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Bittersweet Redemption in The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter

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By Edited Sep 16, 2016 0 0

AP English (39230)
The concept of redemption is a popular one in literature. Perhaps the very first story of redemption is the story of the Prodigal Son. It comes from the New Testament, and is a story of two brothers. The older brother is obedient and hardworking; the other leaves the family home, squanders his father’s fortune and is forced to return home to ask his father for mercy.

Recognizing as son’s return as something of a resurrection, the father calls for a great celebration. The older brother is frustrated that he has been such a good son of all these years and has never received such gifts, and goes to his father to complain of the injustice. His father explains that because the younger son was lost, then found it is cause for celebration. The parable celebrates the acts of forgiveness and redemption and has served as inspiration for many plays, short stories, novels, and even films (a good fact to remember for the AP English Literature exam).

On such story is The Crucible. While most people know Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials as a commentary on the cruelty and injustice of the McCarthy era and the Blacklist, it’s also the story of a married couple. John and Elizabeth Proctor begin the play unhappy with each other. John has had an affair with the couple’s former household helper, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth is unable to forgive him. However, by the play’s end, Elizabeth is able to recognize that her shortcomings as a wife may have lead to John’s affair and she offers him the forgiveness she has been withholding. This act of forgiveness allows John to peacefully accept the death sentence that has been wrongfully placed upon him.

The kind of redemption that John Proctor finds in The Crucible is a strange one. It does not save him from being hanged, but it allows him to go to the gallows with a clear conscience, to have “his goodness now” and, presumably, believe that he will go to heaven after he dies. Somehow, the injustice of his death sentence seems lessened because he and Elizabeth are at peace with themselves and each other.

It’s a similar kind of mixed redemption that comes at the end of The Scarlet Letter. Like John Proctor, Hester Prynne is guilty of infidelity, but she is forced to literally wear her shame, in the form of a red letter “A” for “adulterer.” Hester bears her punishment with a dignified humility and never reveals the name of her lover, even though they conceived a child together. Eventually, her lover does confess his sin to the town and dies shortly after. Though Hester is able to somewhat reconcile with her husband (he leaves all of his inheritance to her illegitimate daughter), she is forced to bear the scarlet letter even after death; it appears on her gravestone.

Though neither story has the kind of cathartic (if somewhat confusing) ending of the parable of the Prodigal Son, there is a common message: the redemption that one may find in others can never be as freeing as the redemption one achieves by forgiving one’s self.
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