The Scarlet Letter

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Satire 1 key example

Definition of Satire
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians... read full definition
Chapter 24
Explanation and Analysis—Land of the Unfree:

One of the novel's many satirical moments comes in Chapter 24, when the narrator describes what might have happened to Pearl after the main events of the novel:

And, once, Hester was seen embroidering a baby-garment, with such a lavish richness of golden fancy as would have raised a public tumult, had any infant, thus apparelled, been shown to our sober-hued community.

The implication here is that Hester is making lavish baby clothes for Pearl's baby, just as she once made for Pearl. The narrator makes clear that this idea is hearsay (remember, the narrator in "The Custom House" admitted that this is all a work of imagination). Some people, the narrator reports, say Pearl died. The narrator refutes this belief, offering up several pieces of evidence that she went to England. Much of the evidence suggests that Pearl and Hester remained fairly decadent by Puritan standards. The emphasis on their decadence serves to satirize the notion that the American colonies were founded with freedom as their guiding principle. If Pearl had to return to England to live with fewer constraints on her behavior (such as the way she might dress her own children), England might in fact be freer than America.

In this way, Hawthorne criticizes Puritan culture, which was no longer the dominant culture when he was writing. But he also challenges, in a bigger way, the entire idea that freedom is at the center of American identity. This is important because he was writing in the mid-19th century, when debates about the abolition of slavery were at their height. Hawthorne, like many of his contemporaries, highlighted the contradiction between professed American ideals and the practice of enslaving humans. In a major sense, England really was freer than America at the time: the United States trailed far behind England with abolition. The slave trade (buying and selling enslaved people) was outlawed in England in 1807. By 1833, the practice of slavery had also been outlawed in England and most of its colonies. By contrast, the United States abolished the slave trade after England, in 1808. It would not effectively abolish the practice of slavery until 1863-1865.