The Scarlet Letter: A New View Via Marxist Theory

Literary criticism is grounded in the belief that literature is not singular and definite in nature for it can be interpreted and read in multiple ways and seen through many diverse perspectives. The function of literary theory aims to apply ideas strictly related to literature as well as those pertaining to other fields of philosophy in order to provide varied ways in which to observe and distinguish importance in literature. It is this ability to form and apply theories to exhume endless analysis of a work that differentiates it from other forms of writing and makes literature, literature. Both Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature and Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy discuss notions of Marxism that can be applied to the reading of literary works. The significance of literature, according to Marxism, is not that it embodies the full human experience but that it exists as a form of consciousness that consists of the human social process as well as the ideas that it produces. Marxist ideology attempts to relate literature to the social and economic history of its production by straying away from classifying literature as mere rhetoric and grammar to recognize it to be a “specializing and historical category”. When this theory is applied to the reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the novel becomes a product of social and economic history and the understanding of the text is revamped. The common emphasis on themes of sexual repression, sin, and guilt is shifted and put under broader historical context categories of societal status quo and the notion of superstructure in order to explain the literary work, resulting in novel approach to the work in which the characters of Bellingham, Dimmesdale, and Hester are reevaluated in the role of religion, government, and class. Using Marxist literary theory to read The Scarlet Letter, a reader comes to see not just what occurs in the plot but why and how it fits into the construction of history and influences social formation. The Scarlet Letter is not merely a novel of sin and passion but one that also explores the formation and historical basis of the social structures of power present, their effects, and possibility for change and resistance.

A Marxist reading of The Scarlet Letter, highlights the importance of the fact that the Puritan community at hand is made up of levels of social structure. The community is, indeed, the state that results from what Marx’s theory deems the state apparatus, which instills a mode of thinking and culture that perpetuates the status quo. Governor Bellingham and Reverend Dimmesdale, two main figures of ranking power, represent the control of government and religion, two examples of Marx’s theory of the superstructure (LA 90) in the novel. Religion is a part of the ideological superstructure which implants in people beliefs that are not backed with concrete evidence and yet are accepted without hesitation or doubt (LA 91). In the opening of the novel, the first voice that the reader is introduced to is that of a townswoman who self-righteously proclaims that she and the other women of the town, as mature “church-members in good repute” (NH 42) must handle “malefactresses” such as Hester, who are wicked and sinful. The town uses Hester as a sort of mental scapegoat for their own sins, which is shown by the occasional glance that Hester mentions, one that “âÂ?¦seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half of her agony were sharedâÂ?¦” (NH 66). She alone bears the burden of bringing to light the sins of the town through her own, serving as a method of denial for the people. The Puritan townspeople live in a state of constant anxiety of the terror of evil and its presence in their own wrongdoings, as seen by their denouncements of dark forces throughout the novel, for they must place this source of bad such that it does not stem from themselves. This fear stems from the religious superstructure that instills in them the belief that any action or idea not in harmony with what is preached will result in a punishment of shame and exile, a concept reemphasized daily by the presence of Hester. It is seen that the townspeople, and even the children, who criticize and snicker at Pearl, condemn Hester because this gives them a feeling of moral complacency as superior beings and thus it is easy to remain obedient and content with the situation of the time period. Dimmesdale is the ultimate religiously pious figure of the town and he is held in great regard as “a young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest-land” (NH 52). His authority stems from his high education and assumed moral dominance, both of which are values that are constantly praised by authorities like the governor. As a result, these qualities become revered in the ingrained ideological culture that is shaped by the dominant elite who have immense influential power, a power that in the case of the Puritan society, stems from money and religion. While the seemingly pure scholar does confess to his sin in the end, it is not to be forgotten that he attempted to live a lie and contemplated further dishonesty, and had it not been for Chillingworth’s continuous torture, he may never have felt the pangs of his conscience. However, he is consumed by guilt and eventually dies uttering praises to God, which based on a Marxist reading can be interpreted to show that even he, in the end, is unable to see beyond what has been engrained, for he himself has been consumed by the ideology that he helped to perpetuate.

By using religion, the state is able to mold the minds of the people accordingly and, furthermore, utilize the politico-legal superstructure of government to enforce its ideas (LA 90). Those who rebel or show disobedience as Hester had done, are turned upon, by none other than each other. By causing division and mistrust amongst the powerless class, the state is able to prevent potential united rebellions. As the people continue to vie for the approval of power figures and continue to watch each other scrupulously, they are keeping in place the fear and respect for authority and allowing people of the upper classes to act as they please. The main figure of political authority and governmental rank in the novel, Governor Bellingham, is free to stand tall as a judge of right and wrong, good and bad, but seemingly never commit wrong himself. Ironically, he is the one tainted by the evils that he and the Puritan society so strongly condemn, as his sister, Mistress Hibbins, is widely known to be a witch who rides with the “Black Man” through the woods in the dark of the night. Moreover he is a prime example of Marx’s historical economic view of the upper class taking advantage of the working class, as shown by his bond-servants who are commented to be free-born Englishmen who are now laboring as the serfs were in the history of England. Yet, he is still referred to and regarded as the “worshipful” (NH 77). Marxism aids in the recognition of the existence of ideology as a force which manufactures culture and runs the minds of the people and governs notions of what should be considered right or wrong and good or bad (LA 111). The community does not recognize that hypocrisy and double standards are alive in their society and within themselves because they are blinded by the beliefs that they have been handed and accepted unquestioningly. From a Marxist reading point, Governor Bellingham is a perpetrator of a repressive state and superstructure, indeed the cause of the people’s oppression and an obstacle that the working class must overcome.

Based on the rational and concrete style of Marxist analysis, Hester Prynne can be analyzed as a subject of the political, social, and economic state that she lives in and be viewed as a product of the conditions of her environment and furthermore, a statement against the historical conditions of the time. Hester is a married woman who leaves her homeland to settle in America without her husband. She is then impregnated by Dimmesdale, a respected and well loved reverend, a figure of authority and exiled from the community for her sin while her fellow culprit remains hidden. The plight of Hester can be seen from the Marxist view as a parallel to that of the proletariat experience of imprisonment, humiliation, and low existence in society (LA 95). Furthermore, Hester refuses to be defeated by her condemnation. She does not ask Dimmesdale to confess and resists all temptation to reveal the truth. Instead, she absorbs all hatred directed towards her without complaint, takes all blame onto herself, and fights for her freedom, making a living and raising her child all independent from the community authorities and citizens. It is through her perseverance and strength that she is able to free herself from the shackles of censure and conviction. Her patience and dedication to her ideals and beliefs free her and more importantly, go to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of her society. Hester works for the better of others and even when given the opportunity to escape, returns to her home to comfort and counsel for “Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment.” The sin that she suffered, symbolized by the scarlet letter “…ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too” (NH 185). Marxism provides an understanding of Hester beyond a champion and heroine of love and freedom but, moreover, asserts her as a figure representation of will and hope as she is able to overcome social condemnation and constraints to live her life for herself and to serve for the good of those around her.

Marxist theory shifts the focus of literary analysis from the writing of the novel to its ideological purpose and function. The Marxist approach to literary criticism assists in the understanding of literature and represents the literary text as a product of history. This entails examining the sociological context of a work of literature and striving to understand the factors that have influenced the literature (RW 46, 51-51). Furthermore, Marxist literary theory approaches literature as a link to social power, and views the purpose of a work of literature to be one innately concerning social structure. This way of reading and criticizing literature is to search for behavioral trends and to understand their motives on a broader scale. It is indeed a way to study literature that focuses on the ideological content of a work in the context of its notions and portrayal of the power of culture, and class. Applying Marxist theory complicates the reading by raising religious, political, economic, and social issues over simplistic rhetoric and plot study. It is seen that a possible purpose of Hawthorne’s novel was to expose hypocrisy in power structures and demonstrate the eventual triumph of those who remain true and honest to the cause of freedom through all trials and tribulations. Further than that, however, the characters Reverend Dimmesdale, Governor Bellingham, and Hester Prynne can all be seen in a different light when thought of through Marxist literary theory, and when done so, shows that The Scarlet Letter is a work that provides insight, through its analyzed economic and social basis, into the influences of Puritan society in the historical formation and timeline of religious superstructure, class development, and overall social structure.

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