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Appearance and Reality in The Scarlet Letter: An Exercise in Writing by Ray Notgrass

Recently, while listening to an audio version of The Scarlet Letter, I was struck by the theme of appearance versus reality in the book. I decided to write a brief essay on the subject, and I also decided to use this exercise to offer some insight into how one writer develops a composition.

Many of you have used books that I have written, which I appreciate more than I can say. You see the finished book; but you do not see the note-taking, outlining, typing, backspacing and correcting, returning later to revise, editing, and proofreading that all lead to the finished product. The finished product (I hope) looks smooth and coherent, but you only see the finished product. You do not look in the workshop where it was constructed, where the floor is covered with shavings and mistakes.

I enjoy writing, but I find it to be hard work. After several hours of it, I am physically and mentally exhausted. I even wrestled with this brief introduction quite a bit to get it the way I wanted it. The effort, however, is worth it to me. I find it gratifying to craft my scattered thoughts into something that might be worth another person's time to read.

One element in our high school and middle school curricula are the writing assignments. We receive numerous inquiries about this element. It is a common and understandable concern: How does one write? Do you give any writing instruction? How does a parent grade writing?

Your student is faced with a topic and a blank page. How does he or she go from that to a decent piece of writing? I hope that a peek into my process on this essay will help. I also hope that you will share this article with your aspiring (and sometimes perspiring) writer-child if you think it would be helpful.

Gathering Information

With the topic of appearance versus reality in my mind, I leafed through a printed copy of The Scarlet Letter (the very same volume I used in high school, in fact), and made a list of appearance versus reality elements in the story. It was handwritten and looked like this (my explanations of my abbreviations are in brackets):

Buried in CH [custom house] was the letter -- p. 31 "Dead letter"
Dimmesdale appeared r'ous [righteous], well-thought of--but an adulterer too.
Hester's sin was open, atoned for, cd [could] live; AD's [Arthur Dimmesdale's] was hidden, gnawing, was dying
R[oger] Chillingworth appeared to be helping, was in fact killing AD
Ldrs [Leaders] appeared r'ous, but were judgmental, blind.
Wd. [Would] buy her needlework, but reject her--superficial
Hester's shame forced on her
AD's--chose to hide it.
Who was brave & courageous in dealing w/ [with] it, w/ self?
A in sky
Mng [Meaning] of A to Hester--Adultery, or Arthur?
Able, Angel (Gov. Winthrop?)
Glove on scaffold--blamed on Satan (p. 163)
H[ester]--shame made her stronger
Greatest triumph was greatest shame--election sermon

I decided to start with an introductory paragraph, then give examples of the appearance versus reality theme beginning with what I thought were the most obvious and moving to less obvious ones. I wanted to talk about how the theme is portrayed at the beginning and the end of the book, then have a closing section that connects the idea with our lives today. At this point I started my first draft. It looked like this.


Appearance and Reality in The Scarlet Letter (first draft)

In his novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne examines the moral and spiritual impact of adultery on the hearts and minds of a colonial New England village. The adultery has already taken place when the story opens; in fact, the child of the illicit union has already been born. Hester Prynne, the adulteress, is condemned to wear a scarlet "A" because of her sin. This badge of shame is open and obvious. What is not so obvious, however, is how the characters in the novel handle the consequences of the sin. A continuing theme in the book is how appearance and reality are often different.

Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister, appears to be a righteous person. The people of the town regard him highly. In reality, however, he is an adulterer just like the scorned Hester Prynne was and is the father of Hester's child. Roger Chillingworth, the doctor who appears to be a caring servant of others, is in fact Hester's long-lost husband. Chillingworth appears to be ministering to Arthur's weakening health. The move by Roger and Arthur into the same lodging is seen by many as a great benefit to Arthur. In reality, Roger takes advantage of the situation to destroy Arthur slowly and methodically.

The townspeople, especially the leaders and the clergy, appear to be righteous and above reproach. In reality, they are harshly judgmental of Hester for her sin and completely fail to see Arthur's moral weakness. The leaders are most concerned about outward appearances. This is shown by the fact that they will buy and wear Hester's excellent needlework even while they condemn her and distance themselves from her because of her adultery.

A significant irony in the novel is how Hester and Arthur respond to their sin. Hester is forced to confess her sin openly and to pay the high price of public condemnation for her sin. However, this openness about it seems to make Hester a stronger person. She serves other people, becomes recognized as a wise and caring person, and appears to be at peace with herself. Arthur, on the other hand, keeps his sin a secret and it destroys him. Arthur is a weak person who cannot bring himself to confess his sin to the community. The scene of his greatest triumph, his eloquent election sermon, becomes the scene of his undoing, confession, and death.

The contrast between appearance and reality is part of both the opening and the closing of the book. In the introductory sketch, "The Custom House," Hawthorne describes finding the cloth with the embroidered "A" in the musty, almost lifeless custom house where he worked. The story that he learned about the embroidery, however, shows that the "A" is far from a dead letter. It is the last reminder of a rich and gripping human drama. As the story draws to its conclusion, the meaning of the "A" is transformed. The "A" that Hester is condemned to wear is intended to stand for her sin of Adultery. However, Hester is not limited by her past failure. She wins the favor of many of the townspeople, and they come to see the "A" as possibly standing for Able or Angel. At the same time, Hester obviously loves Arthur, so perhaps in her mind the "A" stands for Arthur, who is always close to her heart.

The implications of Hawthorne's lesson about the possible conflict between appearance and reality go far beyond a theme in a novel. In human relations, with warring drives and desires within us, such differences are always possible. We must not be taken in by a person's appearance, when the reality of that person is quite different. At the same time, we must try to be sure that our own appearance is as close to and honest with our inner reality as possible, and we must always be trying to close that gap. We are not sentenced to wearing on our clothes embroidered letters that symbolize our sins, but instead we are challenged to see ourselves and others with both clear-eyed honesty and kind-hearted grace.


The Rewriting Process

At this point, I put the essay aside for the day. I kept thinking about it, however, and returned to it the following morning. During this time, several thoughts occurred to me.

  1. Someone writing about The Scarlet Letter could discuss many topics and aspects of the story, but I had decided to write about appearance versus reality. A good essay stays focused on the subject. I decided that some of the notes I made in leafing through the book were not directly relevant to my subject, so I left those thoughts out of the essay.

  2. A first draft lets the writer put down what he wants to say. A second draft lets him say it better.

  3. Summarizing a piece of literature is not the same as analyzing it. Many times a young writer will be asked to analyze a work and will instead summarize it. Analysis goes deeper than summary. Summary has its place, but it is not a substitute for analysis.

  4. One thing I needed to work on in the essay was transitions--between sentences and between subtopics. Smooth transitions are essential to good writing, but coming up with them is a skill that takes practice.

  5. The first paragraph needed work. It seemed plain and unexciting. A writer has to catch the reader's attention in the first few words, or the reading will be a chore and not a pleasure. A question or a real-life story are often effective as a way to begin.

  6. I decided that I needed to address two other important issues. First, I needed to say that adultery does not just appear to be wrong; it is wrong. So is every sin. But The Scarlet Letter deals with the question, "Now what?" Is redemption possible? Can a person recover from a life of sin, even from adultery, and lead a godly, worthwhile life? And will other people let a person receive grace from God and from themselves? Second, I needed to address whether everything in this world is merely appearance and whether we could ever trust people really to be who they seem to be.

So I copied and pasted the first draft and worked on it again, making revisions where I thought best. My comments to you are in brackets.


Appearance and Reality in The Scarlet Letter (final draft)

Have you ever known someone who turned out not to be the person he appeared to be? Have you ever tried to come across to others in a way that was different from who you really are? Have you ever bought something that did not turn out to be what the advertising said it was?

Everyone deals with the difference between appearance and reality in one way or another many times in life. In his novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne shows the dramatic difference that can exist between appearance and reality as a colonial New England town deals with the aftermath of a case of adultery in its midst. [New introduction]

Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister, appears to be a righteous person. The people of the town regard him highly. In reality, however, he is as much an adulterer as is the scorned Hester Prynne. Dimmesdale is, in fact, the father of the child born to Hester [reworded and recast one sentence into two]. Roger Chillingworth, the doctor who comes to town and appears to be a caring servant of others, is actually Hester's long-lost husband, a fact that Hester and Roger agree to keep to themselves [reworded, clarified, added additional information]. Chillingworth appears to be ministering to Arthur's weakening health. In fact, the move by Roger and Arthur into the same lodging is seen by many as a great benefit to Arthur that enables Chillingworth to provide more constant care. In reality, though, [change transition] Roger takes advantage of the situation to destroy Arthur slowly and methodically because he suspects that Arthur is the father of Hester's child.

The townspeople, especially the leaders and the clergy, appear to be righteous and above reproach. In reality, they are harshly judgmental of Hester for her sin and completely fail to see Arthur's moral weakness. The leaders are concerned about outward appearances. This is illustrated [replaced word "shown"] by the fact that they will buy and wear Hester's excellent needlework even while they condemn her and distance themselves from her because of her adultery.

A significant contrast in the novel is how Hester and Arthur respond to their sin. Hester is forced to confess her sin openly and to pay the high price of public condemnation for her sin. However, this openness helps Hester to become stronger. She serves other people, becomes recognized as a wise and caring person, and appears to be at peace with herself. Arthur, on the other hand, keeps his sin a secret and is destroyed by it. Arthur is a weak person who cannot bring himself to confess his sin to the community. His reputation is too precious to him to risk being open and honest about what he has done. The scene of his greatest triumph, his eloquent election sermon, becomes the scene of his undoing, his confession, and his death.

This contrast between appearance and reality is an element of [reworded] both the opening and the closing sections of the book. In the introductory sketch, "The Custom House," Hawthorne describes finding the cloth with the embroidered "A" in the musty, almost lifeless custom house where he worked. The story that he later learned about the embroidery, however, revealed to him that the "A" was far from a dead letter. It was instead [reworded, better transition] the last reminder of a complex and gripping human drama.

[Made separate paragraph] As the story draws to its conclusion, the meaning of the scarlet letter itself [reworded] is transformed. At first, the "A" that Hester is condemned to wear stands for her sin of Adultery. However, Hester is not willing to be branded within and thus limited by her past failure. She wins the favor of many of the townspeople, and they come to see the "A" as possibly standing for Able or Angel. Another possible meaning for the "A" could be in Hester's mind. Hester obviously loves Arthur, so perhaps the greater reality in her mind is that the "A" stands for Arthur, who is always close to her heart.

The implications of Hawthorne's lesson about the possible conflict between appearance and reality go far beyond its being merely a theme in a novel [some rewording of sentence]. Such a conflict is always possible in human relations. Our desire to be well thought of is at war with what we know to be true about ourselves [reworded sentence]. The primary responsibility we have in relationships is to be trustworthy ourselves. A person must be honest about his failings and sincerely seeking to grow in consistency and maturity to be able to relate well and openly to others. We must try to be sure that our own appearance is as much in concert with our inner reality as possible; and we must always be trying to close the gap between our appearance and reality [moved this point earlier than it had been].

In addition [added transition], we must not be taken in by a person's appearance when the reality of that person is quite different. To avoid being deceived, we must come to know others well and be willing to recognize dishonesty whenever we encounter it--in ourselves or in others.

On the other hand [added contrasting transition], we must not take from Hawthorne's book the idea that we can never trust anyone, that we can never be sure about a person's appearance versus his reality. We must be discerning, not merely skeptical. Some people never seem to bring their appearance and their reality together; but we do know people, imperfect as they are, who can be trusted.

Another incorrect lesson from the book is the idea that adultery might appear to be wrong but in reality it is not. Adultery is wrong, as is all sin. The devastating effects of adultery on the people involved are clearly portrayed in Hawthorne's novel. Hester's life is burdened and complicated by her immorality, and Arthur's life is destroyed by his attempt to hide his sin. However, thanks to the grace of God, sin does not have to end our hope to live a worthwhile life. The challenge we all face is to bring good out of a bad situation, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The fact that any good at all can come from a bad situation is the result, not of the absence of wrong nor from our human cleverness, but from the power of our loving God, who could even bring the wonderful good of salvation out of the heinous wrong of the cross [some rewording of sentence].

We have sinned, and others have sinned also. Our appearance is not always consistent with our reality. Now what? You and I [reworded] are not sentenced to wearing on our clothes embroidered letters that symbolize our sins, but instead we are challenged to see ourselves and others with both clear-eyed honesty and kind-hearted grace.


At this point, I put this project aside and let it rest for another day.

The next day, I read over all of the above again and made a few more corrections. I then sent it to several people for them to read and comment on. When I received their responses, I reworked the final draft a bit more and considered it done. The final draft contains about 1,100 words. I spent about six hours total on this project, from going through the novel and taking notes to making the final changes.

We live in a world in which the ability to write is increasingly important. We should not expect anything else in this information age. Many businesses depend on their employees to be able to communicate well. People have a great deal of information coming at them from many sources. They will be more likely to listen to what you have to say if you can express yourself well. The point of this article, and the point of the writing exercises and writing curricula your student uses, is to help your student be able to communicate well through the written word in their adult lives.

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Comments on Appearance and Reality in The Scarlet Letter: An Exercise in Writing by Ray Notgrass



Lisa 08-14-2012 00:13
Thank you for this. I intend to use it as a teaching tool for my children. I have talked for years about the writing process and this is the perfect illustration, if you will.
E. Twitchell 08-07-2012 20:59
This was very helpful. Thanks!!


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