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The self-categorization of personal and social identity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet
American literature is depiction of modern society and revolves around effects of colonies and
change in societal norms having themes of hybridity ,isolation , interaction between people and
behavior towards society and influence of society on their lives .the scarlet letter is novel by
Nathaniel Hawthorne is a history based fiction in which the concept of social shaming revenge
and redemption is highlighted the character Hester Prynne wear a Scarlet Letter "A" as
punishment as she is an adulteress who has a baby daughter while her husband has been away for
two years. The deep-rooted desires and ideas of the past life when Hester had not been put under
the puritan justice system also shape her current identity. The presence of letters throughout the
years indicates who Hester is and what she is becoming with time. The church's laws consider
her inner self sinful; hence they bring her internal identity to the external display. Therefore, the
concept of identity and what it means in "The Scarlet Letter" is quite ambiguous. This research
paper analyzes the theme of influence of society on one’s identity in the framework of selfcategorization of a person in social psychology. The behavior of a person towards his society and
influences of society on person’s identity .as social psychology deals with whole phenomena of
interaction between people their cognition and its effect in person and society as well
Keywords: social identity, personal identity, identity conflict, social psychology, puritan
Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the societal forces in the scarlet letter so that individuals are
constantly under the influence of those structures. As a part of the community, the characters
share ideas about the group's values, norms, and moral codes. The puritan laws of the church in
New England make Hester Prynne wear a Scarlet Letter "A" as punishment as she is an
adulteress who has a baby daughter while her husband has been away for two years. Hester and
her daughter are now outcasts in society, leading to their alienation with a conflicted sense of
identity. The laws designed to put Hester to eternal shame evoke an ambiguity of personal and
social identity in Hester, her daughter, and other characters related to them. They start to view
themselves in terms of the group phenomenon. The characters behave and make decisions under
the influence of solid societal forces. This paper applies social categorization theory (1997) to
explain the fragmented identity of the characters, where they shift between their personal and
social identities by categorizing under strict social boundaries of values and behavior. Identity is
a phenomenon by which people define their personality, "most of us would agree that identity is
responsible for how we feel about ourselves and that a lack of identity jeopardizes our well-being
or even our physical existence. Different people are thought to behave differently because they
have different identities" (Simon 17); the central characters in this novel have their identities
based upon how they view themselves in the society and what societal forces are affecting them.
There is confusion between the identities as characters have to hide aspects of their personalities
within a social system with stringent rules and strict moral codes.
Various forces shape the sense of identity in characters in society as well as in their
subconscious. The deep-rooted desires and ideas of the past life when Hester had not been put
under the puritan justice system also shape her current identity. John E. Hart mentions in "The
Scarlet Letter" One hundred years after (1950) that what blooms about Hester as she emerges
from the prison is the letter. It has the "effect of a spell" as it at that moment cut her off with
every other person in the surroundings and encloses her, "in a sphere by herself" while according
to the people around her, this letter is a symbol of guilt and crossing the moral code. Since Hester
also grew up in the same Puritan moral code, she also feels somewhat guilty and dreams of her
past when she was not under such societal pressure and "inflicting glances." She looks at her
present real life with her husband Roger Chillingworth in front of her, and she decides not to
escape and form a new identity; instead, she becomes alienated while living in the same society.
This indicates that not only the current situation of Hester but also her past influenced her in
establishing herself an identity that was also shaped by the social identity of the locality.
According to Fred H. Marcus in the article "The Scarlet Letter": The Power of Amniguity
(1962), Hawthorne is far less interested in the sin of adultery than the effects of that sin in
puritan views how that sin affects the characters themselves. The guilt induced in Hester in front
of the public creates a sharp sense of distancing between her and humanity. Arthur Dimmesdale,
who does not face public humility, is a guilty minister serving as a symbol of saintliness. It
shows that the public shaming for Hester and inner guilt for Arthur Dimmesdale made them have
separate versions of themselves while being in public and solitude. Their ways of living life and
interacting with others change based upon those identities.
Nina Baym reflects in her article, "Passion and Authority in The Scarlet Letter" (1970)
that characters in the novel represent sin as they feel it in their specific position, Arthur being a
part of the authority and Hester under the influence of her passions of motherhood. This leads to
a different perception and embodiment in each one's emotional life. Pearl is Hester's sin, and
Chillingworth is the sin Dimmesdale. Hester perceives the consequence as a beautiful, wild and
unpredictable baby, while Dimmesdale sees it as a vengeful and furious husband offended by the
birth of that child. So Pearl and Chillingworth act as disharmony and conflict within Hester and
Dimmesdale. This leads to a shattered sense of selves in the characters who remain unable to
mediate between their societal and personal identities.
For the analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter this paper uses the Quantitative
research methodology for highlighting the self-categorization of personal and social identity
How does society effect the identity of a person?
How does Scarlett Letter fit in the frame of self-categorization theory of social psychology?
This study uses the theory of self-categorization of social psychology to highlight the impact of
society on identity of a person. Self-categorization theory is a theory in social psychology that
describes the circumstances under which a person will perceive collections of people (including
themselves) as a group, as well as the consequences of perceiving people in group terms. It was
developed by John Turner and colleagues, and along with social identity theory it is a constituent
part of the social identity approach.
Details of this study are based on experiments and information from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
book, library research, and any other sources that may be used to complete this study. Authorities
can appear in books, papers, diaries, past research, and online sources.
In the Scarlet letter, the symbol "A" is not just a letter but a constant force that shapes the
identity of Hester and her daughter Pearl. It pushes her to the margins of society because her new
identity is not acceptable to the community. The presence of letters throughout the years
indicates who Hester is and what she is becoming with time. The church's laws consider her
inner self sinful; hence they bring her internal identity to the external display. Hester is not
willing to reveal the name of her lover Arthur Dimmesdale as he is associated with the people
who punished her by wearing the scarlet letter. It questions the identity of Arthur Dimmesdale
being one of those people defining the Law as he too has committed that sin of which Hester
alone is bearing the shame. Therefore the concept of identity and what it means in "The Scarlet
Letter" is quite ambiguous.
J.C Turners's article. "Towards a cognitive redefinition of the group" (1982) illustrates
the concepts of personal identity, social identity, and their relatedness. It formed the basis for
self-categorization theory (1997). It describes the circumstances under which a person will
perceive collections of people, including themselves, and the consequences of being within the
group terms. It is a theory of intergroup relations that attempted to define self-identity and social
identity. It looks at the behavior of a person within a group taking into consideration the context.
It looked at the interpersonal and intergroup continuum, which further deepens various situations
relevant to behavior as individuals versus the group members. According to Tajfel, social
identity is "that part of an individual's self-concept which derives from their membership of a
social group, together with the value and emotional significance attached to this" (Tajfel 63).
It shows that personal identity can change depending upon the social context in which the
individual has to survive. The instances of prejudice and discrimination can affect the personal
identity similar is the case with aggression from the society, which leads to frustration in the
individuals. Hester is charged with an unforgivable sin according to the morals and norms of a
puritan society, and for that, she has to suffer while living in those people. She is not presented
with a choice as her fate is being decided. She has to wear the "A" both privately and publically
so that even when she is alone, she has something to remember that she deviated from the
established societal ways of living. She has no option and is pushed to a scaffold with her child
in her arms in front of the masses who view her as a symbol of sin. When her sin is made public,
her identity is questioned in the eyes of the common masses, sharing a collective knowledge
about her. Society endorses the laws of the puritans, becoming a single shattering force for
Hester. According to SCT, in such extreme conditions, this can lead to "depersonalization"
when individuals are no longer willing to identify with their personality. Still, instead, they fall
into a constructed personality shroud by society (1997). This is quite observable in the Scarlet
Letter as Hester is now wearing the "A" according to the wishes of the puritans and the overall
society. She "depersonalizes" her own identity and turns it into the societal definition of identity
set for her. Still, at the same time, she retains some parts of her personality, like not giving the
name of Dimmesdale to the Puritans. Therefore we see both personal identity and social identity
at work in the character of Hester Prynne.
According to SCT (1997), the individuals place their own identity within the levels of
self within the "collective identity" of the society, which is seen in the character of Hester. Hester
conceals the truth about Dimmesdale giving herself and him different levels of personal identity.
As a result, he doesn't face public humiliation or alienation by the people. He also chooses to
stay silent until the end, indicating his fear of making his identity a social phenomenon. Even
when he declares his accurate self-image to the masses, people are not willing to put that into the
same shaming and humiliation as faced by Hester in many years of her life. It is because
established standards of embarrassment for males and females are different mainly because they
belong to the same clergy who formulated the eternal shame sentence for Hester Prynne.
According to Baymn, "Hester's concealment of his name helps to increase reader esteem
for her" (17). Still, even if she had revealed his name, it would not have made any difference,
Hester who was aware of the irrefutable societal laws and beliefs, knew that telling the name of
Dimmesdale can have worse consequences as she was going to be charged with defaming an
honorable member of the society. Her silence shows us being an outcast, she understands her
social identity set for her, and any action or statement by her will not make a difference. It
depends upon society to place her in a position suitable to their perceptions over time. Hester
keeps living the life sentenced to her, but people start to change their perceptions about her.
Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay,
more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which
she had borne so long and dreary a penance but of her many deeds since (147).
The scarlet letter appearing on the chest of Dimmesdale is his identity. It is not an
artificial "A" like Hester's but a real one which shows his actual sin of leaving a mother and a
daughter alone at the mercy of public hatred while himself taking refuge in the same institution
who announced the shame to Hester. Hester's constant silence about revealing his name creates
further ambiguousness between his personal and social identity because he committed the same
sin as Hester according to the puritan laws. Still, he is revered and respected by the masses. The
more privilege he gets from the people, the more his self-image is tarnished in his eyes. This
confusion of identities keeps tearing his conscience, particularly when Hester chooses to remain
silent. Hester's identity is into public knowledge, and she embraces it with courage, but
Dimmesdale cannot be himself in public. His reality is anonymous and deepens the guilt within
him, "He is a complete psychological contrast to Hester, except in one crucial aspect: both of
them must ultimately be true to the imperatives of their own identities. Hester rejects the
judgment of the letter, and Dimmesdale must take the letter on himself, no matter how much a
part of him struggles to resist that identity" (Baym 186). Dimmesdale avoids making his reality
public and his image being defined by the masses till the end. Still, he reveals it in the future, and
he too endorses the social identity of his character. Although it is not judged on the same grounds
as Hester's yet his inner guilt becomes so extreme that he cannot hide it during his final
moments. Dimmesdale, throughout his life, allowed public shaming of Hester and her daughter
as he was not strong enough to face the societal forces as accepting his true self would
acknowledge him to be the biological father of Pearl. In the end, as he agrees with this, we can
see the ambiguity in Pearl's identity subsiding, "by becoming a human being, Pearl effectively
disappears as an alter ego or a symbolic projection. Instead of two fragments of a single
personality, we have now one person" (Baym 190).
The conflict in identity is quite more profound in pearl because she grows up with no
father in a society that considers her mother adulterous. Pearl cannot relate her identity with the
premises of social identity, which leads to her confusion about her existence. Initially, she
identifies herself with the decorous letter when she thinks she has similarities with the beautiful
letter "A." Hester makes Pearl radiant like the letter, so she starts relating herself with the letter
because it is also like her, "although she is far more complex symbol than the letter, a human
being and not an inanimate object, Pearl's identity with it is made abundantly clear both by
Hawthorne and Hester Herself" (Baym 184). Pearl's excessive association with the letter that the
same "A" is her delight is agony for her mother. Pearl considers the letter as part of her identity
relating it somehow with her existence. This unique identity of Pearl is known by the society as
well; therefore, this creates an ambiguity between her personal and social identity. She starts to
understand her social identity when she links the meaning of the scarlet letter with Hester and
Dimmesdale. According to her, the reality of the letter is related to Dimmesdale's perpetual
placing of his hand over his heart. When Hester stands at the Scaffold, she places a little pearl in
front of her chest to hide the scarlet letter, but for society, Pearl and the letter "A" have the same
identity. Pearl and the letter are shown to be defining each other.
She turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter and even touched it with her finger to
assure herself that the infant and the shame were real (62).
Pearl wants Dimmesdale to announce his affections for her and their mother publically
and show people that he is related to them. She wanted to stand side by side with him and his
mother at the Scaffold in front of the public, but Dimmesdale is too reluctant and afraid to do
such an act, his silence and "leaves Pearl in a kind of limbo, unrelated, unattached and
unsymmetrical state" (Baym 180). Pearl wants to reclaim her lost social identity when she has a
known and respected father by society. When Dimmesdale finally accepts that in the end, Pearl
is at peace. The essence of Hester still will be defined with the letter "A" and not herself, no
matter how much the main reason for the letter is forgotten. The note will be given different
meanings over time, but Hester will always be identified with the letter "A" in society. We can
see that on a societal level, too, there is ambiguousness. According to them, people on their level
in "private life" start to forgive Hester for the sin she committed. Still, no one declares publically
that I have forgiven her, or she can be forgiven. People find it difficult to disassociate themselves
from the constructed social identity under the puritan laws. On an individual level, they may
have a different perception about the scarlet letter, but it remains the same letter on a societal
Roger Chillingworth, too is conflicted about his identity and his social identity under the
societal laws. According to the SCT (1997), multiple social identities or categorizations
correspond to situated group memberships similarly. In principle, there can be various personal
identities related to the range of situations, roles, or relationships in which individuals find
themselves Tajfel (82). We can observe this pattern of behavior in the characters of The Scarlet
Letter, where they can have different identities which they reveal or hide according to their social
circumstances. Roger Chillingworth wants to conceal himself as the husband of Hester as he
doesn't want to be associated with a sinner under societal standards.
"He chose to withdraw his name from the role of mankind and vanish out of life as
completely as If he indeed lay at the bottom of the ocean" (53)
Only Roger and Hester know they were married in the entire community, and Roger
doesn't want this word out. He adopts a good personality in society, while in his actual self, he is
identified with evil by the writer. He is shown to be a 'leech' in search of a victim; therefore, he
adopts the identity of a doctor. Initially, he wishes that the man who is equally sinful as Hester
should stand by her at the Scaffold but later, being so overwhelmed with his hatred that he
forfeits any concept of justice and decides to torture Dimmesdale upon knowing his reality. His
crime is deliberately inspired by bigotry, unlike Hester's, which happened inadvertently because
According to the principle of "functional antagonism" in SCT (1997), at any given level
of categorization to the extent that it becomes salient will inhibit other competing identities.
Roger Chillingworth's entire purpose revolves around revenge by finding out and torturing the
person who Hester wants to hide. He doesn't stop probing, and even after torturing Dimmesdale,
he is not satisfied. His trait of being revengeful overshadows all the other qualities of his
personality till the end, and in this way, all the other humanly qualities are subverted. During the
ambiguities of identities, a character is confused about what role to play in society. Still, over
time, nature allows one personality to overcome the other, ruling out the different identities. This
can be observed at the end of the novel when characters are no longer internally conflicted about
their self-image in society. The public display of affection by Dimmesdale made Pearl be at
peace with herself, and Hester chooses to wear the Scarlet letter and to reenter the society,
indicating her identity defined by the past is a subject in a community that collectively believed
in the Puritan values.
The Scarlet Letter: A Romance is a work of historical fiction by American author Nathaniel
Hawthorne, Set in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony during the years 1642 to 1649, the novel
tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and then struggles to
create a new life of repentance and dignity. Containing a number of religious and historic
allusions, the paper studied the psychological aspects of society on a person. This person will tell
the effects of a society on a person’s psychology and self-categorization. Readers will be able to
use this paper and psychological research used in the paper to relate it with their characters for
personal and social self-categorization.
All the characters in the novel underwent shifts in their identities because of the society
they were living, as it had particular values and boundaries for socially acceptable behaviors.
These forces were overwhelming for the characters as viewed under the framework of the selfcategorization theory of social psychology (1997). Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth
considered their identities regarding the group phenomena happening around them. This created
an ambiguity between their true selves and socially acceptable versions of their identity, which
led to the specific choices of the characters in those conditions. They categorized themselves
according to the collective society. Still, with the passage of time, the characters revealed their
true identities to achieve a form of unification between their selves.
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no. 2, 1970, pp. 209–230. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/363242.
Hart, John E. “‘The Scarlet Letter’—One Hundred Years After.” The New England Quarterly,
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