September 18, 2004

Oral Panel A - Comedy/Tragedy in The Scarlet Letter

Even though Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is not a drama, it contains elements of two of the main types of drama: comedy and tragedy. The components of drama can be seen in certain characters and situations in the novel. Today we are going to explore what comedy is and where it is located in The Scarlet Letter; in addition, we will investigate the meaning of drama and where it can be seen as functioning in Hawthorne’s novel. The elements we will focus on stem from the ending on the novel.

According to Dr. Jerz’s site, American Literature I, “comedy begins when an ordered society is thrown temporarily into disorder by an individual who does not conform.” This definition will be useful in recognizing comedic elements in the book.

Another definition of comedy, (complete with examples of where it is to be found), is offered by Gale-Free Resources Glossary of Literary Terms, comedy is, one of two major types of drama, the other being tragedy. Its aim is to amuse, and it typically ends happily. Comedy assumes many forms, such as farce and burlesque, and uses a variety of techniques, from parody to satire. In a restricted sense the term comedy refers only to dramatic presentations, but in general usage it is commonly applied to nondramatic works as well. Examples of comedies range from the plays of Aristophanes, Terrence, and Plautus, Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, Francois Rabelais's Pantagruel and Gargantua, and some of Geoffrey Chaucer's tales and William Shakespeare's plays to Noel Coward's play Private Lives.

Dr. Jerz continues to say, “a comedy ends in order, as the disordered element is either expelled or absorbed into the background.” With this in mind, the reader must address elements of comedy in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. One of the comedic elements in The Scarlet Letter is the story’s ending. Hester leaves Boston for England and when she returns years later, her advice is sought from people, according to The Scarlet Letter, especially, “Women- …in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion- or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought- came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy!” Through the novel, Hester was made a public figure of ridicule, (which gradually was tempered over the course of the years); her return to Boston illustrates the absorption of the disordered element.

This is just one example of comedy employed in The Scarlet Letter. What are some other examples of characters/situations who can be categorized under these definitions of comedy?

Dr. Jerz also writes that tragedy, “shows how the protagonist’s actions launch a sequence of events that tear apart a tragic hero and possibly the society as well.” For an expanded definition of tragedy, Gale-Free Resources Glossary of Literary Terms offered,
A drama in prose or Poetry about a noble, courageous hero of excellent character who, because of some tragic character flaw, brings ruin upon him- or herself. Tragedy treats its subjects in a dignified and serious manner, using poetic language to help evoke pity and fear and bring about catharsis, a purging of these emotions. The tragic form was practiced extensively by the ancient Greeks. In the Middle Ages, when classical works were virtually unknown, tragedy came to denote any works about the fall of persons from exalted to low conditions due to any reason: fate, vice, weakness, etc. According to the classical definition of tragedy, such works present the "pathetic" — that which evokes pity — rather than the tragic. The classical form of tragedy was revived in the sixteenth century; it flourished especially on the Elizabethan stage. In modern times, dramatists have attempted to adapt the form to the needs of modern society by drawing their heroes from the ranks of ordinary men and women and defining the nobility of these heroes in terms of spirit rather than exalted social standing.

After weighing in on the aforementioned, the reader can look for elements of tragedy in The Scarlet Letter. But first, one must identify the protagonists in the story. The central protagonist in the plot is Hester Prynne because she wears her scarlet letter for the world to see; in her shadow, but also a protagonist, is Arthur Dimmesdale who bears his scarlet letter in private.
One of the tragedies of the story can be found in the revealing of Dimmesdale as the father. After he admits he is the father and publicly accepts Hester and Pearl, he dies. His freedom from sin is short lived, to say the least. Another tragic element is Pearl’s first and final acceptance of the knowledge of her father, “Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken.” The minister then expired. After this, Pearl left for England and led a normal life, instead of a life of throwing rocks at Puritan children. Her misery was plight from the scarlet letter was cured by love, however short the love was.

These are two of the tragic elements in The Scarlet Letter. Where else is tragedy employed in the text of the novel? Could any of the novel’s characters be categorized as tragic, and why?

After further consideration, I want to also elaborate on the talk Nabila Uddin gave in class. Nabila pointed out that Hester was not the devil child that everyone seems to reason her to be. I agree with and applaud Nabila for pointing out the mother-daughter relationship in The Scarlet Letter.

Posted by KatieAikins at September 18, 2004 9:25 PM

I liked how you compared and contrasted the comedy vs. tragedy. The examples were detailed and connected with the original thought. In my opinion, I do agree that Pearl was a comic relief. She did funny things throughout the story, because she is a little kid. The tragedy of the story would be Dimmesdale dying after he confessed his sin in public. At least when went to heaven with a clean soul. However, it is sad how he dies after Pearl begins to like and accept him.

Posted by: Nabila Uddin at September 20, 2004 8:34 PM

Listen alright, this book is dreadful. It is stressful, but im just reading it to get my English class credit in High School in order to graduate. As much as I hate this book, i would like to know if anybody knows a website where i can find the Sequence of Events to this novel. Please, it would make my project, and my life a whole lot easier.

Posted by: Angel at May 24, 2006 3:03 PM