An Analysis of Adultery in the Scarlet Letter by Hester Prynne
It is debated amongst readers of Nathaniel Hawthornes Scarlet Letter whether Hester Prynne, an adulterer in Puritan society, should be considered to be a true American heroine. This debate originates from the argument that although Hester exhibits many noble qualities such as her generosity within her community, she committed a sin that would effectively change her character, and the way the townspeople would see her. In order to truly determine if Hester Prynne is a true heroine, the meaning of what a heroine must be defined.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a heroine as a woman admired or idealized for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. Throughout her lifetime depicted in the novel, Hester displays all of these qualities and thusly, proves herself to be a heroine. Hester Prynnes continuous ability to exhibit courage, and still maintain her high standards for her craftsmanship and generosity despite being unfairly subjected to the harsh criticism of the Puritan society effectively presents her as a heroine while displaying Hawthornes overarching message that a true American heroine may not be perfect, but nevertheless retains their core personality traits when faced with adversity.
Knowing the criteria of what classifies someone as a heroine, Hesters actions throughout her lifetime can be examined beginning with her courage which she displays at her trial in the marketplace. From the first instance that Hester is introduced in the novel, she is being released from the prison in order to stand trial for her crime while a group of women stand aside to watch her with disdain. While this is happening, Hester refuses to take the guards hand and repelled him, with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free-will(Hawthorne 50). In this moment, Hester displays her courage by not allowing the guard to escort her to her trial, and her individualism by choosing to arrive by her own free will rather than allowing society to determine her actions. Although Hester may have initially been worried about what the townspeople would think of her as she exited the prison, Hester quickly regains her bravery and independence by proudly exposing her beautifully crafted scarlet letter A fastened on her chest, not allowing societys judgement to make her feel ashamed. Hester also displays an immense amount of courage at her trial when she chooses not to give out the name of her fellow adulterer and instead, accepts her punishment on her own.
Another display of Hesters courage and independence is seen at her trial when she refuses to give up the name of her childs father when the towns leaders, Reverend Wilson and Reverend Dimmesdale, demand that she announce her fellow sinner. Hester chooses to not reveal the father despite being promised that if she speak out the name of her fellow sinner, the council may avail to take the scarlet letter of [her] breast(Hawthorne 64). Here is another display of Hesters courage because rather than exposing Dimmesdale as Pearls father and destroying her career and reputation, Hester instead remains silent and consequently suffers a harsher punishment. Hesters defiance which was perceived as another glimpse of her unholy soul, actually represents her selflessness and courage. By refusing to confess who Pearls father is, she accepts a harsher punishment for herself rather than being split amongst herself and Dimmesdale while simultaneously demonstrating her refusal to let society and its leaders to dictate what she says or does. Ultimately, Hester not only proves that she is courageous by taking full responsibility for her crime with pride while not allowing herself to seek shelter from the townspeoples judgement whether it be by getting escorted by the guard to her trial or by refusing to expose Dimmesdale as another sinner, but also maintains her individuality, not allowing society or its leaders to determine who Hester is what she does.
Hester additionally meets the criteria that define a Heroine which include having outstanding achievements and noble qualities through her impressive sewing abilities and charitable acts that she regularly does. After being outcasted from Puritan society, Hester becomes a seamstress in order to provide for Pearl and herself because of her special gift of sewing which is exhibited through her scarlet letter. Although the people of the town did not approve of Hester and still looked at her with dismay, they could not resist the elegantly crafted works from Hester, with being seen anywhere from on the ruff of the Governor, to in the coffins of the dead(Hawthorne 74). Hesters work has become a symbol of power in the town and can be seen anywhere because though the people may not like Hester, her work was so incredible that they still felt the need to purchase items from her giving Hester a stable way to earn an income. Because of how unique and well produced her items were, Hesters works became the new standard of fashion in the town.
In addition to Hester creating beautiful garments for the rich and powerful in Puritan society, in her free time, would remain sewing in order to donate clothing to those in poverty. Although Hesters donations were not appreciated by the recipients seen by their insults towards Hester, she still continue to put all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself(Hawthorne 74). Even though Hesters initial intentions may have been to find companionship or sympathy amongst those less fortunate than herself, she continued to provide clothing to the poor despite herself being in a state of misery. This shows Hesters true personality as she in no way benefits from her charity work and even is insulted by those she donates to but still persists in providing them with her hand crafted garments. Much like when Hester chose not to reveal Dimmesdale her companion in adultery, Hester proves her selflessness by demonstrating how she puts the needs of others above her own. Hesters ability to create such exquisite creations with her needle that even those who scold her behavior desire her works such as the governor, and her contributions to charity even though she gets mocked for it, clearly prove her as qualifying for having the outstanding achievements and noble qualities parts of a heroine.
Ultimately, Hester Prynne according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary fits the description of a heroine. This is because she displays her courage by proudly facing her judgement by herself from the Puritans, has outstanding achievements in the form of her highly sought after garments, and demonstrates her noble qualities through her charity work. Not only did Hester show her heroine qualities, but she also did it while receiving absolutely no recognition for her good deeds, and being constantly insulted by the rest of the Puritans in her town. Hesters ability to maintain these traits while facing adversity from nearly everyone around her adds to her already impressive character and morals. Hesters story additionally serves to display Hawthornes message that not all heroines are saints, but instead are people like Hester that are able to admit to their faults and grow from them. By not allowing societys opinion of Hester change her key morals along with her courage, achievements, and noble qualities, Hawthorne displays that what separates a heroine from a true American heroine is that an American heroine faces much adversity throughout their lifetime but is able to overcome it because of their strong and independent nature.
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