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Hester Prynne

Often women in literature function as harbingers of evil. Through the destructive, and often malicious, actions of the foul temptresses evil is introduced into a previously peaceful society.   This use of women as destructive forces is clear in the Bible, Eve is the cause of original sin and Delilah is responsible for cutting off Samson’s hair and causing his downfall.  However, in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne allows the reader to see a woman making her own decisions without causing the society around her to fall into ruin. Throughout The Scarlet Letter , Hawthorne allows Hester to embody modern day feminist qualities, specifically characteristics of the cultural feminist philosophy.  The cultural feminist movement came out of the ideas of “radical feminism” which sought to “transform society” (Moore 2). Cultural feminism, however, “attempts to heighten respect for what is traditionally considered women’s work” while focusing on building “women’s culture” (Moore 2).  Hester consistently demonstrates the ideological philosophy of cultural feminism by casting off the stereotypes which society places upon her.  Hester’s feminist attitude sets her apart for the mild mannered, quiet and submissive women of the Puritan era. While Hester revels in her strength she also associates with the idea that women are “inherently kinder and gentler” (Moore 3).  The fact that women are the ‘weaker sex’ does not keep Hester from exuding incredible strength within herself and in her interactions with the members of the Salem community.  Hester’s feminist ideas come through in her sexual independence, her unwillingness to submit to society’s view of what a woman is and her personal interactions with those she most closely relates too.  Hester Prynne is set out of society, not by her choice, but due to her inherently feminist ideals. 

One of ways in which she shows her feminist ideals is through the strength of her sexual nature.  Hester’s sin is that of following her sexual desires, which, by Puritan standards, was completely unacceptable.  Hester’s sexual strength is both “life-giving and threatening” to the members of the Salem community (Fryer 107).  The repercussions of the affair Hester has with Dimmesdale is that the two of them give life to young Pearl, and threaten the very moral fiber of the society in which they reside. While the members of the community see Hester’s affair as an unforgivable sin, Hester sees her sin much differently.  Hester feels her sin is of the “original sexual incompatibility between husband and wife” (Bensick 140).  Hester and Chillingworth’s “sexual incompatibility” and the resulting affair is reminiscent of the “amazon feminism” theory (Moore 2).  The theory of Amazon feminism is one of the most prominent forms of feminism in art and literature, the theory includes the ideas of a “the female hero” and is “expressed… in sexual values and practices”  (Moore 2).  The members of the Salem community look at Hester and “see her charisma as implicit sexual power” and also see her as a “primarily sexual being” (Bloom 1-2).  The overt nature in which Hester deals with her sexuality and her ‘sexual crime’ shows truly Amazon feminist ideas.  Women of the Puritan era were taught to be coy and shy regarding situations and issues which were sexual in nature.  Hester, however, does not share in the sexual values and practices which were deemed acceptable by the members of the Salem community.  Women were shunned and exiled for the crime of adultery, yet Hester  lives with and through her sexual crime .  Her internal strength prevails and she “[becomes] a feminist [due to] the injustice of her [genteel and lady-like] solitude” (Van Doren 19).  Hester breaks away from the ideal of being a genteel and lady-like woman and instead follows a path of intense sexuality and internal strength, which is also consistent with the concepts of both Amazon and cultural feminism.  Rather than live a life where she is forced to be sweet and docile Hester breaks away from living a life she would be miserable in and follows her heart.  Hester, although a “devoted mother” never sacrificed being a “passionate temptress,” she continues to embody the cultural and Amazonian feminist qualities; Amazonian in her sexual strength and culturally in her being a kind and gentle loving mother  (Bell 93).  Hester is the perfect example of the model ‘single mother.’  Hester juggles being a good mother to Pearl with being one of the most regarded seamstresses in Salem as well as trying to deal with the church trying to find out the identity of Pearl’s father.  Hester never falters as she goes through her daily routine.  Although her sexual nature may cause her troubles in the Puritan society in which she lives, Hester never stops demonstrating the feminist ideals which make her the strong and dynamic woman she is. 

Hester’s social behavior circles mostly around the actions which define her as a feminist.  Hester’s refusal to submit to the wishes of the church and the community and release the name of her fellow sinner is reminiscent of the dismissal of the inherent beliefs that a woman has to be passive, and submissive that is so closely associated with Amazon feminism.  In the eyes of those who surround Hester, she has “perpetrated a crime against church and state” which he seems to dismiss due to her belief that her sin is actually that of the “original sexual incompatibility between husband and wife” (Fryer 111, Bensick 140).  Hester’s “submission to Chillingworth was an outrage she committed against herself” and against the belief that a woman can follow her heart and be aggressive, both socially and sexually, which today is seen as a feminist quality (Bensick 140).   Although Hester did in fact commit adultery and gives birth to an illegitimate child she does not allow the way the community treats her taint her self esteem or pride.  Instead of giving into the self pity and self loathing which was expected to come with the punishment she receives Hester revels in the love of her daughter and mocks the “A” which is emblazoned upon her bosom.  That “A” which should have been a stigma becomes an outward apparition of the feminist qualities, especially the refusal of Hester to fall into the stereotype of what makes a woman a woman, which Hester possesses..  The Scarlet “A” is beautifully decorated by Hester and makes a mockery out of the punishment which is laid upon her by the church and state.  This silent defiance of the way in which women of the time period were punished for their crimes “transforms … the degradation accompanying woman’s work … into a triumphant assertion of a woman’s artistic power,” which is one of the fundamental ideas behind cultural feminism (Reynolds 184). The location of Hester and Pearl in relation to the rest of the Salem Community is a physical manifestation of Hester’s Amazonian feminist qualities.   Hester and Pearl live in the woods, away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday life in Salem, this shows Hester’s “own self reliance” and her ability to take control of life in the wild and untamed country side (Freyer 113).  The fact that Hester lives out in the forest serves as not only a form of sanctuary, but as a buffer between the world which judges her and the free nature which Hester possesses in her soul.  The people of Salem may find Hester’s living arrangements to be strange but understand that Hester is “in a sphere by herself” and almost respect that because she “has brought shame upon [them all]” (Hawthorne  40, 38).  Hester does not retreat to the woods due to shame or to flee from the adversity which she faces within the confines of the city limits, she instead goes off to the forest because it is where she can be true to herself and live as an independent woman. It is because of this “sphere” that Hester has an “ambivalent relationship to the Scarlet Letter she wears [and it becomes] apparent [of her] submission to communal law at the same time she finds a way to deny”  (Mellard  171). Hester’s denial of the ‘communal laws’ is not uncommon of a feminist of modern day society. The rejection of what is common in society rings of the cultural feminist idea that a woman should  not conform to what is expected of her by the general male populace. From loving and caring for her child as she does, to wearing the brightly decorated “A” so proudly Hester allows her feminist beliefs to manifest themselves in the world around her - regardless of the consequences.

Hester’s relationships with the members of the Salem community are greatly affected by the passion and strength which she harbors within her soul.  The three people which Hester’s feminist ideals affect relationships with most are Dimmesdale, Chillingworth and Pearl. Hester and Dimmesdale share the sinful secret that they were once lovers and share in the weight of know Pearl was born of their sin.  As Hester is being questioned upon the scaffold about who her fellow sinner is she refuses to answer Mr. Wilson and instead looks “into the deep and troubled eyes of [Dimmesdale]” and once again refuses to speak his name (Hawthorne 49).  As Hester gazes into the eyes of her fellow sinner she stands tall and assumes the more masculine position in assuring her weaker counterpart that she will not betray him.  This fits in with the Amazon feminist ideals because Hester is rejecting what is considered inherently feminine and taking on inherently masculine traits (Moore 2).  Regardless of the assurance Hester gives to Dimmesdale on the scaffold he still succumbs to the strain of his sin.  Dimmesdale slowly deteriorates into a shell of his former self to a point that Hester “ is shocked at the condition she [finds] the clergyman reduced” to (Hawthorne 109).  Hester’s reaction to the man she loves fallen state reflects the cultural feminist idea that women are inherently “kinder and gentler” and therefore will show sympathy to a man as sadly fallen as her lover is (Moore 2).  At that point she gathers together her own internal strength and revels in the strange emotion she feels for Dimmesdale and continues on with her life.  The way Hester interacts with Dimmesdale is the exact opposite way she reacts to Chillingworth.  Hester and Chillingworth becomes a very cold and detached relationship when he finally arrives in Salem on the day of her being paraded to the scaffold.  She comes to be very cold and detached in dealing with him and his emotions regarding her infidelity.  Hester grows cold inside in dealing with him and feels that she would “weep, if there any tears bitter enough for it” (Hawthorne 116).  Hester’s obvious coldness has a root in the theory of Separatist feminists, women who believe that there should be little or no contact between men and women for the good of women who are oppressed by men. (Moore 7).  Hester continually grows colder towards Chillingworth and even begins to show malice towards him in her verbal actions.  She threatens Chillingworth with revealing his true identity whilst in the forest with him.  Hester looks at him and says “He must discern thee in thy true character” and in saying so rejects the idea that women are to be submissive to the will and strength of the men around them.  Hester attempts to teach her young daughter Pearl to be strong and independent, not as much through words and through actions., she “sought to impose a tender but strict control over the infant” and allow her to grow up with the same freedom of spirit which Hester enjoys (Hawthorne 64).  Hester attempts to instill strong morals and internal strength into the mind of young Pearl.  Living out the in forest allows Hester more control over Pearl and the way she thinks.  Pearl is very much Hester’s “companion” in the cottage in the woods (Hawthorne 70).  Living where they do, Hester and Pearl are allowed to fend for themselves as men would in the forest.  Fighting the woods alone as men would do is yet another Amazonian feminist characteristic that both Hester and Pearl share.  Neither Hester or Pearl falls into the stereotype of what women of the Puritan era were supposed to be.  The internal strength of both of these characters is reflected in the other, mother and daughter feed off of each other for the strength to carry on.  Hester dresses Pearl in bright vibrant colors and in doing so makes Pearl stand apart from the other drably dressed Puritan children, and in turn Pearl’s nymph like behavior allows Hester to be creative and enjoy the freedom she now has by being shunned by society because of her moral values (Hawthorne 70).  Mother and daughter thrive on the love and companionship they share outside of the judgmental community of Salem.

Hester’s ability to thrive outside and inside of the Puritan community of Salem is largely in part to the traits which would, by today’s standards, label her as a feminist.  The feminist attributes which can be applied to Hester are most apparent in her sexual choices, her interactions with the members of the Salem community at large and the specific relationships with those who are closest to her.  If Hester were to be taken out of the Puritan environment and placed among people in a modern day setting she would be viewed as the epitome of a strong, independent, single mother and would be embraced by the feminist community as a tribute to all they have fought for.  The way in which Hawthorne portrays Hester is ambiguous as to whether he feels women should strive to find some level of equality between the sex’s or that women should remain subservient to men as the other women in Salem had.  How Hawthorne meant for Hester to be regarded by the readers of The Scarlet Letter is yet to be seen, but there is significant data to show that Hawthorne created Hester as a strong, independent woman - a woman before her time.


 

Works Cited

·        Bensick, Carol. “His Folly, Her Weakness: Demystified Adultery in The Scarlet Letter” New Essays on the Scarlet Letter Ed. Colacurcio, Michael J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985: 137-157.

·        Bell, Michael Davitt. “Another View of Hester”  Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1990: 87-95.

·        Bloom, Harold Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1990.

·        Fryer, Judith.  “Hester Prynne:  The Dark Lady as ‘Deviant’” Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1990: 107-115.

·        Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  The Scarlet Letter New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961.

·        Levin, Harry. “Critical Extracts” Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

·        Mellard, James M. “Pearl and Hester: A Lacanian Reading” Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1990: 162-177.

·        Moore, Cindy Tittle. http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/gender/feminism-faq/terms

·        Reynolds, David S. “Toward Hester Prynne” Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1990: 179-185.

·        VanDoren, Mark. “Critical Extracts” Major Literary Characters: Hester Prynne Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.