Disputing Feminist Themes in The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is set in 1600’s Puritan Boston. It tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who suffers public ignominy, forced to wear a red scarlet letter for her sin of adultery. The Scarlet Letter provides a look at the stringent laws and ideology of a heavily patriarchal Puritan society. The Scarlet Letter has the connotation of being a protofeminist novel, but, while it does address the danger of a purely patriarchal society it does not meet the feminist standards of the twenty-first century because of Hawthorne’s prejudice against intellectual women.
In the novel Hawthorne hints that the idea of women as intellectual equals could not survive in practice while taking responsibility away from men. In chapter thirteen Hester comes to “discern it may be, such a hopeless task before her” to make equality for women in her society (114). Hester sees no practical way to change the ideology surrounding gender roles. She believes men’s entire belief system would have to be torn down before there could be equality, and even then women would have to change themselves to be able to take up a “fair and suitable position” in society (114). Later in the passage, Hawthorne takes responsibility away from the men by citing their genetic inclination to dominate society. This suggests that it is not men’s fault that they repress women because it is something natural and hard wired into their genetics. By this logic it also seems that women have a similar “long hereditary habit” of being meek and submissive (114). This passage begs the question why the natural nature of humans should be tampered with. Another place Hawthorne discredits women as intellectuals, occurs at the conclusion of the novel when he observes that Hester is incapable of being the “prophetess” of a new age of women’s equality because the burden of her sin was insurmountable (180). Hester believes “The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy” (180).The idea that Hester is not “pure” enough to be the apostle implies that her sin of adultery is as wicked as she is made to believe which contradicts the idea that Hester is merely caught in the ideological framework of Puritan Boston and not actually sinful outside of its strict standards. This portrait negates the radical ideas Hester has about gender equality and her doctrine of free love.
Hawthorne views the intellect as a masculine attribute and believes women must give up their femininity to have the intellect of a man. As the novel unfolds, and Hester has more time to think about gender roles in society and contemplate her own philosophy of love, she begins to lose her feminine beauty. Hawthorne accredits this loss to that idea that “some attribute had departed from her, the permanence of which had been essential to keep her a woman” (112). The author argues that women have no inherent intellect and to gain any they have to lose something of their selves and become androgynous figures because their status as women is incompatible with intellect. Hester regains her beauty when she throws off her scarlet letter, suggesting that Hester’s sin and the guilt she bears because of it, symbolized by the scarlet letter, and her new intellectualism are bound together. She cannot retain one while discarding the other. This moment also implies that the only way she can become a true intellectual is through her severe public and private pain, which make her intellectualism seem like an unfortunate accident or an unhealthy coping mechanism rather than something that could happen in everyday life with normal women. In the same passage Hawthorne establishes the depths to which Hester’s radical thinking has brought her when she contemplates whether “it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself.” (114) The darkness of even entertaining the thought of murdering her child and committing suicide seems to imply that women are too emotional and fragile to be weighed down with all the thoughts of an intellect. Hawthorne suggests that women are incapable of fully mastering their intellectual thoughts, and their thoughts become the master of them and lead them astray. Intellectual thought, to a woman becomes a sort of curse.
Hawthorne tempers his negative view of women intellectuals by portraying the male intellects, Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmsdale, as hubristic. The two intellectual men of the novel, Chillingworth and Dimmsdale, are both plagued with incredible hubris and a degree of narcissism. Chillingworth feels he is within his rights to privately torcher Dimsdale for the crime he committed when he slept with Hester. Similarly, Dimsdale refuses to reveal his identity because he believes “thenceforward, no good can be achieved by [me]” (91) He rationalizes leaving Hester to her private misery by believing the people of his clergy need him too much. This portrayal of intellect as a corrupting attribute alleviates the wound of Hawthorne believing women not being capable of intellect. Hawthorne also suggests that intellect is incompatible with womanhood. While this could be perceived as arguing that women aren’t strong enough to have intellectual thoughts, it could also be arguing that the humble nature of women is unsuited to the feeling of superiority that intellect creates in men. This change in perspective portrays women more favorably because it suggests that they are above the arrogance of intellect, instead they appear to have an innate wisdom or womanly intuition that guides their morals. Because Hawthorne views intellect as a negative attribute, it takes some of the sting out of his refusal to accept women as intellectuals. Therefore, while The Scarlet Letter is not feminist, it is not sexist either.
Despite its reputation as a proto-feminist book, Hawthorne’s prejudice against women of intellect is too great to allow any possible feminist themes to reach their potential. Hawthorne did not believe women could actually become intellectuals on par with men and viewed intellect as a masculine attribute that only certain women could attain and only by losing some part of their femininity. While this novel addresses the corruption found in a strictly patriarchal society, it fails to provide a viable alternative and disregards women as capable intellectuals to the point of condescension. Despite its widespread recognition as one of the greatest American novels, The Scarlet Letter will only ever be relevant to women’s rights as a counterargument.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Dover Publications,1994. Print.
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