Over the past few weeks of analyzing and reviewing The Scarlet Letter the question How does an individual affect a community? came to be one of important focus. The Scarlet Letter in total has much to do with individuals, communities, and how one affects the other. So instead of focusing on a community’s impact; the focus was placed upon an individual’s impact.
In The Scarlet Letter Hester Prynne was able to impact her community in both positive and negative ways. However, the community itself was only able to see her impact as negative. They saw her as useless and damaged goods. A once beautiful woman made into a sinful and shamed creature. They did not care what happened to her because as far as they were concerned; her mistake was enough to condemn her to a life of misery or even death.
“They were stern enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence, without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the heartlessness of another social state, which would find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the present.” (chapter two, page 49, The Scarlet Letter)
These assumptions made me start to wonder if society really does treats individuals this way. If a person simply makes one mistake, can the view a community has of them change entirely? The sad truth is, well, yes. A mistake makes a person vulnerable and therefore a community comes in to attack. Also, as many eyes watch more mistakes may be prominent. Like a lion waiting for its prey; a community waits for an opportunity to voice their opinion. Even if the opinion is too harsh or out of hand.
As people, and as humans, we thrive off of opinion. We like to think in our own way and be our own person. Or, if we can’t do that, we thrive off of other peoples opinions; claiming them as our own. We pick and choose what we think to be right and what to be wrong. But what if our perception as a community is completely wrong and the perception of one individual is absolutely right? Can one individual change an entire opinion of a community?
This I believe is also true. We look at individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln and how they were able not only to affect their community, but a nation. This gives hope into an individuals ability; that one most certainly can affect a community into changing its views. Whether this means for better or for worse depends upon the opinion and upon the person. But yes, an individual has the power and impact to change the opinion of a community, regardless.
How one might change the opinion of a community also differs. Some might use words; others might use actions; a choice few might use accidents; and many use perspective.
At first, the community saw Hester as one of their own, but as sin was committed, she was then viewed as an outcast. Almost treated as though she was no longer human, but treated sin itself. They glared at her with hatred because it had been precedented that they should all hate her for her sin. Hester unintentionally affected her community in a way where they despised her. Her actions affected the perspective and feelings of an entire community. Her actions were able to cause a community to attack on a daily basis, even though it was an attack on Hester herself.
“From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never few callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture.” (chapter five, page 72, The Scarlet Letter)
One person’s sin was able to compromise an entire community’s opinion. Whether or not they loved Hester in the first place did not matter; her sin threw that all away. She was to be loved by no one, because this is what the community believed fit.
However an individual is also able to affect a community based upon their position and power. Arthur Dimmesdale, for example, was able to affect a community through his words, although his actions did not coincide with them.
Dimmesdale is the ultimate example of “say one thing and do another.” He preaches for people to turn away from sin and be encouraged with the spirit of God when he just so happens to be Hester’s lover. Dimmesdale is viewed as being high and mighty, and therefore his community listens to him. His position and power has put him at a place of influence, but if the community would have known of his sinful actions, their perspective would be totally different. If they would have known Dimmesdale as an adulterer, their views of him would disintegrate. Their appreciation would vanish. A new opinion would be placed within the community or who Arthur Dimmesdale is.
“A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter! He(Dimmesdale) had been driven hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and whose own sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which invariably drew him back, with her tremendous gripe, just when the other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure. Poor, miserable man!” (chapter twelve, page 122, The Scarlet Letter)
Dimmesdale was influential, but hypocritical. Hester was genuine and beautiful, but a sinful creature. These two individuals were able to affect their community in unimaginable ways. On page 370 of The Language of Composition it says, “Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgements about them. For one thing, to be able to con-sign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for you to help children you will never meet.” So is the community or individual really in it for the opposites sake or for their own?
The decision a community has can almost be seen as unnecessary in logical terms because you would think that individual decisions should be individual issues. However, in all of human history, this has never been the case. Individual problems are never quite individual. They end up involving others in one way or another.Either the community feels as though they must know or the individual feels as though they must share. Maybe the community feels as though they should help the individual- maybe the community feels as though they should destroy the individual. Perhaps the individual feels as though they are the savior of the community- perhaps the individual feels as though they are useless and wants to become known. Maybe one feels as though it is the voice for the other. On page 280 of The Language of Composition it says in a statement made by Martin Luther King Jr, “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized.” So maybe a community does feel responsible for the matters of in individual for the individuals sake. Or maybe a community feels responsible for the matters of an individual to protect the community from the individuals influence. No matter the reason, there are always and will always be ties between a community and an individual.
So, how does an individual affect a community? I believe through opinion, image, influence, power, accident, perspective, words, actions, and inevitable bondage an individual is able to affect a community.
Photo © Sally Mann 2012