Scholarly Essays About Hester Prynne

June 11, 2000
The Prophecy of Hester Prynne

eading ''The Scarlet Letter'' again, I imagine Hester Prynne as she steps out of the Boston jail. She carries her out-of-wedlock baby in her arms but does not hide the ''A'' she wears on her breast. Her crime, though it will never be named in the book by more than an initial, is placed on exhibition. Yet she has converted the letter into her own statement by fantastic flourishes of gold embroidery. She is a mystery beyond the reach not only of her fellow Bostonians but also of the reader. To the end of her story she will be someone whose final meaning is as obscure as her reasons for blazoning the letter so that it looks like a badge of honor while it reinforces her condemnation.

Hester has been coming before us this way since ''The Scarlet Letter'' was published 150 years ago, and the book that made Hawthorne famous has remained our most unchallenged classic, an American novel about the American past. Its newest readers turn to the Internet for help in writing the assigned paper, and there is plenty to download -- bibliographies and potted criticism, online hypertext that highlights the hard words and references for access to explanations. There is even a site titled ''How to Get an 'A' on Your Scarlet Letter Assignment,'' which, fortunately, advises only, ''Read the book!'' Teenagers sometimes find this reading boring, sometimes thrilling, and are not quite sure what it adds up to. The punishment inflicted upon an unmarried mother seems excessive. The struggle between husband and lover, once thought to be the central drama, does not arouse much interest. But Pearl's independence of adult expectations, her elfin spontaneity and disdain of the idea that she has been ''made'' by anyone, delights young readers; they understand why she feels like that. And most of all, they are gripped by Hester, a heroine who seems to be reaching for something more than either penance or justification. Meanwhile, their elders -- teachers and critics -- continue to debate what Hawthorne ''meant to say.'' In Hester's Boston next weekend, members of the scholarly Nathaniel Hawthorne Society are meeting to celebrate the novel's sesquicentennial year. There will be lectures and discussions and also a rock musical of ''The Scarlet Letter.'' It is still a strange book, however familiar.

Hawthorne offers clues to interpretation in ''The Custom-House,'' an ''introductory sketch'' added to his story, it is thought, because book buyers expected something heftier. It is a slippery, baffling essay, half real autobiography, half fiction. The writer makes believe just where he pretends to be most factual; Hawthorne never found, as he claims, a scrap of red cloth -- the veritable letter -- or a manuscript record of a real episode of the 17th century; he is the inventor of his tale. But he speaks truly about his ancestors, who persecuted witches and heretics in colonial times, implying a desire to expiate the family guilt by sympathetically imagining another Puritan victim. The Puritan theocratic state he goes on to depict in the novel had, in fact, been challenged in Hester's time by someone a little like Hawthorne's heroine. He adds symbolic fantasy to connect a real and an imagined woman. As Hester steps out of that prison with newborn Pearl, we are asked to notice, growing by the door, a blossoming rosebush, said to have sprung up ''under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson,'' previously imprisoned there. Why does it offer its fragrance to Hester? The historic Hutchinson had not committed adultery, but she had been condemned for her antinomian (literally, ''against the law'') beliefs about the sole importance of personal faith. When Hester, in her lonely solitude following her condemnation, comes to the point of casting away the ''fragments of a broken chain,'' believing that ''the world's law was no law for her mind,'' she seems to echo Hutchinson's feminine self-reliance.

In conceiving Hester, Hawthorne may also have been thinking of his brilliant friend Margaret Fuller. The one female among the famous transcendental liberals of Concord, she had published her feminist ''Woman in the 19th Century'' in 1845, and then had gone to Italy, where she joined the partisans of the nationalist struggle and fell in love with one of them. As Hawthorne was writing his novel there were rumors she was on her way back with her lover and their child, a prospect that sent tremors of apprehension through the circle preparing to greet her. Romantic freedom of behavior and revolutionary politics were ideas some talked about but few acted out in New England in 1850 -- and there may have been some relief when Fuller's return was tragically prevented when her ship was wrecked off Long Island. Hawthorne had permitted his Hester to return to her America. But life wrote an alternate ending to his novel. In later studies of a Fuller-like woman -- sexually and intellectually independent and vital, and a feminist -- he let tragedy close the book. Death by drowning -- like Fuller's -- ends the career of magnetic Zenobia in ''The Blithedale Romance''; prison encloses Miriam's lover in ''The Marble Faun.''

Hawthorne's mind was also on his own recent past. His dismissal from his post at the Salem Custom House had been a scandal over which the Democrats, who got him his appointment, and the Whigs, just then replacing them in office, had been squabbling for months. The hubbub sold the book. But in ''The Custom-House'' he calls his firing a decapitation, suggesting that he, like Hester, had been placed on a scaffold. He sees himself as an artist -- the most unpolitical of men -- who has been victimized by politicians, and his language makes one think of revolutionary guillotines. Perhaps the introduction's most important relation to the novel consists in its authorial presence. The voice is that of a reflective man of letters who doubts his own relation to society and its sources of power, as well as the power of his imagination to render truth. This invisible person will tell Hester's story. But he is also Hester herself.

Hawthorne's adulterous heroine was a difficulty for the first reviewers of ''The Scarlet Letter.'' They were too eager to prove that he had, as one said, ''treated his delicate subject without an infusion of George Sand,'' the French writer whose recent novels promoted a gospel of unsanctioned love. A few readers might have seen ''The Scarlet Letter'' as an idealistic vision of love blessed by nature if not by society. Their Hester returned at last to Boston to remember her lover and to be buried beside him. But the well-intentioned reviewers insisted, on Hawthorne's behalf, that he had made her penitential destiny evident. She had only for a moment been diverted when, after seven years of good works and humility, she persuaded Dimmesdale to flee with her. In the secrecy of the wild forest she had told him, ''What we did had a consecration of its own''; she pulled the ''hateful token'' from her breast and the Puritan cap from her head, letting her hair fall to her shoulders. Yet the minister who had once sinned but would sin no more died on the scaffold exposing his guilt. Hester, though she left Boston, returned after many years, wearing the letter in acquiescence to the Puritan law. It is an interpretation of the book that persists in an influential recent view that Hawthorne's real subject is not the Puritan world but antebellum America. The submission of this latest penitential Hester is seen as an expression of the nation's need, in Hawthorne's own day, to achieve a ''consensus'' in a time of social discord.

It may be that Hester was a difficulty even for her creator. One critic has given the novel a ''Scarlet A minus,'' saying the author ruined a powerful all-for-love story by his interpolated moralism. When she and Dimmesdale renew their pledge of love, the narrator intrudes: ''The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers -- stern and wild ones -- and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.'' The same author-voice concludes, ''The scarlet letter had not done its office,'' as though censuring her for not becoming quiescent and conservative. But Hawthorne may be implying -- to Hester's credit -- that the repressive aim, the ''office'' of the scarlet letter as intended by her Puritan judges, failed to stifle her genius.

In the end, Hester could have lived out her life in freedom in distant England. But by returning alone, Pearl having grown up and married, she can recover the prophetic mission she once put aside for her small child's sake. She is unlikely to found a new sect, like Anne Hutchinson. But she can offer prophecy at last -something more, now, than her nursing skills and fine needlework. She promises troubled young women that some day ''a new truth'' will be revealed ''in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.'' So the close of the novel comes back to its opening, in which the reader is offered a rose from ''sainted'' Anne Hutchinson's rosebush ''to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.''

Millicent Bell, who lives in Boston, is the author of books on Hawthorne and Henry James and the president of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society.

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Hester Prynne’s Individualism in “The Scarlet Letter”

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity.1

Hester Prynne, the woman described above and one of the main characters of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” is the typical romantic individualist. Individualism is a major topic in romanticism. In the eras before, the individual was always inferior to and less important than society and the heroes tried to save society. But in romanticism the individual is equal to or even more important than society. The heroes are also rebellious, they defy society instead of saving it. So the typical romantic individualist rejects the authority of God and of the state and affirms the sole authority of nature. Hester fits into that category, because by committing adultery she broke the laws of God and man and sought natural passions and true love. This paper, which is to show the quality of Hester’s individualism is divided into three parts, each dealing with one aspect of her life. The first part concerns her relationship with other people in the community, her “outer life”. Her relationship to Pearl is the theme of the second part and the third one deals with Hester’s “inner life”, her life with regard to the spiritual world and her own imagination.

The Puritan society of Hester’s time is a patriarchal one, i.e. independent women like her are extremely uncommon. The worldly and religious authorities are closely linked, e.g. the heads of church and state stand together on the balcony, watching Hester on the scaffold: “[...] the Governor, and several of his counselors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town.”2 So any crime against the laws of God is also a crime against the law of the community and vice versa. Hester’s contact to other people in that community breaks down nearly completely when she commits the sin of adultery, but as she is more sinned against than sinning, her individualism grows. To explain that further, I will first talk about the men in her life and then about society as a whole.

Roger Chillingworth’s sin was the fact that he forced Hester into a “false and unnatural relation”3 before she was mature enough. She did not love him, but was frank with him and told him: “I felt no love nor feigned any.”4 So Chillingworth blocked the important romantic concept of true love which is determined in heaven. After this marriage Chillingworth left her alone and his next sin is his “unwillingness to forgive”5 and “his lack of charity after her disgrace”6. Hester does not break down because of that, but her strength and her individual character grow. “She marveled how she could ever have been wrought upon to marry him!”7 and confesses: “Be it sin or not, I hate the man!”8. Hester’s fault in this relationship is not her individual decision to give in to her passion and love for Dimmesdale, but “her crime most to be repented of is the original sexual incompatibility between husband and wife.”9 Hester judges her marriage to Chillingworth to be a more serious crime than her adultery, because it is a crime against her individualism: “Her adultery was a crime against church and state, her submission to Chillingworth an outrage against herself.”10

Hester’s development from integration into society to being an individualist and outcast is fully completed when she breaks up the public relationship, the marriage, to take up a private one, the true love with Reverend Dimmesdale. But even he sinned against her, leaving her to bear the punishment alone, like Chillingworth. He represents one of the major critiques of Puritanism: he is a hypocritical sinner who does not repent. Through him she gains additional strength, as he wants her to make decisions for both of them: “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me!”11 Hester criticizes Dimmesdale’s weakness and lack of personal identity and wants him to form his own opinions and disagree with the authority he is a part of. “And what hast thou to do with all these iron men, and their opinions?”12


1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Penguin, 1986) p.50

2 Hawthorne 53.

3 Hawthorne 69.

4 Hawthorne 68.

5 Monica M. Elbert, Encoding the Letter “ A ” (Frankfurt am Main: Haag+Herchen, 1990) p. 227.

6 Daniel Abel, The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne ’ s Fiction (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988) p.182.

7 Carol Bensick, “His Folly, Her Weakness” New Essays on The Scarlet Letter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 139

8 Hawthorne 153.

9 Bensick 140.

10 Bensick 140.

11 Hawthorne 171.

12 Hawthorne 172

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