The Scarlet Letter, written by NathanielHawthorne is a novel that stresses the effects of oppression on free-spiritedpeople, the ones who are not influenced by dogmas or moral laws. Hester Prynneis one of those people, a woman whose sin – having a child that was not herhusband’s – becomes the central concern of the entire puritan community thatshe is part of. There have been different readings of the book, leading to it beinginterpreted as a novel about sin, redemption or passion and this is mainly dueto the main character’s complex nature. In my essay I will firstly discuss about the values and beliefs of Puritanism, what theterm means, what Hawthorne’s relation to the ideology is and how it impacts thelives of the people living in a 17th century Massachusetts BayColony.
Secondly, the focus will move on the exploration of the character ofHester Prynne and her individualism, providing examples from the book. Lastly Iwill be concentrating on the matter of adultery as seen through a 20thcentury feminist lens. I will be analyzingthe excerpts that I found to be most relevant for the topics that I have namedabove and I will give my thoughts on the depths of human frailty, sorrow and rediscoveryof oneself as provided by Hawthorne in the development of Hester Prynne’scharacter, as the novel is set in a very strong religious context. Nathaniel Hawthorne was born inSalem, Massachussetts and was deeply grounded in his bonds regarding thePuritan movement. Puritanism arose in the Church of England at the end of the16th century and their goal was to purify the religious and governmentpractice by bringing them closer to God’s word. The movement did not onlycoincide with the founding of New England but they were also keen on changingthe American lifestyle by creating principles and regulations that appropriatedtheir religious dogma. Puritans considered God a sovereign, virtuous andsublime.
They put themselves in opposition to God and considered human beingsas sinful by nature. They also believed in predestination, meaning that allevents are already predetermined by God and that he has destined some tosalvation and others for damnation. Ethnocentrism was also part of the Puritandogma. They believed that only their religion had the right basis and that allothers should be blamed.
Hawthorne provides an example in hisbook of both their flaws and their strengths. He was concerned with their oppressiverules and chose to portray his beliefs through themes, symbols and charactersfrom The Scarlet Letter.The first chapter of the book openswith the setting of the prison in which Hester is being held captive for heradultery. Even though the puritans wanted to build a new utopian-like world,Hawthorne describes the prison as being “marked with weather-stains and other indicationsof age”proving with the help of irony that the frailty of human soul and itscapacity of sinning are two things that cannot be escaped. Hawthorne refers in the same chapterto Ann Hutchinson who was a fighter against puritan clergy in the MassachusettsBay Colony.
She chose to fight against the patriarchy of her time rather thanblindly obeying to society’s rules. Through this, Hawthorne manages toreinstate the idea of religious liberty present in the text and also proved byHester. Hester proves herself different from the Puritan beliefs, not onlythrough her actions but through her appearance as well. Puritans were generallydressed in dull clothes, while she chose to put embroidery on her scarletletter, proving that even without realizing, she was making herself appear lessand less as part of the colonist society.Individualism is apparent throughoutthe novel with respect to Hester Prynne’s character. She develops a sense ofindependence, ending up relying only on herself and separating herself fromsociety’s norms. In its broad sense, individualism represents just that, the “emphasisof the moral worth of the individual”.
In this respect, Hester proves to be anembodiment of such belief as she grows into an independent and self-reliantwoman. She is cast out from her society, being ridiculed and obliged to wear thescarlet letter “A” on her bosom as the sign of her sinful nature. She wears itwith dignity and chooses not to hide herself or her daughter, Pearl, from the criticaleye of the colony. She stands alone through it all, never allowing Dimmesdaleto admit that the child is his, choosing to bear the burden of her own.
“Standing alone inthe world, – alone, as to any dependence on society and with little Pearl to beguided and protected, – alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, evenhad she not not scorned to consider it desirable, – she cast away the fragmentsof a broken chain. The world’s law was no law for her mind. It was an age inwhich the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and awider range than for many centuries before.
(hawthorne 149)The excerpt emphasizes thefact that Hester does not accept the authority without questioning it, shedevelops her own perception of her society throughout the time she is kept inisolation.The individualistic nature that Hester developscorrelates with her feminist view of the world. She does not believe in a worlddominated by patriarchal models and chooses not to be part of such a society.
Fromthe very beginning there are several attempts to yield her back to the norm,she is sent to prison, placed on the scaffold to be the laughing matter of thewhole town and is ultimately forced to wear a scarlet letter on her chest. Theseattempts, though, do not alter her thinking. She tries to escape this malecontrol by never allowing Dimmesdale o acknowledge that Pearl is his daughterand thus manages to stay away from the correlation to a male figure.
Hester triesto oppose control by allowing herself and Pearl to wear embroiled dresses, thusbecoming more feminine. The letter A isalso embellished, proving that Hester chose to wear it proudly. She is aprecursor of empowerment regarding women- She is the embodiment of a futuregeneration, of a woman with modern standards and thoughts. She fears no law, nopunishment. She stands before the powerful men, refusing to prove herself weak.She has to live with a sin that has brought her both sorrow and extremehappiness, in the person of Pearl, her daughter.
The forest is yet another element that standsas a witness of her growth as an individual and as a woman, as she is welcomedwith “a sudden smile from heaven” when she chooses to let go of the scarletletter and show herself as she really is. Moreover, nature is the one thatallows the sinful Hester to be equal to the pious Reverend Dimmesdale,equalitywhich is proven at the end of the novel, when both lovers are dead and “onetombstone serves for both” (180)Hawthorne manages to portray an image of Hestrwho has accepted herself and her sin and who, by this acceptance allows herselfto see that she is in no way different from Dimmesdale.