The following research is on the subject of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This novel was published over 150 years ago in a very different age. Men and women both had different things expected of them then, and this was also true of the period covered by the novel, a period with even greater strictures on behavior and attitude. Still, there are certain aspects of the character of Hester Prynne that can be seen as presaging the concerns of the feminist in the 20th Century. Hester is not really a rebel in any direct sense, but she does challenge the beliefs and values of the community by her very presence in it and by her strength in the face of adversity. Her fight is the same one that was fought by so many others in the two centuries to come. She was in no way leading others to follow what she had done, nor was she battling for rights for women in general. Rather, she was surviving and fighting for her child.
Hester Prynne is the openly repentant sinner in the work, though Dimmesdale and Chillingworth share in the consequences of the sin (Male 91). From the standpoint of structure, the first third of the novel traces Hester’s limited ascension. She ascends the platform and stands out in sharp contrast to the hard, manlike women who surround her and who disapprove of her. She is both a sinner and a saint and very feminine in both roles, and she reaches the peak of her moral development in this first part of the book. She openly recognizes her own guilt. The middle third of the book is concerned with the burden of guilt and where it should reside, and the final third deals with Dimmesdale’s ascension (97-98).
The fact that Hester stands as the key figure in this book does not simply indicate that because of this she is being held forth as the ideal woman, and for that matter present-day considerations of Hester as a feminist should not take the analogy too far. For one thing, she is clearly set in the mold of the wife in society during her era, in spite of the fact that her rights as a human being, a human being deserted by her husband, are also being examined. Her character is designed by Hawthorne to express what he would see as the eternal philosophy of womanhood: “consistent with her maternal instincts, a woman’s destiny is linked firmly with her desire to attain happiness for herself, her children, and her mate” (Stein 121).
Hawthorne says that Hester contrasts with the image of the Divine Maternity, which is the sacred image of sinless motherhood. In her case, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life. She makes a sort of penance by refusing the beautiful things of the world to make coarse garments for the poor. She also loses her faith in any good in humanity, and this is considered to be one of the saddest results of sin (Elder 125).
The Puritans of this tale are part of a society which was wracked with tensions as it found itself between permanence and flux. These Puritans were involved in a cultural transition from the old world to the new and from an Anglican past to an American Puritan present. This community pays homage to the past while turning toward the future, but to some extent it clings too heavily to the past. Hawthorne feels that a community which does this casts a pall on both present and future. The cultural encounter between present and past finds a parallel in the problems faced by Hester and Dimmesdale. They have broken the law of this community. In effect, however, the sin takes place even before the adultery committed by these two persons. In the narrative, it is noted that Hester sinned first in marrying Roger Chillingworth, and this first wrong was in betraying her youth to this aged scholar. Chillingworth represents the past, and Hester has embraced that past. The fact that she is punished by out-moded laws and a moribund community follows logically from this fact (Fossum 108-110).
Hester is separated in the novel from the normal life of the community by the letter on her chest, a tangible proof of past sin. Hester comes to live in a cabin on the outskirts of town, cut off from both the life of the community and any other life that might be possible in a different part of the country. Hester suffers for her sin, but that sin also provides the means for her transcendence of that punishment. The symbol of her sin separates her from the community, but it also provides her with a sympathetic understanding of the sin in other hearts and to “acknowledge her sisterhood with the race of man” (Fossum 112).
Thinking of Hester as a feminist requires that we consider her in relation to the social sphere of the community (Male 107), and that is indicated strongly in the novel which also emphasizes the community. The story is built around the scaffold, which stands as the center of the novel and which is used in the three key scenes of the book–when Hester stands before the community alone, when she and Dimmesdale stand there at night, and when they stand in the light of day. The scaffold stands in the marketplace, the center of the town, the important point for commerce and social intercourse (Schubert 138-139). Hester is separated from this sense of community except at the site of punishment–the scaffold. In a sense, her ability to transcend her punishment indicates that she stands in for the entire community somewhat as a scapegoat for all their sins.
The sin of adultery in this novel brings about the punishment of the wearing of the scarlet letter, but Hawthorne indicates that he does not accept the need for this punishment nor the absolute morality of the community which makes it necessary. Hester’s almost constant confession, performed in public, gives her a kind of strength and purity not otherwise found in the God-fearing people of the community (Spiller 73). Hester shows great strength of character, and in setting her as an example of a sinner with greater strength than the non-sinners in the community, Hawthorne is really drawing her as a woman showing that the strictures against her sex have been unfair.
On the simple level of comparisons between Hester as the symbol of the female and Dimmesdale and Chillingworth as symbols of the male, Hester clearly stands above the other two (Gale 240). Her strength is greater, her courage more immediate, and her contribution in the form of Pearl more lasting. Hester stands before the community bravely, feeling a thousand eyes upon her. Hester finds that the scarlet letter enables her to transcend time and space, enabling her to see through to the truth in past, present, and future. Though she sees through to the truth–and this includes seeing through Chillingworth and recognizing who he is–she does not speak that truth. She remains in Boston by saying that the scene of her sin should become the scene of her penance as well, but there are other reasons for her remaining that show deeper motives. She wishes to stay close to her lover, for instance, perhaps to torment him, perhaps to help him. It is through her art that she expresses the truth she can see. This is significant because one of her major works of art is Pearl, and Pearl becomes an ambiguous symbol of the truth as well, but a symbol that even her mother cannot understand (Male 104-105).
Gerber sees The Scarlet Letter as having a four-part structure that demonstrates the thematic movement of the piece. The first of these sections concerns the Puritan community. The next three parts center on characters, in this order–Chillingworth, Hester, and Dimmesdale. This indicates the movement is from the concerns of the community to those of the three major characters, and Hester is set first as she is the center of interest for the other two (Gerber 25). Malcolm Cowley prefers a five-part view of the plot, with the first, third, and fifth parts being the scaffold scenes (1, 13)
This progression of scaffold scenes is important in the development of the conscience of Dimmesdale, but it is also important that Hester is present in all three scenes (Schubert 12). Hester admits her guilt from the beginning, and she sees this public admission as important in pricking the conscience of the community–and, in the long run, of her lover. Hester wears her dishonorable badge like a badge of merit to some extent, and the ambiguous Pearl is a similarly open statement of the sin that stands behind the plot. Hester, her letter, and Pearl stand out in the first third of the book as lights shining in the darkness of the community. She stands in the light of truth while the minister stands in the dark light of lies and deceit (Male 107).
Consider now the idea that Hester could be a feminist heroine in this work. This holds true thematically, for she does represent the hypocrisy of an out-moded community value system. It is tempting to see her as an unwed mother defying the community by keeping her child, and in a sense this is true. However, Hester is never really defiant. She is contrite from the first. It is simply that her attitude about “flaunting” her punishment seems defiant. It is also that her position offers her greater insight into the sins of others and more compassion and sympathetic behavior than the hidebound women of the community can manage. Hester does not openly oppose the code for women, but she lives a life that belies it (Gale 240).
Thus, any feminism on Hester’s part is certainly inadvertent. Her story is certainly fodder for feminists of our age, however. Her sin is punished publicly, offering a catharsis to the community (Male 107). This could be considered an indication of societal attitudes toward women, with the community looking upon Hester as someone who has fallen and who therefore can be treated in a different fashion. The rigid rules of the community are not evidence of a double standard, however, for the man in question would be punished as severely if he were known. Indeed, in this tale he is punished very severely because he does not confess at first and bears his pain inside.
Of course, the true sinner in this work is Chillingworth, and the societal system that enables him to marry Hester and that then forces her to remain true to a man missing as he is comes under heavy criticism. Hester herself says she sinned by marrying this man in the first place, and the sin is that she felt that marriage to be necessary. Being untrue to Chillingworth–who is presumed dead in any case–does not deserve such harsh punishment in any objective view, but the society of that time could not allow its code to be bent.
Robert L. Gale refers to Hester as a free-thinker, stating that she becomes so as a result of social ostracism; she also becomes self-sacrificial and deeply sympathetic to others in trouble (Gale 240). Eventually, she recognizes what is happening to Dimmesdale and resolves to rescue him from Chillingworth. She sees the deterioration in both these men, and she sees the truth within their souls as well (140-141).
Hester can be seen as a feminist because she does not follow the traditional Puritan view, or at least her story does not. That course says that the sinners should be punished and the victims obtain satisfaction. Hawthorne, however, did not feel that the greatest guilt belonged to those who had sinned against the commandments of the moral code. The isolation that is brought about by the scarlet letter offers-Hester the opportunity to achieve a richer development of her personality. In this sense, she has been removed from the debilitating influences of the normal home environment–as a wife, mother, and member of the community–and is instead allowed to develop her inner strengths and insights. She finds her life’s path and tends to the poor. The richer elements of society turn their backs on her, and they always ignore the poor. Hester steps in and develops a greater compassion than the entire community has shown otherwise. Chillingworth is, of course, the wronged party in the adultery, but his evil is so great that he ultimately loses all sympathy and becomes the opposite of Hester in terms of insight, compassion, and strength of character. Chillingworth married Hester for her beauty, not her worth, and this becomes an indictment of this male practice. Beauty to the woman thus becomes a great difficulty and a danger, perhaps to the point of misfortune (Lundblad 56-58).