The Scarlet Letter – Punishment and Death Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter deals with many themes, among those including punishment and death. Utilizing the theme of punishment, the central character, Hester Prynne, was forced to wear an embroidered scarlet letter on “her bosom” for the rest of her life as a sign of her sin of adultery. This object; however, has the opposite affect as a punishment and as people of the community begin to forget the original significance of the letter it comes to bear a new meaning, able. In the thirteenth chapter of this book, Hawthorne comes out and in the third person states “the scarlet letter had not done its office.” Hester has gone beyond the letter of the law and done everything asked of her. She becomes quite a popular seamstress, heralded all over the town of Boston for her work.
She herself wears only drab clothing of ordinary clothing, punishing herself with humility. There is only one piece of clothing that she is forbidden to make, the wedding vail, it is assumed that she can not possibly represent the values of a marriage. It would be most improper to have one who has committed as sin as she had to be involved in the marital bonds of another couple. Nevertheless, she does her work dutifully and completely. She is emotionately worn out by all the work and penance for her sin.
Midway through the novel she no longer appears as a hidden beauty. Hester now wears her hair in a cap, and the only effort of considerable worth is that which she expends in her teachings to Pearl. She has earned the towns people respect. People now regard the letter as representing the word “able.” As the Reverend Dimmesdale refers to Pearl in his argument for allowing the child to remain with her mother, “God gave Pearl as a blessing and as a reminder of her sin.” The girl herself is a much more considerable punishment to Hester then the letter “A” is. Pearl is the living symbol of her sin.
All the evil and hate of this story is embodied in this little girl. Hawthorne raises the question of how Hester actually sees Pearl by referring to that “little, laughing image of a fiend” which appears to peep out of Pearl; “Whether it peeped or no, her mother so imagined it.” She is a beautiful charismatic little child and thus a blessing, but the stress of Hester’s environment twists and turns the actions of the girl into evil things. In that respect she is more of a punishment to Hester then a piece of cloth she must over her clothing. On her visit to Governor Bellingham’s house to plead for Pearl’s custody, Hester passes by a suit of armor in which the breast plate so magnifies the letter “A” she wore almost consuming her. In later chapters, after a meteorite appears above Boston, a sexton so wonders if it represented “Angel” coming from above.
Ironically so, it was a fallen one coming down so. And so the letter “A” takes on a new meaning once again. In Chapter 13, Hester wonders whether it wouldn’t be better if both she and Pearl were both dead. The mere fact that Hester can contemplate suicide indicates that “the scarlet letter had not done it’s office”, because suicide is an unpardonable sin in the Puritan faith. This fact in conjunction with what the scarlet letter was meant to be and was not as well as Pearl herself being quite a punishment in herself, discussed in the above paragraphs clearly supports my belief in the failure of the scarlet letter to do its work.