Nathaniel Hawthorne 's The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter depicts the dynamics of guilt and shame in seventeenth century Massachusetts Bay Colony's Puritan society, but we may find similar forces in communities where established social norms direct members' behavior.

Hester Prynne has to wear the scarlet letter "A," a symbol of shame, for committing adultery. The town fathers seek to enforce the Puritanical code through shame and alienation from the community. But grounded in her identity, Hester stands tall and calm on the scaffold and refuses to acknowledge the power of the town fathers or of the social nrom. Throughout the novel, we see her directing her destiny: helping the sick and the poor, seeking to leave Boston with her lover, returning from Europe wearing the scarlet letter, not as a symbol of shame but one of defiance.

On the other hand, her lover, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, avoids shame, because Hester refuses to name him, but guilt torments him so much that his health deteriorates. His guilt may have come from having an affair with Hester, though her husband is presumed dead, or from allowing her to suffer alone. Whatever the reason, the same power that Hester refuses to acknowledge crushes and ultimately destroys him. So, while Hester embodies shame without guilt, Arthur does guilt without shame. He has internalized the Puritanical system such that internal punishments may exceed any external ones.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

The contrast between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale is an interesting study in human character. While some in society respond more to external punishments, other avoid transgressions for fear of internal ones.

Salem Witch Trial

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, like other communities, uses both external and internal forces to direct behaviors. But one problem comes from government merging with religion, and the legal code, besides protecting individual rights, enforces morality. Laws and punishments curtail behavior and therefore have vital roles in society, but they cannot "create good people." Whenever, we force people to be "good," the result is either conformity or rebellion, not "goodness."

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another problem: though Hester's husband is presumed dead, the town fathers punish her for having an affair and consider it adultery because she is legally married to him. And she probably couldn't get a divorce. So, here the legal code traps wives whose husbands have passed away and they become widows for life. So legalism can be dangerous.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

I grew up watching Frankenstein (the monster), along with Dracula and the Wolfman, on TV, but Mary Shelley's novel is, beyond a tale of horror, a literary work where the narrative and themes are as important as the plot. The framed narrative allows the reader to understand Dr. Frankenstein's worldviews as well as those of Captain Walton and the monster. We can compare Captain Walton Dr. Frankenstein and see their similar ambitions and sense of adventure in conquering nature and we can contrast their final decisions. Then, we can contrast the monster's outer monstrosity with Dr. Frankenstein's inner one. Perhaps it is fitting that we refer to the monster as Frankenstein; in a sense Dr. Frankenstein is a monster.

Shelley, through the story, warns against the danger of pursuing knowledge, the possible disaster from abusing that understanding, and specifically scientific knowledge, to satisfy one's ambitions. In this sense, Frankenstein is a typical science fiction.

The Frankenstein Monster

That Shelley wrote this compelling novel when she was eighteen testifies to her imagination and literary power. Frankenstein, perhaps the first science fiction, is a literary classic that sheds light into the nature of humanity.

Mary Shelley