Because of the society she lives in, Hester’s enforced wearing of the scarlet letter is intended to be a punishment, an admonition by the puritan New England society she lives in, but as the novel proceeds the effect on Hester is not what her society expected and the letter itself comes to stand for things other than ‘Adulteress’. This paper will argue that the effect of the letter on Hester is, by the end of the novel, to make her as accepted member of society again and that the scarlet letter is not effective in the way it was intended to be the town court. The letter is intended to stigmatize her, but it does not work – by the end of the novel, some townsfolk have forgotten that is stands for ‘adulteress.’
However, in Chapter 2 her exit from the jail shows that the scarlet letter has already had an effect on her while she has been incarcerated. The townspeople have gathered to watch Hester’s release, but they are confronted by this sight
On the breasts of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore... (Chapter 2, paragraph 8)
Hawthorne comments that this early Puritan colony did not really approve of art, so to embellish and decorate the letter, as Hester has done, is a subversive act of rebellion. Her hair has also been \arranged by Hester especially for the occasion of her release from prison: her aim is to show the townsfolk that her spirit has not been broken by her time in jail and she does not regret her crime. Here at the start of the novel the letter has already had an effect on Hester; she has used it to display her artistic leanings and to defy the society that has made her wear it she refuses to be defined by a single letter with a single meaning. She has committed adultery, but that act is not her defining act and so she decorates and embellishes the letter to rebel against her sentence and to preserve her independence in her society. The letter has the opposite effect from what was intended. Hawthorne (Chapter 2, paragraph 9) tells us
Those who has before known her and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.
Overall Hawthorne tells us “It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of her ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (Chapter 2, paragraph 9)) Hester remains “by herself”, for the rest of the novel, living on the very edge of town and, as the years go by, the embellishment of the letter A continues and her isolation from society fades. Hester’s sense of independence and her rebellion against the narrow morality of her society is demonstrated by the way she wears the letter: it is meant to be a sign of shame; Hester wears it as a badge of pride, and to show that a single human being can resist the glib and simple morality that can reduce her personality and character to a single letter. What the court had intended to be a stigma for Hester has been transformed into a decoration.
However, although Hester committed adultery there were mitigating circumstances. Because of this the letter is ineffective as a punishment. She and the whole town were convinced that her husband must be dead because he has been missing for so long. Nonetheless, Hester’s real crime is not having a child out of marriage – the product of love which is a wonderful and positive emotion. Hester’s real crime has been to keep the identity of the father secret, because the father is Arthur Dimmesdale, the local church minister. Hester’s defiance of the court shows a strong, loyal and determined character. If she had revealed the name of the father, then the court might have not sent her to jail or even made her wear the scarlet letter – but she defied the court and refused to co-operate with it, In this sense, Hester almost chooses to wear the letter, because she is so loyal to her former over
As the years go by, Hester’s skills as a needlewoman are much in demand and slowly she resumes relations with society, once again showing that the effect of the letter is not what the town had hoped for. Her appearance at the start of the novel is an act of desperate defiance, but this changes in the novel to a calm and strong acceptance of her exclusion. However, Hester prefers to live on the edge of a town whose laws and morality she neither respects nor likes. The letter A also stands for America and the egotism of its settlers who think that by naming it, they can own it and define it. For example, when Dimmesdale looks up at the sky at night and sees a letter A, it as if, Hawthorne writes man “had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate.” (Chapter 12, paragraph 31) Hester, like America, refuses to be pinned down by one meaning: she is more than an adulteress, much more.
Hester makes the best of her situation, but in Chapters 17 to 19 we can see the effect of the the letter from a different perspective. The letter does have some effect, because on the one occasion she removes it everything changes. In these chapters she and Pearl are alone with Dimmesdale (Hester’s former lover and the father of Pearl) in the wilderness of the forest. It is as if only when they are removed from society that they truly be themselves. When Hester takes the letter A off and discards it, takes off her cap and loosens her hair, we see the oppressive effect it has had by what happens next:
All at once 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 gray trunks of the solemn trees. (Chapter 18, paragraph 12)
Only in the forest, away from society, can Hester and Arthur recreate their love. Hester’s beauty becomes apparent in this scene and we are aware of how she must feel in town, separated from the man she loves.
It is interesting to note that the effect of the letter on Hester is completely different from its effect on Dimmesdale. Hester, since leaving jail, has lived a life free from guilt, because she is not embarrassed by the love that produced her beautiful child. She is proud of that illicit love and its product – Pearl. Dimmesdale is different. He is haunted by what he has done, and consumed by guilt – perhaps because he is a Christian minister and he has broken the morality that he seeks to promote. The situation is made worse because he has to work closely with Chillingworth – Hester’s one-time husband. In Chapter 23 ‘The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter’, Dimmesdale confesses his sin in public and takes his shirt off the reveal that a scarlet letter has become branded on his own chest because of his excessive guilt,
...as Hester had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself been through a mighty trouble. (Chapter 24, paragraph 11)
And so through wearing the scarlet letter, Hester, in the course of the novel, moves from ignominy to acceptance by the end, her help and advice sought by others who have rebelled against society’s rules, thus proving my opening thesis correct. Hester’s story is that of a rebel, one who chooses to live as an outside society because they feel constrained by society’s laws and values: this image of the protagonist unable to live in a constricting society, is central to American fiction, Like Huck Finn, like Holden Caulfield, like many of William Faulkner’s characters, all of whom live on the margins of society or reject it, Hester is a true American heroine.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1854. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Print.