Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is the narrative of a fallen woman whose story is not the result of her own innate character, but of social forces which execute their power upon her and the subsequent transformations that these forces evoke. Thus, the personal opinion of this reader is that Hester Prynne truly is a courageous heroine who, prone to flaws like all human beings, makes a choice, which changes her life forever. Whether it was a wrong choice or a feat any of us would endeavor upon is questionable, because as it was said, it is not so much Hester’s instinctive course of action, as much as it is the result of current state of life.
In the character of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne portrays a heroic societal opposition, by creating a renegade heroine who possesses a heroic dignity, a rebellious spirit, nonconformity and whose powerful free-thinking overcomes the borders of Puritan morality. Like in any heroic story, there is a wrong which has to be set right. The fact that it is Hester herself who seems to have committed this apparently vile and unforgivable crime of adultery, does not affect her portrayal as the heroine of the story. Even though we are not acquainted with the life of Hester Prynne prior to the shameful affair, it is clear that she married not for love, but for something else, something that the reader never finds out. In addition, during the time preceding her marriage, she was a passionate young woman, strong willed and impetuous, and her marriage to the emotionally disabled Roger Chillingworth seems utterly out of character for such a young woman. We also come to realize that the early time of their marriage was far from a fairy tale, with extended periods of neglect and lack of any affection. Thus, one cannot but feel sorry for the tragic circumstances that have bound such a lively and zealous young woman to such a distorted soul.
In seeking love and affection from another man, Hester appears to have committed one of the worst sins a woman is able to commit according to the Puritan, patriarchal society: adultery, and she becomes stigmatized for the rest of her days as “the scarlet woman.” Some critics point to the fact that her willing acquiescence to wear the burning letter “A” renders her pathetic and destroyed. I highly disagree with them and believe that Hester’s wearing of the letter and her silent agreement to her punishment actually accentuate her heroic traits and lead her character to become altered: “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” (Hawthorne 174). In time, the letter loses its shameful symbolism and transforms into an emblem of Hester’s ability and helping nature. Like every hero, she bravely takes on her punishment, fair or not, and stoically sacrifices her own name, her own value in the Puritan society for the sake of saving the name of her child’s father, reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Consequently, she is proving herself as a heroine who possesses not only the courage to take upon herself the full wrath of the Puritan society, but also selflessness and desire to shelter the ones she loves.
In reality, the letter serves no purpose for Hester. She has her own personal reminder of her affair with Dimmesdale: their daughter Pearl, who seems to be just like Hester was in her youth, possessing imagination, spirit, joviality and passion, traits Hester can no longer display. She perseveres in her effort to keep silent and obedient, even if that means suffocating her true inner, passionate self, because she is well aware of the fact that if she acts rashly and disrespectfully, she risks losing her daughter. This way, what seemed to have been “sinful” romantic desires transform into tender motherhood, not only to her own daughter, but to the poor and the needy around her.
After the final revelation and the subsequent marriage of her child, Hester brings her Odyssey to an end by returning to the place of her nascent sin: “Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But . . . the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too” (Hawthorne 227). With this action, she gives the final blow to social injustice. She bravely chooses to wear yet again the initially shameful letter, because she considers the past an important part of who she is now. As it is the case with other heroes, her ordeals have made her stronger, more courageous, more convicted and dedicated to overcome the obstacles. She proudly continues to wear the letter proving to the world that one should always learn from one’s mistakes, and never deny the past merely because someone erroneously deemed it shameful.
Throughout the narrative, Hester chooses to stay on the righteous path of divine and mysterious truth, but only in so far as it concerns her. She refuses to speak of the “sinful” actions of others, she can only reveal her own. Remaining stoically resilient in the face of hardships she undergoes, she portrays a truly human heroine who takes responsibility for her own actions in the societal processes sequestered in the highly moral and rigid Puritan society.
Barlowe, Jamie. The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Cuddy, Louis A. “Mother-Daughter Identification in The Scarlet Letter.” Hester Prynne. Ed. Harold Bloom. Chelsea: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004. 151-166. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.
Herbert, T. Walter, Jr. “PMLA.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, Una Hawthorne, and The Scarlet Letter: Interactive Selfhoods and the Cultural Construction of Gender. Vol. 103, No. 3. (1988): 285-297. Web. October 2011.