The – having a child that was not her

The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel
Hawthorne is a novel that stresses the effects of oppression on free-spirited
people, the ones who are not influenced by dogmas or moral laws. Hester Prynne
is one of those people, a woman whose sin – having a child that was not her
husband’s – becomes the central concern of the entire puritan community that
she is part of. There have been different readings of the book, leading to it being
interpreted as a novel about sin, redemption or passion and this is mainly due
to the main character’s complex nature.

In my essay I will firstly discuss about  the values and beliefs of Puritanism, what the
term means, what Hawthorne’s relation to the ideology is and how it impacts the
lives of the people living in a 17th century Massachusetts Bay
Colony. Secondly, the focus will move on the exploration of the character of
Hester Prynne and her individualism, providing examples from the book. Lastly I
will be concentrating on the matter of adultery as seen through a 20th
century feminist lens.

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I will be analyzing
the excerpts that I found to be most relevant for the topics that I have named
above and I will give my thoughts on the depths of human frailty, sorrow and rediscovery
of oneself as provided by Hawthorne in the development of Hester Prynne’s
character, as the novel is set in a very strong religious context.                                  

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in
Salem, Massachussetts and was deeply grounded in his bonds regarding the
Puritan movement. Puritanism arose in the Church of England at the end of the
16th century and their goal was to purify the religious and government
practice by bringing them closer to God’s word. The movement did not only
coincide with the founding of New England but they were also keen on changing
the American lifestyle by creating principles and regulations that appropriated
their religious dogma. Puritans considered God a sovereign, virtuous and
sublime. They put themselves in opposition to God and considered human beings
as sinful by nature. They also believed in predestination, meaning that all
events are already predetermined by God and that he has destined some to
salvation and others for damnation. Ethnocentrism was also part of the Puritan
dogma. They believed that only their religion had the right basis and that all
others should be blamed.

Hawthorne provides an example in his
book of both their flaws and their strengths. He was concerned with their oppressive
rules and chose to portray his beliefs through themes, symbols and characters
from The Scarlet Letter.

The first chapter of the book opens
with the setting of the prison in which Hester is being held captive for her
adultery. Even though the puritans wanted to build a new utopian-like world,
Hawthorne describes the prison as being “marked with weather-stains and other indications
of age”proving with the help of irony that the frailty of human soul and its
capacity of sinning are two things that cannot be escaped.

Hawthorne refers in the same chapter
to Ann Hutchinson who was a fighter against puritan clergy in the Massachusetts
Bay Colony. She chose to fight against the patriarchy of her time rather than
blindly obeying to society’s rules. Through this, Hawthorne manages to
reinstate the idea of religious liberty present in the text and also proved by
Hester. Hester proves herself different from the Puritan beliefs, not only
through her actions but through her appearance as well. Puritans were generally
dressed in dull clothes, while she chose to put embroidery on her scarlet
letter, proving that even without realizing, she was making herself appear less
and less as part of the colonist society.

Individualism is apparent throughout
the novel with respect to Hester Prynne’s character. She develops a sense of
independence, ending up relying only on herself and separating herself from
society’s norms. In its broad sense, individualism represents just that, the “emphasis
of the moral worth of the individual”. In this respect, Hester proves to be an
embodiment of such belief as she grows into an independent and self-reliant
woman. She is cast out from her society, being ridiculed and obliged to wear the
scarlet letter “A” on her bosom as the sign of her sinful nature. She wears it
with dignity and chooses not to hide herself or her daughter, Pearl, from the critical
eye of the colony. She stands alone through it all, never allowing Dimmesdale
to admit that the child is his, choosing to bear the burden of her own.

“Standing alone in
the world, – alone, as to any dependence on society and with little Pearl to be
guided and protected, – alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even
had she not not scorned to consider it desirable, – she cast away the fragments
of a broken chain. The world’s law was no law for her mind. It was an age in
which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a
wider range than for many centuries before. (hawthorne 149)

The excerpt emphasizes the
fact that Hester does not accept the authority without questioning it, she
develops her own perception of her society throughout the time she is kept in
isolation.

The individualistic nature that Hester develops
correlates with her feminist view of the world. She does not believe in a world
dominated by patriarchal models and chooses not to be part of such a society. From
the 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 the
whole town and is ultimately forced to wear a scarlet letter on her chest. These
attempts, though, do not alter her thinking. She tries to escape this male
control by never allowing Dimmesdale o acknowledge that Pearl is his daughter
and thus manages to stay away from the correlation to a male figure. Hester tries
to oppose control by allowing herself and Pearl to wear embroiled dresses, thus
becoming more feminine.  The letter A is
also embellished, proving that Hester chose to wear it proudly. She is a
precursor of empowerment regarding women- She is the embodiment of a future
generation, of a woman with modern standards and thoughts. She fears no law, no
punishment. 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 extreme
happiness, in the person of Pearl, her daughter.

The forest is yet another element that stands
as a witness of her growth as an individual and as a woman, as she is welcomed
with “a sudden smile from heaven” when she chooses to let go of the scarlet
letter and show herself as she really is. Moreover, nature is the one that
allows the sinful Hester to be equal to the pious Reverend Dimmesdale,equality
which is proven at the end of the novel, when both lovers are dead and “one
tombstone serves for both” (180)

Hawthorne manages to portray an image of Hestr
who has accepted herself and her sin and who, by this acceptance allows herself
to see that she is in no way different from Dimmesdale.