even helps her mother not give in when tempted by the "dark side" and this is evident in the passage when Hester says to Mistress Hibbins, "'I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!'" (Hawthorne 79). At the thought of loosing Pearl, Hester almost gives up on her life. Pearl is a good child, albeit an unusual one. She asks pointed questions to adults that most children of her age would never ask or even comprehend which makes her seen very bizarre. Her oddness obviously makes her a target for the label evil in Puritan times and especially in the context of this novel where many of the characters look as if they are evil or have wicked qualities. Perceptiveness is not a sin and neither should it be portrayed as one either, so for Pearl to be called evil would be wrong. She is a very young girl with the special ability to understand more about her surroundings than her peers and with the unfortunate fate of having adulterers as parents.

After carefully examining these characters one may ask herself, where is the evil in the book if it cannot be found in these characters? The answer to that question is in the Puritan beliefs and the Puritan society. The Puritan society is too stringent for these characters to exist happily. Some people may just not be built for a Puritan lifestyle and those people are probably the ones that were considered sinners, witches, or evil. Any sort of swaying from group norms was out of the question, so obviously Dimmesdale and Hester did not do well after their adulterous affair. Mistress Hibbin's atypical actions and Pearl's strange thoughts and questions made them both outcasts of sorts. They all became an outsider tribe in a way although they did not interact together. Chillingworth was also not built for a Puritan life after what he went through with Hester. He became so wrapped up in revenge and Puritans are not about revenge. He was surviving off of his revenge and once it was gone he withered away and died. The Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter was slowly depleting its own members through its too strict take on how things should be done and how people should behave. One can clearly see that it was not the character's faults, but rather the Puritan societies fault for the various problems the characters faced.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings." Leland S. Person

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 77-153.

Lauren . "Hawthorne's Spoiler." Serendip. 2006.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT