THE SCARLET LETTER AS A TRAGIC LOVE STORY Department of English

JULISA, Volume 10 Number 2, October 2010, Page 202 – 215
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE’S THE SCARLET LETTER
AS A TRAGIC LOVE STORY
Jumat Barus
Department of English
STAIN Malikussaleh Lhokseumawe
Abstract
The objective of this study is to elucidate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
“The Scarlet Letter” as a tragic love story. A tragedy is
basically a tale of sorrowful or terrible side of life, and this
novel fulfills this qualification. It is an action that is serious and
also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; with incidents
arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of
such emotions. There are two tragic characters in it—Hester
Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. The novel has both the internal
conflict that is in the mind of all the major characters; and the
external conflict that lies between Hester’s personal morality
and that of the Puritan morality. This conflict makes her
essentially the heroine of a tragedy.
Keywords: internal conflict, morality, tragedy, Gothic romances, social ostracism.
I. INTRODUCTION
As a general rule, tragedy ends in death and destruction. It is the tragic or sad
story of the characters that have some noble traits but have made mistakes due to
certain human flaws. It is a story full of action which has certain magnitude, complete
in itself with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of
such emotions. It arises out of a conflict and affirms some moral values. It has a
serious purpose, indeed.
The Scarlet Letter, according to Doren (1957), is ―one of the great love
stories of the world‖. It suggests that the book may be seen as a love story, a tragedy
of the ―grand passion‖ rather than a tale of sinful passion.
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This novel is a love story in the sense that suffering, salvation or whatever
action is in the novel follows an account of some love between Hester and
Dimmesdale. The novel deals with illicit love and adultery. In this love story which
ends in the tragedy of the hero, there is also a villain named Chillingworth. The initial
situation involving a husband, his wife, and her lover is a recognized and wellestablished element in a love-story. Marriage and passion are shown to be in conflict
in the story, and the claims of passion, in spite of its being a sinful passion, seem to be
weightier. Hester‘s marriage, which took place in accordance with tradition, proves to
be poor and mean as compared to her love-affair.
Love is not the central theme of the novel; it is only a subject on which the
writer goes on hanging sideways. The main theme of the story is sin, guilt, isolation,
suffering, and redemption. Therefore it seems somewhat absurd to brand The Scarlet
Letter as ―a tragic love story.‖ If anything dealing with the love-interest in the book
appears to most readers as subservient and auxiliary to Hawthorne‘s basic
preoccupations with the consequences of sin rather than with the sin of adultery or
illicit sexual passion itself, it is not love with which the novel deals, but a sinful
passion leading to suffering and spiritual anguish.
II. DISCUSSION
The Scarlet Letter is a tragic love story dealing with two characters in it—
Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale. Both characters excite in us a deep feeling of pity for
their sad destiny. This feeling of pity is aroused as the two characters concerned are
able to win our admiration for some noble or heroic quality evinced by them.
Hester Prynne wins our admiration by virtue of her candour, her strength, her
power of endurance, her deep maternal attachment to Pearl, and the spirit of service
which develops in her. Standing on the scaffold, and exposed to public disgrace,
Hester Prynne shows a haughty dignity. She is deeply hurt by the crowd gazing at the
Scarlet Letter embroidered on the bosom of her gown; she feels a burning sensation in
her breast.
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However, she does not have any painful sense of shame because she is not
troubled by any sense of guilt. She knows that adultery is a serious offence in the eyes
of society but she somehow feels that she has committed no great sin by her adultery.
In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much
reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side rather
than the triumphant one. If, heretofore, l had been none of the
warmest of partisans I began now, at this season of peril and
adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my
predilections lay; nor was it without something like regret and
shame that, according to a reasonable calculation of chances, I
saw my own prospect of retaining office to be better than those
of my democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity
beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell!
(Hawthorne, 1959: 50)
Indeed, she shows a rare bravery in facing the crowd that has assembled to see
her standing on the platform of pillory. The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a
woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened
upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne. While
they admire this woman for her courage, they feel a deep sympathy for her when
reminiscences of her past life come to her mind one by one.
Reminiscences, the most trifling and immaterial, passages of infancy and
school-days, sports, the childish quarrel, and the little domestic traits of her maiden
years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with recollections of whatever was
gravest in her subsequent life. But her past life is no longer real to her; the only
realities are the infant that she holds in her arms and the public disgrace to which she
is exposed.
When the young woman--the mother of this child--stood fully
revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to
clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse
of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain
token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a
moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame
would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her
arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a
glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her
townspeople and neighbours.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 60)
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They admire Hester Prynne for the strong determination that she shows in
refusing to disclose the name of her partner in her crime. Neither the terrible threats of
the reverend Mr. Wilson nor the eloquent appeal of the reverend Mr. Dimmesdale has
any effect upon her. By disclosing the name, she can perhaps have the scarlet letter
taken off her breast and she can also give her child a father. But she tells the priest that
the scarlet letter is too deeply branded on her breast to be taken off and that her child
must seek a heavenly father. Not only does she not disclose the name of her lover, but
she declares that she would like to endure his agony in addition to her own. Hester
Prynne‘s words compel Dimmesdale to acknowledge her strength and her generosity.
In murmuring he says:
"She will not speak!" murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning
over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the
result of his appeal. He now drew back with a long respiration.
"Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will
not speak!"
(Hawthorne, 1959: 74)
One of her reasons for not leaving Boston after she has been released from
prison is that she would like to stay on in Boston as to be able to live near the man
with whom she considers herself connected in a union which, though unrecognized in
Heaven. This constancy towards a man who himself is keeping his part in the crime a
secret from everybody is worthy of admiration. Nor does this constancy waver at any
stage afterwards.
What she compelled herself to believe--what, finally, she
reasoned upon as her motive for continuing a resident of New
England--was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she
said to herself had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be
the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the
torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and
work out another purity than that which she had lost: more saintlike, because the result of martyrdom.
Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 84)
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In fact, seven years later, when she meets that man in the forest, all her feeling
for him rises in her breast in a flood and she urges him to flee from Boston with her to
some assistant land where they can both start a new life. This woman is surely made
of the stuff of which heroines are made.
With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms
around him, and pressed his head against her bosom; little caring
though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have
released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set
him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world
had frowned on her,—for seven long years had it frowned upon
this lonely woman,—and still she bore it all, nor ever once
turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned
upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak,
sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear,
and live!
(Hawthorne, 1959: 185)
Hester Prynne is very cruelly treated by society, but she does not turn into a
cynic. She finds herself a social outcast. However, in all her intercourse with society,
there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every
word, and even the silence of those with whom she came into contact, implied and
often expressed, that she was banished. But her native energy of character enables her
to endure this ill-treatment. She was patient—a martyr, indeed.
Hester had schooled herself long and well; and she never
responded to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson that rose
irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsided into the
depths of her bosom. She was patient--a martyr, indeed but she
forebore to pray for enemies, lest, in spite of her forgiving
aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist
themselves into a curse.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 88)
Strangers look curiosity at the scarlet letter on her breast, and each time they
do so she feels as if the letter has been branded afresh into her soul. And yet, having
not even the humblest claim to a share in the world‘s privileges, she does not server
her connection with the human society around her. She goes out of her way to help the
needy and the poor, even though she receives little thanks from them in return. When
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an epidemic breaks out in the town, she foes round rendering numerous acts of service
to those who are afflicted by disease. There is a well of human tenderness in her heart
which has not been dried up by the indifference, contempt, and cruelty of the people
in whose midst she moves about. She becomes a Sister of Mercy. She proves so
helpful that the letter ―A‖ on her breast comes to have a different meaning from its
original signification. It now seems to stand for ―Able‖ instead of ―Adultery‖. The
letter is like a cross on a nun‘s bosom.
Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for
the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of
Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world‘s heavy hand had so
ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to
this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such
helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power
to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet
A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so
strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman‘s strength.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 156)
Hester Prynne also has a deep maternal attachment for Pearl. She puts up a
vigorous flight to retain her guardianship of the child, and she wins her point. With
her instability of temper and predictable moods, Pearl is more of a tormentor for her
mother than a source of joy. Pearl is constantly embarrassing her by asking her the
meaning of the letter ―A‖ which she wears on her bosom. Her tantrums and her
frenzies would have infuriated any mother less patient and enduring than Hester; but
Hester‘s love for Pearl remains absolutely undiminished.
―What does the letter mean, mother?—and why dost thou wear
it?—and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?‖
―What shall I say?‖ thought Hester to herself.—―No! if this be
the price of the child‘s sympathy, I cannot pay it!‖
Then she spoke aloud.
―Silly Pearl,‖ said she, ―what questions are these? There are
many things in this world that a child must not ask about. What
know I of the minister‘s heart? And as for the scarlet letter, I
wear it for the sake of its gold thread!‖
........................................................................................................
―Mother,‖ said she, ―what does the scarlet letter mean?‖
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And the next morning, the first indication the child gave of being
awake was by popping up her head from the pillow, and making
that other inquiry, which she had so unaccountably connected
with her investigations about the scarlet letter:—
―Mother!—Mother!—Why does the minister keep his hand over
his heart?‖
―Hold thy tongue, naughty child!‖ answered her mother, with an
asperity that she had never permitted to herself before. ―Do not
tease me; else I shall put thee into the dark closet!
(Hawthorne, 1959: 173-174)
Hester feels deeply troubled on realizing that Roger Chillingworth has been
persecuting Arthur Dimmesdale. The realization makes her repent of the promise she
had given to Roger Chillingworth that she would keep his identity a secret from
everybody. Accordingly, she goes to Chillingworth and tells him that she would no
longer keep his identity a secret. She then meets Arthur Dimmesdale and reveals to
him the secret which solves the mystery that had been one of the elements in his
torment. Here, Hester proves herself worthy by having performed what she thinks to
be her moral duty.
―I must reveal the secret,‖ answered Hester, firmly. ―He must
discern thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know
not. But this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose
bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid. So far as
concerns the overthrow or preservation of his fair fame and his
earthly state, and perchance his life, he is in thy hands. Nor do
I,—whom the scarlet letter has disciplined to truth, though it be
the truth of red-hot iron, entering into the soul,—nor do I
perceive such advantage in his living any longer a life of ghastly
emptiness, that I shall stoop to implore thy mercy. Do with him
as thou wilt! There is no good for him,—no good for me,—no
good for thee! There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path
to guide us out of this dismal maze!‖
(Hawthorne, 1959: 166-167)
The tragedy of Hester Prynne certainly arouses in us the feelings of pity and
fear. For seven long years, she suffers the agony of social ostracism and social censure
without the least sympathy from any quarter, and with her own child, Pearl,
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contributing as much to her misery as relieving it. When there is a prospect of reunion
and a new life with her lover, she suffers a shattering blow to her hopes. Eventually,
when Pearl is married and settled in life, this woman returns to Boston to resume her
life of service to society. Nothing could be more heroic than that and nothing could be
more tragic than that either. Roger Chillingworth speaks of the good that has been
waster in her. There has certainly been a waste. Without that waste, there would be no
tragedy. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that Hester Prynne‘s sufferings have
ennobled her and raised her to a height which she could not have otherwise attained.
This woman was once so passionate has been transformed by sin and sorrow into a
spiritual being, uplifted affect which every true tragedy produces. This splendid
woman has not lived for nothing. Her life does not diminish, but it actually increases,
in the dismal world of which she is a citizen. She is the heroine of a tragedy, and she
understands the tragedy. In the view of the people who punish her, sin is a hard fact, a
problem for which there is no solution. The three principal characters being what they
are—Hester, strong; Dimmesdale, weak; and Chillingworth, revengeful. Hester‘s life
has not been hollow or vain.
Hester‘s strength is not due to the fact that she has to live in public shame. On
the contrary, the fact that she can live in public shame is due to her strength. Her
strength is an innate quality in her. As always with Hawthorne‘s women, she has more
courage than the man with whom destiny links her.
The Scarlet Letter is not only the tragedy of Hester Prynne, but also the
tragedy of Arthur Dimmesdale. In fact, some people are of the opinion that it is more
the tragedy of Arthur Dimmesdale than of Hester Prynne, and there is certainly some
weight in this opinion. Hester Prynne suffers deeply, but there is no conflict in her.
Constituted as she is, she sees her path clearly. But the case of Arthur Dimmesdale is
different. For seven years he keeps his sin a secret, and this secrecy allows him no
peace. Immediately after he has committed the crime, a spiritual conflict begins in him
and it ends only with his public confession which also means the end of his life. On
many occasions during these seven years, this man feels like making a public
confession of his sin, but he is prevented from doing so by the thought that the public
image of him would completely be shattered.
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―Hester Prynne,‖ cried he, with a piercing earnestness, ―in the
name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at
this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and
miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years
ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy
strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath
granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it
with all his might!—with all his own might and the fiend‘s!
Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!‖
(Hawthorne, 1959: 235-236)
People worship him as a saint, they regard him as a miracle of holiness; his
sermons have a spell-binding effect on them. Therefore, he cannot make up his mind
to declare his sin. He imposes severe penance upon himself. He keeps endless vigils
and fasts; and, in the privacy of his room, he frequently lashes and flogs himself. But
even this cannot bring him any real satisfaction. One night he goes and mounts the
scaffold and is joined by Hester and Pearl. However, this is merely a mockery of
penitence. The fact, as he tells Hester in the forest interview, that there has been
penance but no real penitence. Dimmesdale says:
―Of penance I have had enough; of penitence, there has been
none! Else, I should have long ago thrown off these garments of
mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will
see me at the judgement-seat. Happy are you, Hester that wear
the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in
secret!‖
(Hawthorne, 1959: 183)
It is true that Dimmesdale produces an impression of weakness and timidly.
He aggravates his sin of adultery by his prolonged concealment of it, and he further
aggravates it by trying to keep up an appearance of piety. He is an adulterer, a
hypocrite, and a coward. He betrays his weakness by going about with his hand over
his heart. Even little Pearl mocks at him for this habit of his in keeping his hand
constantly over his heart.
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―Truly do I!‖ answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother‘s
face. ―It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand
over his heart!‖
―And what reason is that?‖ asked Hester, half smiling at the
absurd incongruity of the child‘s observation; but on second
thoughts turning pale. ―What has the letter to do with any heart,
save mine?‖
―Nay, mother, I have told all I know,‖ said Pearl, more seriously
than she was wont to speak. ―Ask yonder old man whom thou
hast been talking with! It may be he can tell. But in good earnest
now, mother dear, what does this scarlet letter mean?—and why
dost thou wear it on thy bosom?—and why does the minister
keep his hand over his heart?‖
(Hawthorne, 1959: 171-172)
The Scarlet Letter is primarily the story of the fall of a great priest. Arthur
Dimmesdale‘s greatness as a scholar and as a minister of the church is undoubted. He
is held in great reverence by all the people, besides the civil authorities and his own
professional colleagues. His sermons are very eloquent and highly inspiring. His
parishioners listen to his words as if a Tongue of Pentecost were speaking. This
exalted personage commits what is known as a crime of passion. This crime
constitutes his fall.
And as for the people‘s reverence, would that it were turned to
scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that
I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned
upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from
it!—must see my flock hungry for the truth, and listening to my
words as if a tongue of Pentecost were speaking!—and then look
inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have
laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between
what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!‖
(Hawthorne, 1959: 182)
But his conscience begins to torment him and keeps tormenting him
incessantly. He is haunted by a sense of sin. Even without Roger Chillingworth,
Dimmesdale would have suffered agonies of his sense of guilt. His life is one long
misery. Then he comes a second fall in his life. He succumbs to temptation once again
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when he agrees to flee from Boston in her company. Having taken a decision to flee,
however, he cannot stick to it. His conscience again speaks, and speaks with a
commanding voice. By now, the agony of keeping his crime a secret from the
populace has become an intolerable burden.
Not improbably, it was to this latter class of men that Mr.
Dimmesdale, by many of his traits of character, naturally
belonged. To their high mountain-peaks of faith and sanctity he
would have climbed, had not the tendency been thwarted by the
burden, whatever it might be, of crime or anguish, beneath which
it was his doom to totter. It kept him down, on a level with the
lowest; him, the man of ethereal attributes, whose voice the
angels might else have listened to and answered! But this very
burden it was, that gave him sympathies so intimate with the
sinful brotherhood of mankind; so that his heart vibrated in
unison with theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent its
own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in gushes of
sad, persuasive eloquence.
(Hawthorne, 1959: 139)
Roger Chillingworth, too, has been driving him almost mad. All this forces
him to make up his mind to confess his crime, and he carries out his resolve. This
action, which, which leads also to his collapse and his death, makes him truly a tragic
figure. The unhappy minister has at last redeemed himself. Dimmesdale‘s weakness
magnifies the power of the story. This man tortures, but is unable to purify himself.
He scourges himself till he bleeds, but there is no penitence. Purity is all-important to
him; truth is sacred to him; but he lives a lie and thus degrades himself. His life,
because of its falsehood, is a life of ―unspeakable misery‖. And the only truth that
continues to give him a real existence on this earth is the anguish in his most soul and
the undisguised expression of it on his countenance.
None of these visions ever quite deluded him. At any moment,
by an effort of his will, he could discern substances through their
misty lack of substance, and convince himself that they were not
solid in their nature, like yonder table of carved oak, or that big,
square, leather-bound and brazen-clasped volume of divinity.
But, for all that, they were, in one sense, the truest and most
substantial things which the poor minister now dealt with. It is
the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the
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pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us,
and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit‘s joy and
nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is
impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he
himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a
shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist. The only truth, that
continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth,
was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled
expression of it in his aspect. Had he once found power to smile,
and wear a face of gayety, there would have been no such man!
(Hawthorne, 1959: 142)
Hester is a romantic heroine, a splendid one. The richly embroidered ―A‖ has
been called by one of her modern admirers ‗the red badge of courage‘. She is
courageous and strong. Arthur seems pitiably weak. But we must not fail to realize
that Arthur‘s situation is much more difficult than Hester‘s. Hester oppresses her will
to the will of society. Her conflict is external. Having no sense of sin, she sets herself
resolutely against the intolerant community. But Arthur‘s fight is internal. His is a
state of civil war, not war with the community. The community worships him, but he
has his internal troubles which prove to be serious.
It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration
tortured him! It was his genuine impulse to adore the truth, and
to reckon all things shadow-like, and utterly devoid of weight or
value, that had not its divine essence as the life within their life.
Then, what was he?—a substance?—or the dimmest of all
shadows? He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full
height of his voice, and tell the people what he was. ―I, whom
you behold in these black garments of the priesthood,—I, who
ascend the sacred desk, and turn my pale face heavenward,
taking upon myself to hold communion, in your behalf, with the
Most High Omniscience,—I, in whose daily life you discern the
sanctity of Enoch,—I, whose footsteps, as you suppose, leave a
gleam along my earthly track, whereby the pilgrims that shall
come after me may be guided to the regions of the blest,—I, who
have laid the hand of baptism upon your children,—I, who have
breathed the parting prayer over your dying friends, to whom the
Amen sounded faintly from a world which they had quitted,—I,
your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a
pollution and a lie!‖
(Hawthorne, 1959: 139-140)
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Hester is a noble, frustrated pathetic figure, but she is not a tragic measured,
since her mind is made up. As heroism should be measured by the intensity of the
inner conflict in a character, Arthur Dimmesdale must be regarded as the more heroic
of the two. Hester does not have to undergo one-tenth of the agony which Arthur
endures before he makes his public confession.
The Scarlet Letter is not tragedy, but Arthur Dimmesdale‘s. Dimmesdale‘s
public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragic literature. His confession is
decisive. It brings about his reconciliation with god and man, and with little Pearl
from whom there had previously been a complete encouragement.
III. CONCLUSIONS
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Dimmesdale are the main tragic figures.
Chillingworth is the villain. Yet he too is a tragic figure, for no man would allow his
wife to enter into a sexual intercourse with another man till he breathes. From the
structural point of view, from aesthetic considerations, from the characterization point
of view, from the moralistic connotations, and from the language and style points too,
The Scarlet Letter is a grim tragedy. It has been made more grim and horrible by the
elements of the Gothic romances such as animate ancestral portraits, fiend-like
villains, men who sold their souls to the devil, witches, and unnatural portents. The
influence of the sentimental fiction too is present there. The feelings of pity and fear
are aroused leading to catharsis. Critics have suggested the division of the novel in the
form of a full-length tragic play. The three pillory scenes have been exploited to
enhance the structural beauty, rather the dramatic value of the novel and intensify its
tragic atmosphere. But in the last scene, the characters are not damned or doomed;
they are rescued and redeemed—all except Chillingworth.
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