Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the best, if not the best, writers of American Romanticism in the 19th century, or even in the history of American literature. Herman Melville in his article Hawthorne and His Massers in 1850 even regarded him as an equal of William Shakespeare. He remarked, “Nathaniel were verily William”. Other great writers like Henry James, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner also gave high credit to Hawthorne and acknowledged that they learnt much from him. The Scarlet Letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne's representative work. The protagonist, Hester, is the embodiment of great morality in this work. In order to let readers have a better understanding of the image of Hester, which helps the further study later, this thesis will analyze the image of Hester in The Scarlet Letter.
I. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Known as Writer of Tales
1.1 Hawthorne's Life
Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author himself added the “w” to his surname Hathorne) was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, to a Puritan family that had been prominent in the area since colonial times. Among his ancestors was Major William Hathorne, known for his persecution of Quakers, and John Hathorne, the son of Major William, a magistrate of the Court of Oyer and Terrniner who was the stern interrogator of the accused witches. The rich lore of family and local history provided much of the material for his works later.
Hawthorne suffered many a setback during his life. When he was four, his father died on a voyage in Surinam, Dutch Guinea. When he was nine, he suffered from lameness. And at the age of fourteen, he and his mother moved to a farm in Maine and lived alone. Hawthorne lived a simple life and it was his maternal relatives who financed his education at Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825. Among his classmates were many of the important literary and political figures of the day; writer Horatio Bridge, Senator Jonathan Cilley, Henry Wedsworth Longfellow, and President Franklin Pierce. These prominent friends supplied Hawthorne with government employment in the lean times, allowing him time to bloom as an author.
After attending Bowdoin College, Hawthorne devoted himself to writing. His first novel, Fanshawe, published anonymously, was unsuccessful. His short stories won notice and were collected in Twice-Told Tales. Unable to support himself by writing and editing, he took a job at the Boston Customhouse from 1839 to 1841. He worked hard, but never gave up his literary creation. After resigning the job at the customs, Hawthorne could focus on his writing. In the following three years, he published almost two dozen tales and sketches. Most of them were included in Mosses from on Old Manse, which appeared in 1864 and contributed to a reputation that had been growing since the publication of Twice-Told Tales.
A campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce earned Hawthorne the post of consul at Liverpool after Pierce became President. Later, Hawthorne's visit to Italy resulted in the novel The Marble Faun (1860), and his stay in England was reflected in the travel sketches of Our Old Home (1863). After returning to the United States, he worked on several novels that were never finished. He died during a trip to the White Mountains with Franklin Pierce in 1864.
Almost all of Hawthorne's novels and tales were in a greater or lesser part allegorical, exploring man's moral and spiritual conflicts. And he called his novels "romance" to distinguish them from those which dealt in realistic descriptions of current affairs. Of all his romances, The Scarlet Letter is generally regarded as the highest achievement in his literary career.
1.2 Hawthorne’s Literary Career
Hawthorne is best known today for his many short stories and his four major romances written between 1850 and 1860: The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860). Another novel-length romance, Fanshawe was published anonymously in 1828. Hawthorne defined a romance as being radically different from a novel by not being concerned with the possible or probable course of ordinary experience.
Hawthorne's work belongs to Romanticism, an artistic and intellectual movement characterized by an emphasis on individual freedom from social conventions or political restraints, on human imagination, and on nature in a typically idealized form. Romantic literature rebelled against the formalism of 18th century reason.
Much of Hawthorne's work is set in colonial
New England, and many of his short stories have been read as moral allegories influenced by his Puritan background. Ethan Brand (1850) tells the story of a lime-burner who sets off to find the Unpardonable Sin, and in doing so, commits it. One of Hawthorne's most famous tales, The Birth-Mark (1843), concerns a young doctor who removes a birthmark from his wife's face, an operation which kills her. Hawthorne based parts of this story on the penny press novels he loved to read. Other well-known tales include Rappaccini's Daughter (1844), My Kinsman, Major Molineux (1832), The Minister's Black Veil (1836), and Young Goodman Brown (1835). The Maypole of Merrymount (1836) recounts an encounter between the Puritans and the forces of anarchy and hedonism. A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853) were retellings for children of some Greek myths, from which was named the Tanglewood estate and music venue.
Hawthorne is also considered among the first to experiment with
alternate history as literary form. His short story P.'s Correspondence (a part of “Mosses from an Old Manse”) is the first known complete English language alternate history and among the most early in any language. The story's protagonist is considered “a madman” due to his perceiving an alternative in which long-dead historical and literary figures are still alive; these delusions feature the poets Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, the actor Edmund Kean, the British politician George Canning and even Napoleon Bonaparte.
Contemporary response to Hawthorne's work praised his sentimentality and moral purity while more modern evaluations focus on the dark psychological complexity. Recent criticism has focused on Hawthorne's narrative voice, treating it as a self-conscious rhetorical construction, not to be conflated with Hawthorne's own voice. Such an approach complicates the long-dominant tradition of regarding Hawthorne as a gloomy, guilt-ridden moralist.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote important, though largely unflattering reviews of both Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, mostly due to Poe's own contempt of allegory, moral tales, and his chronic accusations of plagiarism. However, even Poe admitted, “The style of Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective—wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes.” He concluded that, “we look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Nathaniel Hawthorne's reputation as a writer is a very pleasing act, because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to the man.” Henry James praised Hawthorne, saying, “The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it”.
II. The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter attains an immediate and lasting success because it addresses spiritual and moral issues from a uniquely American standpoint. In 1850, adultery was an extremely risqué subject, but because Hawthorne had the support of the New England literary establishment, it passed easily into the realm of appropriate reading. The Scarlet Letter represents the height of Hawthorne's literary genius; dense with terse descriptions. It remains relevant for its philosophical and psychological depth, and continues to be read as a classic tale on a universal theme.
2.1 The Story
The story begins in seventeenth-century Boston, then a Puritan settlement. A young woman,
Hester Prynne, is led from the town prison with her infant daughter, Pearl, in her arms and the scarlet letter “A” on her breast. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester’s husband, a scholar much older than she is, sent her ahead to America, but he never arrived in Boston. The consensus is that he has been lost at sea. While waiting for her husband, Hester has apparently had an affair, as she has given birth to a child. She will not reveal her lover’s identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her public shaming, is her punishment for her sin and her secrecy. On this day Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child’s father.
The elderly onlooker is Hester’s missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself
Roger Chillingworth. He settles in Boston, intent on revenge. He reveals his true identity to no one but Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and Pearl grows into a willful, impish child. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but, with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, a young and eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister’s torments and Hester’s secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers a mark on the man’s breast , which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.
Dimmesdale’s psychological anguish deepens, and he invents new tortures for himself. In the meantime, Hester’s charitable deeds and quiet humility have earned her a reprieve from the scorn of the community. One night, when Pearl is about seven years old, she and her mother are returning home from a visit to a deathbed when they encounter Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. Hester and Pearl join him, and the three link hands. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl’s request that he acknowledge her publicly the next day, and a meteor marks a dull red “A” in the night sky. Hester can see that the minister’s condition is worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale’s self-torment. Chillingworth refuses.
Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest because she is aware that Chillingworth has probably guessed that she plans to reveal his identity to Dimmesdale. The former lovers decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. Pearl, playing nearby, does not recognize her mother without the letter. The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever. Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing a scarlet letter seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead, as Pearl kisses him.
Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows what has happened to them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who has married a European aristocrat and established a family of her own. When Hester dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. The two share a single tombstone, which bears a scarlet “A.”
2.2 The Setting of the Story
Nathaniel Hawthorne has deep bonds with his Puritan ancestors and creates a story that both highlighted their weaknesses and their strengths. His knowledge of their beliefs and his admiration for their strengths are balanced by his concerns for their rigid and oppressive rules. The Scarlet Letter shows his attitude toward these Puritans of Boston in his portrayal of characters, his plot, and the themes of his story.
The early Puritans who first came to America in 1620 founded a precarious colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While half the colonists died that first year, the other half were saved by the coming spring and the timely intervention of the Indians. These first settlers were followed ten years later by a wave of Puritans that continued in the 1630s and thereafter, until, by the 1640s, New England had over twenty-five thousand English settlers. The second group in the 1630s settled in the area of present-day Boston in a community they named Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is this colony that forms the setting of
The Scarlet Letter.
The City is upon a Hill. The Puritans leave the Old World because they want to “purify” the Church of England. Their chief complaints are that the services should be simpler and that religion should contain an intense spiritual relationship between the individual and God. In England, the clergy and the government mediate in the relationship between the individual and God. Because the Puritans chose to defy these assumptions, they are persecuted in England. A group of them flee to Holland and subsequently to the New World, where they hope to build a society, described by John Winthrop, as “a city upon a hill”—a place where the “eyes of all people are upon us.” In such a place and as long as they follow His words and do their work to glorify His ways, God will bless them, and they will prosper. Hawthorne, of course, presents the irony of this concept when he describes the prison as a building already worn when the colony is only fifteen years old.
Hawthorne’s viewpoint of this society seems to be disclosed in several places in the novel but never more so than in the Governor’s house in Chapter 7 and during the New England holiday in Chapter 21. On Bellingham’s walls are portraits of his forefathers who wear the stately and formal clothing of the Old World. All were characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men. Obviously, it does not bode well to be too happy in the colony, or reprimand is sure to follow. In the recounting of the New England holiday set aside to honor a change in government; Hawthorne describes the non-Puritan parade-goers in the most joyful of terms. Their dress, their behavior, and even the happiness on their faces is very un-Puritan-like. He writes, with his pointed understatement, that the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction.
Hawthorne’s gift for ironic understatement should be balanced by the sense that he feels connected to his Puritan ancestors and admires a number of their qualities. Consider the description he gives of them in his Custom House preface. He sees them, like the old General he describes, as people of perseverance, integrity, inner strength, and moral courage. He also shares a concern for their disdain toward his need to take on a commercial job that contributes little to the community in spiritual profit. In addition, note Hawthorne’s condemnation of the tax supervisor who has no sensibility or spiritual compass.
These early Puritans follow the writings of a French Protestant reformer named John Calvin, whose teachings see the world as a grim conflict between God and Satan. Calvinists are a very introspective lot who constantly search their souls for evidence that they are God’s Elect. The Elect are people chosen by God for salvation. According to Puritans, a merciful God has sent His son, Jesus Christ, to earth to die for the sins of man, but only a few will be saved. The rest, known as the “unregenerate,” will be damned eternally.
The Puritans who settle Massachusetts Bay Colony believe that all mankind was depraved and sinful because of Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. Because Adam and Eve are willful and disobedient to God, they being upon mankind the curse of depravity, sometimes call Original Sin. For this reason, The New England Primer (1683), which is used to teach reading in Puritan schools, began with “A: In Adam’s Fall / We sinned all.” Most Puritans can be sure of eternal punishment in hell; the few that were “elect” would go to heaven.
III. An Analysis of the Protagonist Hester
Hester's pursuit for freedom and pure love reflects Hawthorn's romantic ideals. In The Scarlet Letter is created as a typical character brave enough to pursue true love.
3.1 Hester, a Brave Woman
Hester Prynne, one of the main characters, who in order to pursuit her own real love is convicted of adultery and is condemned to wear The Scarlet Letter “A” on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. In modern society, Hester has done nothing wrong. She is brave and of graceful nature. She does not hide her own feeling, loves Dimmesdale bravely and commits a sin.
If we have a glimpse of Hester’s state of mind and her attitude towards her sin during her punishment in scaffold; it is evident that Hester does not feel that she has sinned against God. Partly this is so because God has never been a very real presence in her life. Even her lover, Dimmesdale just remains spiritually in her mind. Hester shows her rebellion against Puritanism to the community. This also can get approved by following stages. One is “her strong protest against her daughter being taken away from her”. Another is “her standing out in helping her lover, the weakened priest Dimmesdale against the leech, Roger Chillingworth. Hester’s bravely, in a large extent, brought much sunlight to the sober Puritanical society.” For one thing, she breaks a law for love of Dimmesdale. For another, she persists in loving him when he is in danger. In fact, one aspect of Puritanism is a Trinity with absolute power, controlling everything. Man has no real decisions to make things which concern the world around him, for God-at His whim-will completely decide for him. There is hope through the sacrifice of the Christ. But not all people are to be saved. The Doctrine of the Elect states that God choose some for heaven and in the same manner, allows others to go to hell. One does not exactly know who is destined for heaven, but hold the generally idea that reverends are sent by God to help people. As in the case of Dimmesdale, the highly reputable Boston minister there is a strong feeling that some sainted individuals are certainly fated to go heavenward. In The Scarlet Letter, part of Dimmesdale’s torture is his knowledge of his own sin, which was not confessed, will keep him from heaven. Faithfulness between husband and wife is important. Certainly a woman destined for heaven would never commit adultery as Hester Prynne did. She could not do so if she wished to, because her conduct is determined ahead of time. Then too, Hester and Arthur’s action are affected by predestination. Since Adam and Eva, man has lost the power to make decisions for himself, for the “original sin” disobedience to God’s will in the Garden of Eden. So man has lost the power of free will. God absolutely makes all the decisions. But Hester doesn’t think so. She believes one has the right to determine their own destiny. In rebellion against Puritanism, she achieves her goal and comes to understand that the society is not fixed by God in immutable law but is subject to change. So at the end of the story, the author Hawthorne arranges Hester back to the town which shows that Hester wants to give the puritan society a big-show of her victory against the Puritanism. She also gives others more and more understanding of her love of life. Although the Puritan believes that man is saved by faith, rather than by work, which is also seen in The Scarlet Letter. Over and over again, Hester aids those around her who need help. She especially makes great efforts to nurse and sew for the poor. However, often this group repays her by taunting her with bitter words. And in the official estimation of the Puritans, it is impossible for Hester to advance her standing by helping others.
Arthur Dimmesdale is the young, charismatic minister with whom Hester commits adultery. Unlike Hester, who bears the child Pearl by their affair, Dimmesdale shows no outward evidence of his sin, and, as Hester does not expose him, he lives with the great anguish of his secret guilt until he confesses publicly and soon after dies near the end of the novel.
Dimmesdale is presented as a figure of frailty and weakness in contrast to Hester's strength , pride, and determination. He consistently refuses to confess his sin, even though he repeatedly states that it were better, less spiritually painful, if his great failing were known. Thus Dimmesdale struggles through the years and the narrative, enduring and faltering beneath his growing pain, until, after his failed plan to escape to Europe with Hester and Pearl, he confesses and dies.
From this we can see Hester is a brave woman.
3.2 Hester, an Honest Woman
The last hero, Roger Chillingworth, is a symbol of real evil. He has a look of calm intelligence, and indeed he is a strange mixture of civilized and savage costume. At first, Chillingworth appears to be more sinned against than sinning, and the reader may well sympathize with this lonely man who, after not having seen his wife for over two years, finds her bearing in her arms the child of another man. But before the novel has concluded, Chillingworth stands convicted of not one sin but two---one which leads almost inevitably to the other sins of the book, and a second which is far more awful than the sins of either Hester or Dimmesdale.
His first sin was one against nature, and Hester, and he commits it the day he marries his young, passionate wife. He does sin, and he knows it: “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed the budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.” Far more grievous than that first offense is the sin which begins to take possession of Chillingworth from the moment when he first appears at the scaffold scene. Hawthorne calls it the “unpardonable sin”. Briefly defined, this “unpardonable sin” is the subordination of the heart to the intellect. It occurs when one is willing to sacrifice his fellow man to gratify his own selfish interest. And, as displayed in Chillingworth, it involves a violation of those two Biblical injunctions “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “Vengeance is mine, satin the Lord.” Chillingworth does judge Dimmesdale, and he is so intent to destroy the minister. But, as is typical of the unpardonable sin, he in the process destroys himself. He tries to play God, and instead he makes of himself a devil. By Chapter IX, the change is apparent: “A large number... alarmed that Roger Chillingworth’s aspect had undergone a remarkable change while he had dwelt in town, and especially since his abode with Mr. Dimmesdale. At first his expression had been calm, meditative, and scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon him.” Chapter X develops this idea more fully, as it shows the manner in which Chillingworth works on Dimmesdale while pretending to be his friend and physician. And by Chapter XIV the transformation into a devil appears to have been completed.
By Chapter XIV “It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge.”calmly replied Hester. “Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport.”
“Nay, then, wear it, if it suit you better,” rejoined he. “A woman must needs follow her own fancy touching the adornment of her person. The letter is gaily embroidered, and shows right bravely on your bosom!”
All this while, Hester has been looking steadily at the old man, and is shocked, as well as wonder-smitten, to discern what a change has been wrought upon him within the past seven years. It is not so much that he has grown older; for though the traces of advancing life are visible, he bears his age well, and seems to retain a wiry vigor and alertness. But the former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet, which is what she best remembered in him, has altogether vanished, and been succeeded by an eager, searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look. It seems to be his wish and purpose to mask this expression with a smile; but the latter plays him false, and flickered over his visage so derisively, that the spectator can see his blackness all the better for it. Ever and anon, too, there comes a glare of red light out of his eyes; as if the old man's soul are on fire, and keep on smoldering duskily within his breast, until, by some casual puff of passion, it is blown into a momentary flame. This he repressed, as speedily as possible, and strive to look as if nothing of the kind had happened.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth is a striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil's office. This unhappy person has effected such a transformation, by devoting himself, for seven years, to the constant analysis of a heart full of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated over.
The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne's bosom. Here was another ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her.
“I must reveal the secret,” answered Hester firmly. “He must discern thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know not. But this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid. So far as concerns the overthrow or preservation of his fair fame and his earthly state, and perchance his life, he is in thy hands. Nor do I- whom the scarlet letter has disciplined to truth, though it be the truth of red-hot iron, entering into the soul- nor do I perceive such advantage in his living any longer a life of ghastly emptiness, that I shall stoop to implore thy mercy. Do with him as thou wilt! There is no good for him- no good for me- no good for thee! There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze.”
“Woman, I could well-nigh pity thee!” said Roger Chillingworth, unable to restrain a thrill of admiration too; for there was a quality almost majestic in the despair which she expressed. “Thou hadst great elements. Peradventure, hadst thou met earlier with a better love than mine, this evil had not been. I pity thee, for the good that has been wasted in thy nature!”
Hatred, fear, and shame are the passions which revel through the book. To show how a man may so hate as to be content to sacrifice everything to his hatred; how another may fear so that, even though it for the rescue of his soul, he can not bring himself to face the reproaches of the world; how a woman may bear her load of infamy openly before the eyes of all men, —this has been Hawthorne’s object. And surely no author is ever more successful.
Through compare the two different characters we should find the character of Hester, she is an honest woman. She has the courage to face every difficulty trouble.
3.3 Hester, a Kindhearted Woman
In the beginning, Hester Prynne is publicly condemned there. As depicted in the book, the public gathering at the prison and at the scaffold, both of which are located in central common spaces, speak to a Puritan belief: the belief that sin not only permeates our world but that it should be actively sought out and exposed so that it can be punished publicly. Although Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, she again refuses to identify her child’s father. Indeed, she accepts her humanity rather than struggles against it.
The beliefs of the general public at that time can easily be summed up in the first scaffold scene, which also gives a prospective of what Hester Prynne must deal with. On the summer morning when our story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue. For the public, Hester’s punishment is reasonable. They don’t pay any pity on her, but take her punishment as one way of amusing themselves. It is a typical phenomenon of Puritanism thought. And the introduction of the words “Boston”, “Cornhill”, “King’s introduction” also brings to the mind a picture of historic Boston and early American Puritanism. Boston, a staunch Puritanical town, is a moralistic and gloomy place where the citizens dress in drab colors and lack any liveliness. Even on the Election Day holiday, they cannot relax and enjoy themselves. Here the stonehearted Puritans are about to denounce Hester. She is forced to stand on a high platform, called scaffold, in full view of everyone, as a public penance for committing adultery. One of the women said, “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.” How stonehearted they are.
However, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not infrequently insulted the hand that fed them. Much of the time, which she might readily have applied to the better efforts of her art, she employs in making coarse garments for the poor. It is probable that there is an idea of penance in this mode of occupation, and that she offers up a real sacrifice of enjoyment, in devoting so many hours to such rude handiwork.
The poor, as we have already said, whom she seeks out to be the objects of her bounty, often reviles the hand that is stretched forth to succor them. Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she enters in the way of her occupation, are accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that falls upon the sufferer's defenseless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound. Hester has schooled herself long and well; she never responds to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson that rise irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsides into the depths of her bosom. She is patient- a martyr, indeed- but she forbears to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse.
Hester ultimately finds happiness by venturing beyond the confines of pure Puritanism though it is her Puritan faith that causes her life to stay in Boston and wear the scarlet letter. Chillingworth is unable to stray from his strict adherence to logic and reason. He is doomed by needing to know who has committed the sinful act of adultery with his wife. His logic and reason guide him to his answer but his drive to know eventually weakens and kills him. Reverend Dimmesdale strays from his Puritan beliefs when he committed adultery. His struggle is not with reason but with his stead adherence to the Puritan belief. Dimmesdale does not find reason within himself for his relationship with Hester nor does he reveal the truth about his sinful relationship until he realizes he is dying. So in this Puritanism society, everyone no matter who has done something wrong will get punished.
Whether for this reason, or for others, Hester stays in the colony. She earns a living as a seamstress. Hester has “in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic”that shows in her needle-work. Although the Puritans' sumptuary laws (which regulate personal expenditure and displays of luxury) restrict ornament, she finds a market for her goods — the ministers and judges of the colony have occasion for pomp and circumstance, which her needlework helps supply. She uses her money to help the needy, although they scorn her in return.
Because of her hard-working and kindheartedness, she makes the letter “A” no longer means “Adultery”, but “Able” “Angle”. From this we know she is a kindhearted woman.
3.4 Hester, a Freedom Pursuer
The novel begins as Hester nears the end of her prison term for adultery. While adultery is considered a grave threat to the Puritan community, such that death is considered a just punishment, the Puritan authorities weigh the long absence and possible death of her husband in their sentence. Thus, they settle on the punishment of permanent public humiliation and moral example: Hester is to forever wear the scarlet letter A on the bodice of her clothing.
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, has habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as is altogether foreign to the clergyman. She has wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they are now holding a colloquy that is to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roams as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she has looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators has established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes has been to set her free. The scarlet letter is her passport into regions where other women dare not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These have been her teachers- stern and wild ones- and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.
While the novel is, in large part, a record of the torment, Hester suffers under the burden of her symbol of shame. Eventually, after the implied marriage of her daughter Pearl and the death of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, Hester becomes an accepted and even a highly valued member of the community. Instead of being a symbol of scorn, Hester, and the letter A, according to the narrator, became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. The people of the community even come to Hester for comfort and counsel in times of trouble and sorrow because they trust her to offer unselfish advice toward the resolution of upsetting conflict. Thus, in the end, Hester becomes an important figure in preserving the peace and stability of the community.
The stigma gone, Hester heaves a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. Oh, exquisite relief! She has not known the weight, until she is the freedom! By another impulse, she takes off the formal cap that confines her hair; and down it falls upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seems gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush is glowing on her cheek, which has been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of the beauty, comes back from what men call the irrevocable past, and cluster themselves, with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour. And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky has been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanishes with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the grey trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood's heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.
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