There are numerous characters in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, that play noteworthy roles. The character that stands out the most is Hester Prynne. Hester changes significantly during the course of the novel. In the beginning of the novel she is conceived as an extreme sinner through the eyes of the Puritans; she has gone against Puritan ways, committing adultery (Chuck). For this irrevocably harsh sin, she must wear a symbol of shame for the rest of her life. However, the Romantic philosophies of Hawthorne put down the Puritanical beliefs (Chuck). She is a beautiful, young woman who has sinned, but is forgiven. Hawthorne portrays Hester as a "divine maternity" and she can do no wrong. Not only Hester, but also the physical scarlet letter, a Puritanical sign of disownment, is shown through the author's style and rhetoric as a beautiful, gold and colorful piece (Chuck). Hawthorne uses Hester Prynne in the novel to convey many different meanings. Hawthorne is more interested in uncovering the flaws of puritan society and the hypocrisy of their reactions to Hester’s sin, than to analyze adultery. Hawthorne uses Hester to scrutinize the Puritan way indirectly, and show the role women should play in society.
The Puritan culture is one that recognizes Protestantism, a sect of Christianity. Though a staple of Christianity is forgiveness for one’s sins, this has long been forgotten amongst the women of Boston: “Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fiber in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants” (Marcus). When Hester is first brought out of her prison cell, it is the gossiping goodwives who keep recommending much harsher punishments, from a brand on her forehead to death. Hester, who had done nothing wrong prior to this sin of adultery, is no longer seen as a human being, but merely as a symbol of evil and shame upon the town. Hester is forced to stand on the scaffold with everyone in town ridiculing her until she confesses who her partner was in the sin, but instead she stands there for three hours, when she was allowed to come down. Her subjection for the Puritan onlookers was excoriating to bear, and Hester holds the child to her heart, a symbolic comparison between the child and the scarlet letter, implying that they are truly both intertwined (Chuck). The Puritans, one of the most devoted groups of bible scholars, forget one of Jesus’ most famous of quotes, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Marcus). The women forget to look inside themselves before they cast their opinions upon Hester. It is not these people’s right to determine Hester’s punishment, not the women’s nor the magistrates’; such a right is reserved only for God (Marcus).
After Hester’s public scaffold punishment is over, Hawthorne changes the roles of the towns’ people and Hester, making Hester the only one who is not sinning and makes all the towns people vain and self-righteous. She is obviously repentant, as she chooses to remain in Boston, even when she is free to go elsewhere and start her life anew. “Here had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like because the result of martyrdom” (Marcus). She becomes a very modest and humble woman, not taking any worldly pleasures for herself but instead giving them all to her one and only precious gift, her daughter, Pearl.
Hester takes up the occupation of seamstress, a job that, as shown by the golden embroidery around the scarlet letter, suits her well. Hawthorne again shows the flaws in the Puritan ways, by the way they committed the sin of vanity, without a second thought. They would buy every piece of clothing from Hester, except wedding veils because it was said to have brought misfortune upon marriage. Hester also becomes more humble as she makes clothes for the poor, and doesn’t use any of the money from her clothing to buy luxurious possessions for herself. Hawthorne at this point makes Hester look like the only holy and righteous person in town, even minister Dimmesdale becomes somewhat suspect, as he lets Hester take all the punishment for their sin. Also the goodwives from the town become Hester’s enemy and gossip about her, but Hester takes the high road and doesn’t say anything back but instead prays for them when she goes to church.
The real strength of Hester Prynne comes out when Governor Bellingham tries to take Pearl away from her. The whole town, with exception to Reverend Dimmesdale who argues that the bond between a child and mother should not be broken, urges the Governor to take Pearl away, claiming that Hester is an unfit mother. Hester is truly a woman ahead of her time; she fights back against the townspeople and stands up for herself in a time that women rarely spoke out in public. Hawthorne also makes Hester a fearless woman. She takes the full punishment for a sin that she is only half responsible for. Hester is much stronger than her partner in adultery, Dimmesdale, who bottles up his guilt inside, and eventually dies due to the suffering he endures, at keeping the event a secret (Screw Essays).
Another hardship that Hester overcame during the course of the novel was her relationship with Roger Prynne/Chillingworth. She was forced into a marriage with a man that she could not truly love, because she was too young. Chillingworth confesses to Hester in the jail cell that he had wronged her, by tricking her into marriage. Even though Hester was still married to Chillingworth at the time, she did not even know if he was alive when she committed adultery. She did sin and should have been punished for it, but the length to which she suffered was exceedingly unmerited. Furthermore, Hester endures the punishment without a word against it.
In some ways Hester is made to be the “perfect” woman, because she follows her heart when she had an unholy relationship with Reverend Dimmesdale but when she is punished for it she does not fight back but makes the best out of the dire situation. At the beginning of the novel Hester struggles with her recognition of the letter’s symbolism just as people struggles with their moral choices (Van Kirk 92). Her sensitivity with society’s victims turns her symbolic meaning from a person whose life was originally twisted and repressed to a strong and sensitive woman with respect for the humanity of others (Van Kirk 92). Years later, the negative treatment of Hester no longer takes place. She is well respected by the townspeople for her philanthropic and virtuous ways: “Her breast, with the badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for a head that needed one” (Marcus). “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 women’s strength” (Novel Guide). Since her character is strongly tied to the scarlet letter, Hester represents the public sinner who changes and learns from her own sorrow to understand the humanity of others. Often human beings who suffer great loss and life-changing experiences become survivors with an increased understanding and sympathy for the human losses of others. Hester is such a symbol (Van Kirk 92).
The Scarlet Letter was a masterfully written piece by Hawthorne. He displays the errors in Puritan ways, and demonstrates the role that women should play in society. Hester was truly a woman ahead of her time as Hawthorne was a writer ahead of his time. Hawthorne used Hester beautifully to get across all the points that he wanted to with his novel. Also the growth that Hester makes during the course of the novel should not only be admired by her Puritan counterparts, but also by women of today.
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Marcus, Jason. "The Scarlet Letter: The Use of Hester". Planet Papers. Dec. 2000.
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