The Scarlet Letter: A Character Analysis of Hester Prynne
In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, we meet very interesting and detailed characters, including the main protagonist, Hester Prynne. Hester goes through quite a few changes throughout the novel, both emotional and physical.
From the start of the book, we don’t know much about Hester’s life, except that she was married to a man by the name of Roger Chillingworth, who had actually sent Hester alone for two years to Massachusetts while he finished business, and she has a three month old baby. The book starts off with Hester being known as a criminal. No one expects her to have such delicacy to her until she emerges from the prison. As Hawthorne says, “The young women was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale.” (Hawthorne 46), we can infer that Hester is a very beautiful women. She shines with such magnificence, that the sun light shines down on her. Although Hawthorne repeatedly uses the sun’s light as a symbol of goodness, Hester is seen by society as the opposite. She is made to wear the letter ‘A’ on her for committing the crime of Adultery. Though, by the end of the book, we notice how Hester has seem to have loss her elegance, and she feels as if she has too. Hawthorne notes, “As if there were a withering spell in the sad letter, her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine, and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her.” (Hawthorne 174), and we once again see how sunlight is brought into text. Instead of the Hester attracting in the sunlight, the light now hides from her. Hester notices, and so does her daughter, Pearl, who is seven at the time. Pearl even tells Hester: “’Mother,’ said little Pearl, ‘the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now see! There it is, playing, a good way off.’” In the beginning of the book, the sunshine pulls towards Hester, due to the fact she has no secrets. Everyone knows she is the adulteress. However, later on in the novel, she hides to her daughter what the A means, and also she hides who Pearl’s father is. Due to these unconfessed secrets, the sunshine now frays away from Hester.
The ‘A’ on Hester’s chest might symbolizing a sin, and would usually cause a great deal of humiliation. As Hawthorne confirms, “wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors.” (Hawthorne 46), Hester refuses to coward down to the embarrassment and let her peers mock her. Hester’s strong-willed personality doesn’t change much throughout the story. She stands up many other things other than the A itself. She speaks up and silences the Governor and Dimmesdale when they demand to take Pearl away from her.
The Scarlet Letter and the Punishment of Hester Prynne
“The Scarlett Letter” Thematic Essay
No matter how much someone may be punished for a severe crime, nothing will be able to compare with the regret, guilt, and self-reproach that they will endure, as these negative mindsets can drive one to insanity, or even worse, death. This concept is thoroughly expressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Scarlet Letter” where two sinners would face their fate by either direct punishment or their own culpability. One of the most significant themes that is developed in “The Scarlet Letter” is that the punishment imposed on us by others may not be as destructive as the guilt we experience. This theme is gradually portrayed through Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale facing the consequences of committing adultery, where Hester is able to overcome and adjust to her external punishment, but Dimmesdale struggles and faces immense trouble dealing with the internal guilt from keeping his sin a secret from others.
Reverend Dimmesdale sustains a lot of internal conflict and pain throughout the novel, being a religious leader in the community and having to set a solid example as a Puritan, but failing to maintain his purity after committing adultery and hiding it in fear of the consequences. This constant guilt led Dimmesdale to mental health problems which would translate to self-inflicted harm in an attempt to purify himself, however failing to feel better for what he had done. Hawthorne writes, “It was his custom…to fast…not in order to purify the body…but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him” (150). The guilt from Dimmesdale drives him to extreme acts like this, fasting until his “knees trembled beneath him,” showing the major effect that this was having on his lifestyle. The most important aspect of this is that this was caused by his own feelings from going from someone that no one would ever expect to commit even the smallest sin, to committing something like adultery, an extreme sin looked down upon by his fellow Puritans. Along with this, “In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, [Dimmesdale] had plied it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself” (Hawthorne, 150). Here Dimmesdale resorts to self-flagellation, the act of physically harming oneself, an extreme example of the substantial suffering that Dimmesdale would endure from this sin. This consistent harm that Dimmesdale endures is all caused from his own personal guilt, with no third-party explicit punishments inflicted on him except for his own, showing the magnitude of the effects caused from one’s own guilt.
Hester has very little trouble dealing with her punishments and soon adjusts to a meaningful lifestyle. Within the novel, Hester at first seems to be permanently outcast by society by being branded and forced to wear a scarlet letter “A,” but she would gradually become accustomed to her punishment and make it a part of who she is. Hawthorne states, “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…but of her many good deeds since” (169). Here the scarlet letter is expressed as a “token” representing her good deeds and showing the normalization of Hester back into society, doing the opposite of what the scarlet letter was intended for. Even Hawthorne states, “The scarlet letter had not done its office” (173). This further shows that the scarlet letter, something that was intended to punish Hester, was not fulfilling its duty, which conveys the idea that the punishment Hester faces was not as detrimental to her as expected.
As Dimmesdale continued to significantly suffer and deal with the guilt of his sin, his mental and physical health had rapidly deteriorated, leading him into obtaining a personal doctor, Roger Chillingworth. Chillingworth, the husband of Hester, was seeking revenge against Hester’s partner, and as Dimmesdale’s secret became clearer to him, he deliberately started a conversation regarding the nature of the problem that Dimmesdale was experiencing, where Dimmesdale explained that his “sickness” was in his soul, becoming uncomfortable with the questioning from Chillingworth. After starting to argue, Chillingworth asks Dimmesdale, “How may this be, unless you first lay open to him the wound or trouble in your soul?” (Hawthorne, 141). Dimmesdale then fiercely replies, “No—not to thee!—not an earthly physician…I commit myself to the one physician of the soul…who are thou…that dares thrust himself between the sufferer and his God?” (Hawthorne, 141). Dimmesdale could not hold in his passionate feelings about the topic, as his guilt was driving him to an altered state of mind that was provoked by the apprehensive questioning from Chillingworth, causing an unusual response from Dimmesdale as they were close friends up until now. The last thing that Dimmesdale wanted at this point was for someone to know about his secret, and this sustained guilt was the “sickness” that tormented Dimmesdale to a point of no return, again emphasizing the earnestness of the harm caused by guilt.
In conclusion, the punishment imposed on someone by others just simply cannot be compared to the magnitude of the destruction caused by the guilt someone may experience, as seen from Dimmesdale’s self-inflicted harm and suffering, Hester’s ease of normalization into society following her actual punishment, and Dimmesdale’s deteriorating mental and physical health. Hester and her scarlet letter become a symbol of her transformation as she becomes normalized in society, facing little adversity and trouble. When compared to Dimmesdale, nobody other than Chillingworth even suspects him of being Hester’s partner, yet he endures more pain and suffering than her because of nothing but his personal guilty feelings and cognition. This comparison of internal versus external struggles shows the massive impact internal feelings have as guilt, being an internal struggle, proved to have a major deleterious effect on Dimmesdale, while external struggles were easily dealt with by Hester, making it clear that inner pain is more destructive than external pain. No matter what the situation may be, one will always be able to see increased devastation caused from the guilt, regret, and remorse of committing wrongdoings, rather than the actual punishment itself.
Hester Prynne as Heroine
In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne Prynne redefines herself despite being shunned by the Puritan community. Although she has sinned, she does not dwell in the past. She grows stronger as a person from the cruelty of the townspeople and the shame they place on Hester. Though everything seems to go wrong for Hester, the story ends in her favor. Hester grows stronger than both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. She becomes the voice of those who have sinned, and shows her caring and resilient nature even under the spell of the letter.
Although Hester is shunned by her community, she upholds herself with strength and acceptance. In the beginning of the story, the reader first meets Hester as she exits the prison while the townspeople watch. Hester is holding her child, a symbol of her sin of adultery, and is marked with an embroidered letter “A” on her dress. The women of the town gossip about Hester, and remark that Hester’s beautiful embroidery skills of the letter that was meant to be her punishment have made it appear as if she is proud of her sins. However, Hester is only making the best out of her situation. Although the townspeople expect Hester to be ashamed and embarrassed, she turns the other cheek: “Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (37). Hester shows her strength by refusing to crumble under public humiliation and being branded as punishment for her sin. She accepts her wrongdoings with grace and stands her ground: “In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at the townspeople and her neighbors” (37). This event is an example of Hester’s strength shining through her dark circumstances, and it is the beginning of her journey towards accepting her sin and becoming a better person because of it.
While Hester is vulnerable early in the novel, she develops confidence and a new perspective as an outsider, and then shows her dominance of Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth. While Dimmesdale’s sanity is deteriorating, Hester is finding peace with her sin and the letter. “‘Hester,’ said he, ‘hast thou found peace?’ She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom. ‘Hast thou?’ She asked. ‘None!-nothing but despair!’ He answered” (131). During the conversation between Hester and Dimmesdale, Dimmesdale is depressed and distraught, while Hester is calm and comforting. This is ironic because it was Hester who was publicly punished for her sins, yet Dimmesdale is letting his secret sin ruin his life. The shame Hester is expected to experience is affecting Dimmesdale instead. Hester also becomes impatient with Chillingworth’s evil and decides to meet with him. She explains that he no longer intimidates her thanks to her new found strength, and that she has risen above him: “Strengthened by years of hard and solemn trial, she felt herself no longer so inadequate to cope with Roger Chillingworth… She had climbed her way, since then, to a higher point. The old man, on the other hand, had brought himself nearer to her level, or perhaps below it, by the revenge which he had stooped for.” (115). Hester’s newfound confidence allows her to find peace and prosper above Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.
Hester finding peace with herself and her scarlet letter is another example of her ability to overcome challenges and isolation. Overtime, she becomes more and more accepted by the townspeople as they recognize Hester as an important part of the community. Hester has been under the radar and has lived a pure life since the incident, which softens the attitude of the townspeople. Hester also offers guidance and comfort towards others who have sinned. “Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one” (111). She becomes known as a “Sister of Mercy,” and the symbol of her letter actually shifts to mean “Able”. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (148) Hester generously uses her new perspective that she gained from her punishment to help others, and in return is well received by the townspeople as a strong woman.
Though Hester Prynne suffers through cruel punishment and isolation due to her sin, she does so without letting it destroy her character. She perseveres through her circumstances and gains strength and perspective. She also turns her pain into the ability to sympathize with others. While the men hold the power in the beginning of the story, she triumphs over both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth by the end because she accepts her sin as a part of her life and attempts to make the best of it. Hester Prynne ignores the shameful symbolism of the scarlet letter and makes it a symbol of her own strength.
Hester’s Isolation and Alienation in The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale have committed adultery, an unacceptable sin during the Puritan times. As a result of their sin, a child is born, whom the mother names Pearl. Out of her own free will, Hester has to face major punishments. She has to serve many months in prison, stand on the scaffold for three hours under public scrutiny, and attach a scarlet letter, “A” on her chest every day as long as she remained in the town of Boston. The letter “A” was to identify Hester Prynne as an adulteress and as an immoral human being. “Thus the young and the pure would be taught to look at her, with the letter flaming on her chest”, also “as the figure, the body and the reality of sin”(73). Holding on to sin can lead to alienation and isolation.
One reason Hester was alienated was her refusal to identify another adulterer. When Hester is released from prison and stood upon the scaffold, she was asked to reveal the name of whom she committed the sin with. Having a heart blinded by love Hester choose to stay in the town and wear the scarlet letter “A” instead of revealing the other adulterer. She faced society only to protect and be close to the man she still loved. The “impulsive and passionate nature” (54), which to Hester seemed pure and natural had to be faced with humiliation alone, without the partner of sin. It seemed as though she was paying not only her own consequence but that of her lovers as well. Saying so herself while standing on the scaffold “I might face his agony as well as mine!” (64). Now taking on all blame she has given “up all her individuality. Now she would become the “general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion” (73). After the sin had been revealed Hester never again felt she was accepted by society. It seemed to her as though “every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished” (78) from the town. Hester was unable to walk through town without a child babbling a rude gesture or strangers eye upon her bosom.
After the crime of adultery was known to all, Hester’s appearance changed completely. Her clothing and the way she wore her hair changed from being beautiful and revealing to plain and common. It seemed Hester tried to blend in as much as possible and to go unnoticed. Her “ornament,- -the scarlet letter,–which was her doom to wear” (79) shown out quite obviously to everyone throughout the town. Assuming the encounters with the scarlet letter would have some kind of effect of immunity was quite the opposite of what truly happened. “From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callus; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive to daily torture”(79).
Hester and Pearl were placed outside of town in an abandoned cottage away from all habitation. Small children would sneak up to catch a glimpse of the scarlet letter. After they had eyed it from the window they would “scamper off with contagious fear” (75) as if the scarlet letter burned like fire. Hester’s great skill in needlework probably saved her from dying of loneliness because she hadn’t “a friend on earth who dared to show himself” (75). And though Hester was most likely the best seamstress in Boston, she was unable to embroider a wedding vale for any bride. The white vale symbolized purity and the hands of Hester were not pure. This was one specific area in which society alienated her.
Holding on to sin can lead to alienation and isolation. Hester’s sin was that she fell in love with another man and committed adultery with him. If Hester could have let the love for Dimmesdale free and named him as the other adulterer she would not have suffered so badly from the isolation and alienation that she did.
Hester Prynne’s Redemption as Depicted in the Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter Hester Prynne accepts that she has sinned and realizes that she must pay the price for her crime. In doing so she becomes overwhelmed with courage and conviction and assumes a redemption that is denied to most of her fellow townspeople. For a woman who possesses Hester’s strength of character, the route toward the wilderness of escape would also be a route toward the wilderness of admitting that those who judge her are her superiors. Hester Prynne’s strength of character as well as her willingness to accept her fate prove to be valuable qualities necessary to succeed in an environment of conformity.
Hester comprehends that she must compensate for her offense, but her deeds reveal a veiled disobedience. Although Hester herself is not allowed to dress in anything but drab clothing with the only spot of light being her bright red letter, she rebels by dressing her daughter Pearl in gaily colored clothes that express a “wild, desperate, defiant mood” (66). A similar example of Hester’s silent rebellion and steely independence is showcased in the form of her behavior when she leaves prison; her audacity compares favorably to the rather gloomy assemblage she walks past. Within Hester at this moment is a glow of self-awareness and dignity is far from what is expected of her by the other townsfolk as she moves with a determination that she will be the master of her fate.
Throughout The Scarlet Letter Hester continues publicly defying the strict moral culture that defines her society and its laws. While strolling through the street, it is the other people who react with contempt toward the red letter she wears, but Hester herself never makes an attempt to camouflage the manifestation of her sin even by covering it with her hand. Isolation from those who would inflict their perverse values and mores upon her may be Hester’s greatest companion. While loneliness is hardly a desired state of affairs for most people, it has its advantages. The way a person thinks about the world is not instinctual; there is nothing natural about it. Thoughts, opinions and philosophies are not formed in a vacuum, but are created as a result of what one learns and acquires through interpersonal interaction. Seclusion provides the distinct advantage of being free from the mindless clutter of so many nattering nabobs. Freed from the counsel of those who would drain her of intelligence, Hester starts to view the scarlet letter she wears as having a kind of supernatural power that endows her with far more empathy and sympathy for the sins committed by others than those people have toward her. “Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness. . . . The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,-stern and wild ones,-and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” It is the sense of relief that washes over her that she may still be in the Puritan society, but she is not of the Puritan society that frees Hester from the bondage of wearing the letter even while it is constantly draped around her. At the same time, she remains fully aware of her own sin and remains convinced that she is most guilty of all. This awareness, however, only serves to further encourage her determination to accept her fate and move on, not to let it eat away at her and destroy her.
Hester’s commitment to maintaining her individualism and independence from the Puritan thought police is truly admirable and her determination and resolve to keep her pride and dignity in the face of submitting to the rule of short-sighted and hypocritical leaders makes her a truly exceptional heroine. It is Hester’s consciousness of her sin and her ability to accept it with distinction that transforms her perspective on both herself and the others in her society. Hester concedes that committing adultery was a sin, but instead of giving herself over to the wickedness behind the power structure that has hypocritically made her sin worse than theirs, she undertakes the challenge of accepting her punishment and becoming both a stronger and better person. It would appear from her acquiescence to wearing the letter at all times that Hester has submitted to the rigid controls of her society just as much as Winston Smith seems to by the end of 1984. In fact, there is a certain acknowledgement that Hester accepts and lives by the strained conformist mindset that is the hallmark of the Puritan way of life. For example, Hester behaves with such prudence that she is freed from the rumors and gossip and scandal for the rest of her life. In addition, she contributes to helping the poor and anyone whose needs it without responding to their insults and the implied deprivations of her own moral character. Hester’s acceptance is a personification of the novel’s conception that “It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.”
The application of the scarlet letter upon Hester is a punishment, of course, but it is also meant to be a subtle instrument of coercion. The wearing of the symbol is intended not only to reaffirm in Hester’s mind her iniquities against God and the Puritan system, it is also designed because of its exterior appearance to coerce others into the realization that they too will suffer the same fate should they betray the system. Hester is defiant on the outside as her pride will not allow her to bend to the submissive will of the majority, but emotionally she gradually experiences the need to change and evolve. What is at stake in this evolution of Hester is what is commonly known as redemption. Hester becomes an affectionate and proficient nurse to people and as a result her red letter also transforms. To those sick people who need Hester’s counseling, scarlet letter takes on an almost heavenly glow that invokes Christian charity of the truest kind. At the beginning, Hester appeared merely as a dissenting voice against the shame of adultery. She was a one-crime violator and forced to wear the letter as punishment. But instead of making her acquiesce and submit to the rule of law and the ethical provisos that the punishment intended, Hester reacted rebelliously against her penalty. Unlike Winston Smith, who remained locked in the death throes of fear and trepidation, Hester challenges not the punishment itself, but the fundamental theoretical basis behind the punishment. Like many a good New Englander to come, Hester eschews the role of simple dissent and moves toward outright heresy. Only Hester’s heresy is to dare to act more like a Christian instead of less like one. The actions she commits to are ones that serve pure Christian charity; she is far more Christlike in her acceptance and admission of her guilt than the Puritan leaders who punish her one transgression. Hester is able to accomplish what seems impossible for the Puritan power structure: true redemption and salvation. While Hester outwardly assumes the role of the obedient Puritan, she is a stronger and even more willful person by the end of her story than she was at the beginning.
How Hester Prynne Exhibited Feminism in the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne may well be called one of the early “feminists” in order to fully understand the meaning of feminist, it is important to define feminist, and apply the definition to Hester’s actions, and how Nathaniel Hawthorne portrayed her; and how Hester’s relationship with Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth fortifies, or defies the feminist definition.
In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a novel entitled The Scarlet Letter. This controversial story recounts the life of Hester Prynne, a seventeenth-century woman in a Puritan settlement in what would become Massachusetts. The novel begins with Hester being punished for adultery. Consequently, her punishment was to stand on a scaffold in front of the whole town and wear a scarlet letter “A” for the rest of her life and had to live with public shame. Nevertheless, Hester refused to reveal the identity of the father. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne portrays Hester as an early feminist through her actions and interpersonal relationships.
To understand how Hester Prynne is an early feminist, we first must take a look at the definition of feminism. Feminism, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” and “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” While Hester has never blatantly said that she believes this, her actions reveal more than words ever could.
Hester Prynne reveals through her incredible strength that she is an early feminist. Hester is in love with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. However, she is a married woman. She was married years ago to a physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth. Although she is married to him, she does not truly love him, and hasn’t seen him for years and presumed him dead. She becomes pregnant with Dimmesdale’s child, but nobody knows that it is his. She sees Chillingworth while she is on the scaffold. He is dressed like an Indian and has a shoulder deformity. When on the scaffold in front of the town, Hester publicly refuses to name Dimmesdale as the father of the child. “‘I will not speak!’ answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognised. ‘And my child must seek a heavenly father; she shall never know an earthly one!’” (66) Hester also shows amazing strength when she raises Pearl as a single mother in a seventeenth-century Puritan village. Back then, single mothers and bastard children were seen as the scum of society and socially unacceptable. However, she still kept Pearl as her child and raised her well. When she is brought from the prison to the scaffold to be mocked and condemned by the entire community, she does not cry, break down, or attack back. She is stoic, even while she feels attacked and weak inside. The scarlet letter that she wore was mean to bring shame upon her and ruin her and the adverse is true. The letter that once was seen as an ignominious, humiliating mark, was seen as meaning “able” to the villagers. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathise—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (158) She was ostracized and seen as a symbol of sin, just like the scarlet letter. But, just as she gave the scarlet letter new meaning, she also gave herself a new meaning, not one of a weak, sinful woman, a slave to her desires, but a strong, able one who the whole society can agree is a model for what they should all be. Hester has shown many times through the whole of the novel her incredible strength and bravery that can only be seen as allied with the feminist movement.
Through her personal relationships, Hester Prynne truly displays the qualities of a protofeminist. In her relationship with Roger Chillingworth, she is not scared or intimidated by him. While he spends seven years trying to get revenge on Dimmesdale, killing his own soul in the process, she moves on and builds a new life. In her relationship with Dimmesdale, she is the brave one, protecting him, the one she loves, despite the community putting immense pressure on her to reveal his true identity. But Hester strong and unwavering in her beliefs. In her relationship with Pearl, Hester single-handedly raised and supported Pearl. Through her incredible skill with her needle, she kept the household afloat, financially, which, back in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, was seen as a man’s job. Yet Hester did this job just as good as any man could.
Undoubtedly, Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester portrays her as a protofeminist through her actions and personal relationships. Hester shows undeniable strength through the entirety of the novel and manifests it in her personal relationships. Throughout the novel, she broke down barriers for women and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that women can do anything a man can do. She shows the world that she is not weak, but able. She shows within her a woman’s strength that truly captures the meaning of the feminist movement. She was a model of bravery and equality for all. Her incredible bravery and strength can cause all to agree that she is one of the early feminists.
Literary Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Book, The Scarlet Letter
When a person or character makes a mistake or commits an affective act, their life can be altered both negatively and positively. This idea takes an important contribution in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This novel focuses solely on Hester Prynne: as the protagonist of the novel, she is outwardly “imprisoned” through alienation and isolation for committing the sin of adultery, which is against Puritan belief. As the novel progresses, she faces and deals with negative effects as well as positive effects due to this sin. These effects that take place help support many of the overall themes of the novel and the message of sin Hawthorne is trying to get across to the reader, one of these important themes relating to identity and society.
In the novel, Hester’s sin had various positive effects on her life. Her experience from this sin has made her an overall more mature person. When her punishment of the scarlet letter had first begun, she had felt ashamed and embarrassed as all of the townspeople stared at and shamed her for wearing the letter. Yet, as time went on, Hester’s proto-feminist thinking led her to realize that she needs to not accept the town’s judgement of her. Once her punishment is completed and she is authorized to take the letter off, she refuses, claiming that doing so would be meaningless. This event represents her showing the power she possesses over authority, which she did not have when her punishment first started. The meaning of the letter then changes from “adultery” to “able,” as in she was successfully able to overcome her sin. She learns to accept her imperfection as a part of herself rather than struggle through it, turning it into something “beautiful.” Hester also starts doing charity work by bringing food and clothes to the less fortunate and connecting with them spiritually, making it clear that she did not let her sin bring her down and destroy her as a person.
As well as positive effects, Hester’s sin had negative effects on her life. Once the scarlet letter was attached to her, she was immediately isolated and shunned from society. The townspeople symbolized the scarlet letter “A” as something shameful and something to look down upon. The public nature of Hester’s punishment allows the citizens to compare their choices to Hester’s, justifying their own bad behavior with the “could be worse” act. As a result of these judgements of the townspeople, Hester is made out to be a “living sermon,” having her humanity taken away. Although the scarlet letter affected Hester positively, some negative effects came along with her also.
These ideas of the positive and negative effects of the scarlet letter on Hester lead to Hawthorne’s message of identity and society. Identity is a very critical part to this novel. While, on the adverse side, the townspeople are avoiding her, Hester chooses to accept her sin as a part of who she is rather than struggling through it. After all, her “sin” was caused by a need and want for love. Throughout this novel, Hester demonstrates strength and defiance to the Puritan society with the letter “A.” She turns this letter into something beautiful and refuses to make it a symbol of shame, not letting one “sin” define who she is as a human being. Going alongside with identity, society takes an important role in Hawthorne’s message. The presence of Pearl, Hester’s baby daughter, shows the irrelevance of the citizens’ attempts of shame and punishment. As the citizens focus more on the scarlet letter rather than Pearl, this shows their failure to see the real consequence of Hester’s “sin.” These positive and negative effects on Hester’s life lead up to the theme of identity and society in the novel.
All through The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne advances through a roller coaster of conflicts and positives, such as becoming a more mature human and being isolated by her fellow Bostonians and townspeople. As Hester goes through these results of the scarlet letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne attempts to execute the theme of identity and society in the novel. The positive and negative effects on Hester Prynne help build the overall meaning and base of this novel.
The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne: What’s Special about It’s Romantic Heroine
Hester Prynne is considered to be both one of the first heroines and feminist icons in American Literature. This is despite Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, being labelled as a misogynist, threatened by the growing feminist movement. How Hawthorne portrays his female protagonist and her interactions with the overbearing society around her prove that Hester Prynne is in fact the female heroine of “The Scarlet Letter”.
A Romantic Heroine is defined as a person who chooses not to conform to the flaws of society, but rather rises above them. Common traits of Romantic Heroes are isolation and regret for his or her actions. A heroine is a woman of distinguished courage or ability, possessing good character judgement and morals. Both descriptions apply to Hester Prynne. Although Hester is beautiful, which is described as shining behind her as if to make a “halo of the misfortune”, her beauty barely compares to her strength of character. We first meet the incredibly strong Hester on the scaffold with Pearl in her arms, beginning her punishment. The first description of Pearl notes her “natural dignity and force of character”. Despite feeling as though “her heart had been flung into the street for them to spurn and trample”, her face did not reveal her thoughts and her demeaner is described as “haughty”. Even though she has just stepped out of prison, her actions are described to be of her own free will. Hester also endures her punishment and the judgement alone. She does not succumb to the pressure of revealing Dimmesdale as the father and when she is told to “speak out the name of thy fellow sinner”, she refuses. Her loyalty and love for Dimmesdale is admirable. Hester also shows emotional strength by remaining in Boston and facing the humiliation rather than running away. She stays even though she is “alone, apart, a living critic of society”.
Hester is a devoted mother, even though she knows her daughter will be at a disadvantage because of her absent father. She names her daughter Pearl because she was “of great price-purchased with all she had, her mother’s only treasure”. Hester names her Pearl to associate purity and innocence with her rather than sin. Hester fought the authorities who tried to take her child away and provided for herself and her Pearl. The simple fact that Hester is able to raise her child while her punishment is ongoing shows her determination. Rather than seeing Pearl as a representation of her sin or the Scarlet Letter in another form, Hester chooses to see Pearl as a gift from God—the only company and link to humanity that she will have now that she is ostracised.
Despite being publicly humiliated by the Puritans, Hester remains kind and humble. Because she is shunned by her community, she has no friends or obligations. Her time is split between being in solitude or helping those in need such as the governor whom she sat with as he died and her charitable work. She does good deeds despite the people she helps not showing her the same generosity in return. Through her pious actions, Hester turned the A into a symbol of her good will, taking away the shame it was intended to represent. Rather than meaning “Adulterer”, the Scarlet Letter represented “Angel” or “Able”. In addition, Hester does not dress lavishly even though she had the ability to make beautifully embroidered clothing and hides her beauty by wearing the typical Puritan clothing.
In Chapter Five, “Hester at Her Needle”, the reader discovers that she independently supports herself and Pearl. This would not have been an easy task at the time. Hester becomes a seamstress and creates beautiful garments even though Puritans are supposed to be against such luxuries. Hawthorne describes her talent by saying “she had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic—a taste for the gorgeously beautiful”. There is irony present in the elaborate needlework of the Scarlet Letter. It is described as “fantastic flourishes of gold thread” and the letter is decorative, going against the laws that demand sombre, unadorned attire.
Hester made a difference to the Puritan society. Hester was not only able to survive the strict rules set by the Puritans but she also broke them and was able to emerge as a powerful female character respected by the other women in the community. A feminist movement was underway when Hawthorne wrote “The Scarlet Letter” and the patriarchy was being challenged by women in America, which resulted in a shift in female societal roles. Hawthorne himself was threatened by the growing feminist movement that could possibly displace his position in the literary world. Feminist critics could argue that Hester is the embodiment of strong-willed feminist women and thus is an important and complex heroine in American literature.
It could be argued that Hester Prynne is a transcendentalist. This term describes an optimistic person who has faith in the future, loves and sees God in nature. They are also honest and individualistic; much like Hester and her beliefs. Although she was scorned from society, she never tried to hide her mistakes. On the other hand, Dimmesdale made it appear like he did nothing wrong. He covered up his mistakes to protect his status. Hester followed her heart, not deliberately breaking the Puritans rules. Hawthorne says “the Scarlet Letter is a passport into regions where other women dare not tread… and they made her strong.”
On the other hand, some critics believe that Hester is not the heroine of the story. Some believe that rather than a heroine, Hester is a martyr or a victim to the Puritan society as they manage to destroy all happiness from her life with their rules and regulations. However, Hester can also be seen as a temptress, much like Eve from the Garden of Eden, as she enticed Dimmesdale with her beauty and made him commit a sin. Hester repeatedly provides evidence that she does not feel guilt for her sins which makes some readers believe she is not a heroic character.
Overall, I believe Hester Prynne is in fact the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. This is because Hester possessed the characteristics and traits common in heroes in literature and she sacrifices herself in order to save the person she loves.
Hester, Dimmesdale, and Puritan Society: the Id, Ego, and Superego
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is led to have an affair by her repressed unconscious desires, what Freud calls the id. Similarly, Arthur Dimmesdale struggles with his internal guilt and refuses to confess his sin; he attempts to think rationally and therefore embodies the ego. Finally, Salem itself represents the superego, which confines one’s behavior to societal norms; the author expresses his contempt for this Puritan society directly. Hawthorne uses these story elements in an ironic fashion, portraying the society’s moral limitations as misguided and praising Hester for transcending these boundaries; using sarcastic diction, he therefore utilizes Freud’s id, ego, and superego in a critical manner. Specifically, an analysis of each character’s actions—Hester’s climb back into society, and Dimmesdale’s cowardly self-loathing—reveals a markedly different personality in both, tying back to Hawthorne’s belief of the society’s hypocrisy.
Hester’s affair, spurred by her subconscious desire to celebrate her mark of shame rather than let it cast a shadow on her reputation, leads her to be banished to the fringes of society; the heroic language used to describe her later reintegration suggests that Hawthorne admires Hester’s drive and passion and therefore the psychological element she represents, the id. When Hester and Roger meet face-to-face for the first time after his return, she confesses to him what he already knew: “I felt no love, nor feigned any” (Hawthorne 53). The author immediately provides us with a justification for Hester’s sin, and with the phrase ‘nor feigned any’ he also begins to establish Hester’s honesty and credibility. Despite immediately being introduced to the societal repercussions of Hester’s sin—the opening scene describes her emerging from her jail cell—Hawthorne quickly asserts his sympathy for her condition, thus establishing a precedent for further characterization. Additionally, the Letter she wears acts as the primary motivation for her actions, due to her subconscious desire to rebel against the societal restraints imposed upon her. Hawthorne calls the Letter “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” suggesting that it allows her to decide her own moral state rather than have society dictate it; he describes her “mind of native courage and activity” and glorifies her state once again (130). Given that living away from society has allowed Hester to explore these new ‘regions,’ one can immediately conclude that Salem has restrained her moral exploration for the worse.
Hester’s creativity and her desire to change the meaning of the Letter manifest themselves through her sewing. Hawthorne states that “[s]he had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic,—a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite productions of her needle, found nothing else, in all the possibilities of her life, to exercise itself upon” (58). Here Hawthorne offers a stark contrast to Hester’s confident exterior in the early part of the novel; having been ousted from society, she now faces limited options for daily life. In this case, specific adjectives like ‘rich’ and ‘voluptuous’ offer positive connotations, and these project a supportive tone for Hester despite her dismal state. Soon enough, Hester is actually able to regenerate her reputation to the point that her work became the so-called ‘fashion,’ and the Letter is believed to stand for ‘Able’: “many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification” (106). Hawthorne thereby expresses his appreciation for one’s repressed thoughts simply because he considers these the most honest, given that they represent one’s true lust for the forbidden.
Dimmesdale’s internal guilt eats at him as he avoids confessing his crime; through his consistent attempts at self-redemption and rational thought, Hawthorne portrays Dimmesdale as the ego, but ironically so given that the character is consistently attributed features of a hypocrite. First, in multiple instances, the Reverend experiences a feeling of being watched by an ‘eye’: Hawthorne states that “[n]o eye could see him, save that ever-wakeful one which had seen him in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge” (Hawthorne, 97). In this case one can see the extent of Dimmesdale’s guilt—while Hester has taken all the blame publicly for the adultery, he has been keeping the secret without any way to express it. Thus, his guilt manifests itself as a physical form, as an ‘eye,’ which follows him around. Such an eye doesn’t physically exist and is rather a projection of Dimmesdale’s own imagination that represents Roger Chillingworth’s constant scrutiny of the Reverend (97). Although Dimmesdale attempts to avoid confronting his sin publicly given that doing so would undermine his position as a minister, Hawthorne uses Chillingworth’s evil vigilance to portray the disadvantages of such rational thought. He therefore undermines the role of the ego, the part of the psyche that lacks any ‘evil’ or ‘repressible’ thoughts. Next, when in distress Dimmesdale has a tendency to speak, “pale, and holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament was thrown into agitation” (77). Knowing that Chillingworth, the eye watching Dimmesdale, previously looked on the Reverend’s chest and found what can be presumed to be a red mark, a “Scarlet Letter,” it can thereby be concluded that when he is nervous, Dimmesdale subconsciously attempts to cover the mark of his sin. Hawthorne through specific phrases like ‘peculiarly nervous temperament’ uses a sarcastic tone; this further criticizes the role of the ego in direct contrast to the praise he bestows upon the id. As such, Hawthorne portrays Dimmesdale as a coward who attempts to restrain his internal struggle with rational thought—however, this ultimately affects the character negatively given that he eventually dies of his guilt.
Thus, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale represent the id and the ego parts of the psyche, respectively. Hawthorne portrays the repressed thoughts that one might possess as honest and beneficial, through her self-integration back into society and the respect which she garners despite her sin. In contrast, Dimmesdale’s internal guilt from lack of confession gnaws at his soul and moral conscious. By extension, Hawthorne therefore criticizes the superego, represented by the Puritan society in which the characters live. This part of the psyche restrains one’s behaviors within specific moral standards, set by one’s surroundings. Given that Hester Prynne manages to overcome the poor reputation that Salem imposed upon her, specifically through her sewing, it is evident that Hawthorne believes the moral beliefs of the society are misguided and hypocritical. This is furthered by Dimmesdale’s acceptance by the community and the efforts of church members to disregard his adultery. The portrayal of Dimmesdale as a “corrupt minister” who frequently lies, although these actions are occasionally justified by his naïve personality, therefore perpetuates Hawthorne’s firm belief that the society’s morality is simply incorrect. As such, a thorough psychoanalysis of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter reveals Hawthorne’s true belief in the hypocrisy of Puritan society, and therefore also goes to show the way he views the parts of the psyche and his admiration for the id in particular.
The Dichotomy Role of Hester Prynne as the Sinner and the Saint
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us,” stated Oliver Wendell Holmes. This eventually proves to be especially true for Hester Prynne, the main character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne, a fair young maiden whose husband had disappeared two years prior to the opening of the novel, has an affair with the pastor of her Puritan church, resulting in the birth of her uncontrollable child Pearl. Because of this act of adultery, Hester Prynne is branded by the scarlet letter “A,” which she is forced to forever wear upon her attire. The plot thickens as Hester’s former husband returns to New England and becomes fixated upon the idea of revenge towards Hester’s anonymous partner in sin. At the same time, the feeble pastor slowly begins to waste away towards the gloomy gates of death. However, as those around her grow ever weaker or morally decayed, Hester grows ever stronger. Hester grows so strong and morally righteous that it appears that she is actually favored by Hawthorne despite her ³sin.² The qualities which cause Hester to be favored are her traits of helpfulness towards others, her intense maternal love towards Pearl, and her defiance and pride demonstrated towards those who attempt to impose their values upon her.
Even as those she assisted were cruel towards her, Hester remained generous and helpful towards others. For example, after becoming recognized as a talented seamstress and gradually beginning to earn fairly large sums of money, ³Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them.² This proves that although Hester was rejected by society, she continued to care for this same community. She had such a kind nature and willingness to assist others that the fact that those whom she fed often returned the generosity with nothing but insults did not cause her to cease in her endeavors. Then, towards the end of the novel, after returning from Europe to the New England town in which she had sinned and repented numerous years before, Hester began to counsel other unfaithful women. For example, ³Hester comforted and counseled them as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” This also demonstrates Hester’s generosity and helpfulness. Although the New England town harbored such unpleasant memories for her, she was willing to return in order to assist others in need. She was willing to relive her own pain and absorb the pain of others in order to benefit future generations, and she was willing to give back to a society which had given nothing to her.
Hester harbored an intense love for her child Pearl although the child’s mischievous and imp-like qualities brought nothing but pain to the child’s mother. This is demonstrated as Hester, after having her talents as a seamstress publicized, began to change the attire of her family. For example, ³Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most somber hue; with only that one ornament,–the scarlet letter,–which it was her doom to wear. The child’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fanciful, or, we may rather say, a fantastic ingenuity, which served, indeed, to heighten the airy charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl.² This demonstrates that although Hester herself would dress only plainly in order to redeem her lost purity, she wished to make her child stand out. She had such an intense love for the child that she wanted only the absolute best for Pearl. Also, Hester was simply astounded and horrified at the idea of Pearl being taken away from her when this question was brought to the governor. This is demonstrated in the line, “‘Speak thou for me!’ cried she. ‘Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest, – for thou hast sympathies which these men lack! – thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are, when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!’” Hester’s speech demonstrated that her only true reason for life was the child, and that if that one richness of her life was devoured by Puritan thought and society, she would have lost all. Her child was her heart, love, and life. It was all that she had left to lose, and she would do anything to protect her Pearl.
Though Hester was accused of what Puritans considered to be an extraordinarily serious crime, she remained proud and defiant. While on the scaffold, Hester ³with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors.² Although the burning stares of the townspeople were upon her, Hester remained strong and managed a grin in order to anger the public and maintain her dignity. Also whilst upon the scaffold, Hester revealed upon her gown ³in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of thread,…the letter ?A.’ ” Although Hester was meant to be chastised by the letter ³A,² rather than submissively creating a dark and bitter badge of shame, she devised a lavish embroidery more suited for an affluent queen than an outcaste of society. This lawful and silent act of rebellion proved her defiance and pride, because rather than hiding from the cruel crowd, Hester proudly displayed herself before it.
Hence, due to her generous and compassionate nature, her extreme love for her daughter Pearl, and her defiance towards the narrow-minded townspeople of her community, Hester came across as a character loved and admired by the author. In the quote mentioned in the introduction to this essay, Oliver Wendall Holmes stated that what previously had occurred and what are yet to occur are not important when compared with a person’s true nature. For Hester Prynne, though she had sinned in her past, she came across as strong and admirable because she was a benevolent person on the inside. She sought purity and truth to compensate for her unalterable past. Therefore, her wrongdoings were eventually overlooked in enlightenment of her better qualities. A coward can hind in the shadows of reputations and prejudgments, but only a hero can overcome these and manage to step into the daylight.