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Willingness to Judge: A deconstructive approach to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2020


The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, has plenty of lessons for both psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. It can be argued that no other novel dwells so much on the in-depth examination of the conflicts, dynamics and defenses attributes of shame (Adamson 53).

Although a number of critics on The Scarlet Letter have attributed Reverend Dimmesdale’s pain to guilt while Hester Prynne’s to shame, others suggest that both characters are distressed with shame. However, Dimmesdale’s pain is more severe than Hester’s because it is deeper and lethal (Kilborne 32). This paper will therefore attempt to analyze The Scarlet Letter through the glasses of deconstruction.

This paper will focus on how Hawthorn uses a deconstruction method to analyze the Puritan reading. Special attention will be placed on the turnaround of the Puritans’ order of reading and writing with its related transcription of reading as the non-origin authenticity of writing.

This paper will also talk about Dimmesdale and Hester and their conflicting views about the Puritan reading. Emphasis will also be laid on the significance of the scarlet letter imprinted on the bosom of Dimmesdale.

Salvation and damnation argument

According to Stewart, Hawthorne is considered to be a “Puritan of Puritans (16). But how can one attach a deconstructive of Puritanism to Hawthorne? Dimmesdale shouts, “Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!” (Scheer 2). What ensues after this is unclear. “It was revealed!” Asserts the narrator, “but it were irrelevant to describe that revelation” (Scheer 2).

It can be argued that the revelation is about the scarlet letter imprinted on the bare bosom of Dimmesdale. It can be assumed that the presence of this imprint of sin on Dimmesdale’s rear end is not precisely masked in mystery. On the other hand, it is also not clearly asserted.

What the reader that ascertains from this context is the breaking of the spell that sets free Pearl’s tears and kisses and the concluding trade of words between the former treacherous partners.

Hester expresses the optimism that they use up their “immortal life together,” however, Dimmesdale scolds her when he says, “the law we broke!” (The sin here so terribly unveiled) let these unaided be in thy thoughts!” Later on, Dimmesdale shows gratitude to God for his “afflictions,” without which he believes he “would have been lost forever” (Scheer 2).

Dimmesdale submits his soul by extolling the God’s name and asking for “His will to be done” (Scheer 2).

A major part of the salvation and damnation argument in the critical canon is initiated by these last moments of Dimmesdale’s mortal life. The squabble on both sides-and the rationale of each side is in fact incontrovertible- center on either side of a symmetrical inquiry: if Dimmesdale assumes that he is damned, he is saved; if he assumes that he is saved, he is damned.

The argument put forward by Edward Davidson (among the formidable in the damned theory) appeals to the Romantic and Puritan theories of the Fall: Dimmesdale’s solipsistic partition of the spirit from the body (90). This argument posits that Dimmesdale incorrectly points sin to the body rather than to the spirit and therefore assumes that he is saved (Davidson 90).

Some of the proofs that Dimmesdale puts forward to sustain his assumption is Mistress Hibbins’s acknowledgment of Dimmesdale’s as being part of the Black Man. Davidson asserts that Mistress Hibbins, prior to the public confession made by Dimmesdale, is aware of the minister’s situation with unrivaled clarity (86). Accordingly, there is a debatable gap in the logic of this edition of the damned theory.

The gist of the matter is when Dimmesdale agrees to Hester’s plan to run away. Dimmesdale knows that he is damned because even his ensuing public declaration of guilt is not enough to turn things around. With respect to the logic of salvation, Dimmesdale’s public admission is absolutely unnecessary (Scheer 3).

Deconstruction of the Puritans

In what ways does Hawthorn presents his deconstruction of the Puritan community? The exact form this deconstruction occurs is the turnaround of the order of reading/writing with its associated transcription of reading as the non-origin authentic of writing. The quality of Puritan reality is based on a reading of selected Scriptures and texts (that are unreasonably factual text).

It is of necessity to acknowledge that the Puritan community asserts the texts themselves fairly than their reading of the pertinent transcripts as the basis upon which the quality of their realism rests.

The manner in which Puritans’ reading are conveyed by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter institutes theocracy that mirrors Nietzsche’s maxim which postulates that facts do not exist in the real world, only interpretations do (Nietzsche 267).

This implies that the arrangements made by Hawthorne with regards to the production and sustaining of the Puritan’s are based on the adage that social truths are creations grounded upon a circular reading. The truth is founded by a reading of the root of the reality in question where in every case the ensuing fact is an occulted form of the reading.

What implores the query is the reading (understanding) which acquiesces the reading. However, the fundamental (the productive) explanation is actually a type of writing-while-reading. Heidegger asserts that an interpretation is in no way an assumption-less understanding of a concept conveyed to us (191).

This implies that if we appeal to what stands there, then we discover that what stands there in the initial case is nothing apart from the apparent un-discussed conjecture… of the individual who performs the interpretation (Heidegger 192). It will be inappropriate to designate this interpretation as a type of reading. This implies that what is read constitutes what is written in the manner of reading.

It is this previous writing that is occulted- reading in the normal manner, which is, the second phrase of the order of writing/reading. Moreover, it is based on this occulting that Hawthorne’s deconstruction regarding the basis of the Puritans reveals. In other words, the truth is blameworthy and utter truth cannot be fortuitous (Kilborne 471).

This is exactly what the Puritans’ ruthless and inflexible reading of the Scriptures and associated texts (which are usually interpretations) fail to accept. Paradoxically, the Scripture both verifies and discards all human power that compares itself with the godly.

The Bible (the Writing) is a Reading that usually re-writes the readings. This aspect of the Scripture (readings/writings) begs the question: Were there defects in the original truths? In other words, one could argue that what is reflected in Hawthorne’s argument about the Puritans mirrors that concealed defect of the truth where all answers are simply fragmented questions (Scheer 12).

Examples of Hawthorne’s Claims

There are numerous examples in the texts to substantiate Hawthorne’s claims. A few examples should be enough. For instance, Hawthorne narrates about the earliest practical for prison and cemetery envisaged by the Puritan constructors for their “Utopia of human virtue and happiness” (47). This stems from the Puritan community’s reading of the outcomes of the Fall (to appeal to common sense here would simply invoke the question given that prisons and cemeteries did not exist in the pre-lapsarian ecstasy of paradise).

The society of “religion and law” (Hawthorne 50) erected by the Puritan community in the wilderness and the periphery of the New World is therefore overwhelmed from the onset by a post-edenic autocracy which fails to acknowledge (ironically in the same manner of recognizing) that the first sin has indefinitely prevented humankind from achieving human happiness and virtues on earth.

Therefore, prisons and cemeteries constitute a segment of the text marked on the wilderness. According to a reading of the Scriptures (which is also a reading), both prisons and cemeteries are imprinted on earth to serve as punishment to humans from the beginning (Scheer 13).

It is important to note that sustained reading also is“writing” in itself. However, what is read does not automatically imply what was written in the first case. As a matter of fact, it is by virtue of this unexplained inconsistency between writing and reading that Hawthorne exploits in his deconstruction of the Puritan community. Again, this reading/writing signs abound in Hawthorne’s book.

Consequently, the “grim rigidity verdict” (punishment) imposed by the Puritans upon Hester Prynne turns into a “living sermon against sin” (Hawthorne 63). The present of the scarlet letter on the bosom of Hester is thus not only a type of “writing” in the accurate sense but also in the figurative manner of the phrase.

“This writing derives is based on the violent and forcible alteration of the camouflage into a disclosure grounded on a broad though aggregating Puritan reading which, according to the “grim beadle”, gets its collective sanction from the violent and forceful writing of a communal structure” (Hawthorne 56).

The creative manner in which Hester “writes” her letter “A” is ambiguous to the bleak texture of Puritans’ realism where the alteration of the camouflage into disclosure as reflected in this case by letter “A” automatically becomes manifest. In addition, the symbol of sin is a ploy, the archetype of all workings of art being the mastermind of the Fall (Scheer 14).

The inconsistency between the writing and reading becomes manifest to the reader who understands that not only is Hester symbolized by the Scarlet letter but also obscured by it. Hester is not only concealed by the letter from “human charities” (Hawthorne 81), it also gives her liberty to speculate.

If the Puritans knew about this, they would have considered it a deadlier offense than the disgrace caused by the Scarlet letter. This uneven link between the signifier and the signified prolongs further to Puritan members’ majority of whom declined to construe the scarlet ‘A’ by its initial meaning (Hawthorne 164).

Thus, the concealment of what is made obvious is the self-deconstructive aspect that Hawthorne presents in his texts. What is reflected in Hawthorne’s text is a type of imprinting that his text must both impulsively reveal and repeat. Accordingly, his writing reflects the reading of the Puritan writing/reading of a reality produced by the imprinting of the Scriptures and associated texts regarding the reality in question.

For instance, as Hester evaluates her past experiences that have contributed to the stalemate of the scaffold, where she is compelled to disclose her own scarlet letter and its existing counterpart (Pearl, considered by Puritans as a symbol of adultery, a living disclosure of prior hidden sin) crafted by both Hester and her hidden counterpart.

Hester is thinking about a “new life” that is yet “feeding on time-worn materials…on a crumbling wall” (Hawthorne 58). According to this sentence, Hester is not only thinking about the dissimilarity between the New and Old World bust also the remains of the concept of the lost paradise (the collapsing of the barricades of Eden, once a place of happiness).

Thus, Hawthorne’s text has plenty of scriptural examples of inter-textuality that imprint themselves on a texture that is eventually vital with respect to text-making by Puritans (Scheer 15).

The compulsive nature of Hawthorne’s text (exposure/recurrence) makes the Scarlet Letter a fascinating book for deconstruction. The link between art and sin in Hawthorne’s book has attracted abundant treatment in the critical law. On the other hand, Hawthorne’s text faces both approval and rejection with regard to this connection.

For example, Leslie Fiedler makes a comment about the letter “A”. He asserts that this letter “may have represented to Hawthorne not only Adultery but Art,” by “involving precisely that adornment of guilt by craft which he attributes to Hester’s prototype” (Fiedler 237).

On the other hand, Claudia Johnson considers the “productive irritant” that drives Hawthorne into art as the “sinful” dismissal of art which Hawthorne had come across in numerous instances (8). Ironically, this same accusation can be traced in Hawthorne’s text.

It is wrong to assume that Hawthorne is disrespectful of art. On the contrary, he senses that he has justifications to be wary of the artistic undertaking preciously because of the unforeseeable twist it make assume.

The Puritan’s Dilemma

The deconstructive venture evident in Hawthorne’s romance is itself a sign of defiance per excellence. Although it is not aptly expressed in many words, its more telling statement is that the Puritan creation of reality (based on imprinting and writing/reading) is a ploy which is almost permanently subdued.

The Fall remains the source of this subdued art although in the case (Fall) of Puritan power, the exact sin under consideration here is the arrogant manner in which humankind usurp divinity and pretend to dispense God-like judgment (Scheer 16).

The Puritan dedication to the disclosure of hidden sin repetitively lends credence to creative arrangements (dignitaries on the balconies, pillories, scaffolds, etc) without which the intended disclosure of hidden sin would be impossible.

To be certain, Hawthorne makes it obvious that the Puritans were cautious of the any kind of pretentious ploy or ceremony, essentially considering it as wicked, they were nonetheless “native Englishmen…of the Elizabethan epoch” (Hawthorne 230). For example, Kenneth Murdock countless illustrations of the impasse Puritan divines encountered as they attempted to convey their religious tenets (34).

He asserts that although Catholics and Anglicans both used organ music, incense, and other instruments in their religious activities, to Puritans, this was a testimony of their sinful ignorance of Scripture (Murdock 34). As a result, the Puritans rejected the use of metaphors, especially those that appealed to the sense, in religious worship. Here, the link between metaphor and sin is fairly clear according to Puritan’s imagination.

The Puritan divine were even compelled to acknowledge, rather unwillingly, that the Holy Scriptures contain metaphors that appeal to senses. The explanation for this is not difficult to unravel. Given that we are imperfect, we are unable to appreciate any language that fails to appeal to the senses. Although such appeal is essential and useful, it is nonetheless unacceptable (Scheer 17).

Hawthorne’s romance mirrors this Puritan predicament in a true historical fashion. It not only dwells on their religious tenets but also focuses on their political rituals. For instance, during the Election Day, Hawthorne asserts that had they maintained their traditional taste, the New England colonizers might have demonstrated all ceremonies of public merit by banquets, bonfires, and processions and pageantries (230).

Although, during Election Day, there was some semblance of this sort, what the Puritans forbade is specifically the humor, the mischievous and the potentially insubordination (which would be synonymous to metaphors that are deemed indecent because they appeal to senses).

Therefore, Hawthorn informs us there were no minstrel, no offensive shows, and no juggler, with his deceptions of imitating witchcraft. All this activities were banned by the stiff laws of Puritans (Hawthorne 231).

The repression of artifice of potentially impish appeals to the senses, of historically pretentious political and religious traditions, ceremonies or rites becomes- according to the narrator- the symbol of an unconscious suppression of the creativity which is nonetheless the basis of the Puritan society and their writing/reading of reality.

It is also the foundation of the Puritan’s idea of a bleak and firm version of the human/divine dichotomy. However, in spite of the Puritan’s distaste for artifice, they remain unwilling dramatists and rhetoricians. On the same note, there is no gap of uncertainty in the framework they imprint on the facade of their reality.

Accordingly, it can be argued that The Scarlet Letter is not a disclaimer of the religious whims but a deconstruction of its gloomy absolutist aggregation. It is the absence of a redemptive fault in their theology that remains-according to the narrator-the incorrigible fault of the Puritans (Scheer 19).

The issue of the scarlet letter stamped on the bosom of Dimmesdale lends credence to the paradigm signified by the gap between the consciousness of the minister to the Puritan’s principles and his cataleptic romanticism. It is the former that compels him to make a public confession.

On the other hand, it is the latter that permits him (the minister) to consent to Hester’s evaluation of their illegitimate affair, “what we did had a consecration of its own” (Hawthorne 195). Without doubt, it is not possible to attribute Puritanism vs. romanticism to the narrator.

The alienated outlook of Hester with respect to human institutions (regarding whatever is established by the legislators or priests and making summary criticism without any reverence) may have liberated her. On the other hand, it taught some important lessons (Hawthorne 199). Dimmesdale is tortured by the disparity between what his real personality and what he appears to be.

Hester, also experiences the same disparity. However, she uses it to rebuff the system. Hawthorne tells us; “wild, heathen Nature has never been subjugated by human law, or…illuminated by higher truth” (203). This implies that Hester’s suppression by the Puritan tenets is peripheral (Scheer 20).

As readers, we cannot tell if Dimmesdale has agreed to escape with Hester, her illicit lover. Dimmesdale “fancied himself inspired” (Hawthorne 225). It can be deduced from this statement that Dimmesdale disapproves the apparent link between art and sin, which is the unavoidable outcome of the Fall, the biblically corroborated origin of both art and sin.

It is this denial of the fault of truth and sin of the art that is liable for hollowing the scarlet letter on the bosom of Dimmesdale. Hawthorne’s deconstructive argument should be emphasized here: it does not carry much weight whether it is present or not for nothing that is simply imprinted is actually there at all, in spite of the fact that it is.

Works Cited

Adamson, Joseph. Guardian of the inmost me. SUNY Press: Albany, 2009. Print

Davidson, Edward H. Dimmesdale’s Fall. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. John C. Gerber. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1963. Print

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Del – Delta: New York, 1966. Print

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. William Charvat et al. Ohio UP: Columbus, 1850. Print

Heidegger, Martin. Sein und Zeit, Being and Time. Ed. John Macquarie and Edward Robinson. Harper & Rowe: New York, 1927. Print

Johnson, Claudia D. The Productive Tension of Hawthorne’s Art. The U of Alabama P: Alabama, 1981. Print

Kilborne, Benjamin. Disappearing Persons: Shame and Appearance. SUNY Press: Albany, 2002. Print

Murdock, Kenneth B. Literature and Theology in Colonial New England. Harper Torch books: New York, 1949. Print

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1901. Der Wille zur Macht, The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. Random House – Vintage: New York, 1901. Print

Scheer, Steven C. Errors of Truth: Deconstruction in The Scarlet Letter. 2001. Web. <>

Stewart, Randall. American Literature and Christian Doctrine. Louisiana UP: Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1958. Print

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