“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne lived and worked during the middle period of the nineteenth century, but his family background and interest was focused upon the ideals of the early colonists of the strongly Puritan-influence New England, to which he was an heir. In depicting his stories, Hawthorne wrote using a style and subject matter that accurately reflected these early colonists. There are numerous concepts contained within the story The Scarlet Letter that are difficult for a modern reader to understand. In truth, some of these remained unfamiliar to Hawthorne himself, but he understood they were elemental to the early Puritans and attempted to understand them by putting himself in their place. In doing so, he developed a stronger sense of the strength it required to live as a woman in these highly restrictive times. While the men might have gained some release in their ability to take leadership roles in the community and relax a bit at home behind closed doors, the woman was always judged in relation to her performance based on community standards. In his depiction of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter can be definitively classified as a feminist novel.

In considering the concept of feminism and feminist novels, it is important to define just what is intended in using the term. Generally speaking, feminism is best described as a structured movement that encourages equality for women and minorities in economic, social and political spheres. It is inarguable that women have historically been subjugated to second-class status within many of the world’s societies through deliberate oppressive tactics as a means of establishing a dominant patriarchal society. The end goal of the Feminist movement is to liberate women, homosexuals, minorities and even men from unequal standards. “Patriarchy is the system which oppresses women through its social, economic and political institutions. Throughout history men have had greater power in both the public and private spheres. To maintain this power, men have created boundaries and obstacles for women, thus making it harder for women to hold power” (Kramarae et al, 1985). Thus, a feminist novel may be described as a novel that struggles to argue for greater female equality. However, current feminist ideology encompasses many diverse ideas which influences the way the term is applied to literary criticism. “Today, there are as many definitions of feminism as there are feminists. Each definition of feminism depends on a number of factors including one’s own beliefs, history and culture” (Kramarae et al, 1985). What this history demonstrates is that the concept of feminism must be applied in keeping with the prevalent ideas and belief structures of the period.

The early Puritans who settled New England held to a strict social order that was based upon the individual’s perceived righteousness in relation to the rest of the community. Individuals who were considered to be closer to God had a higher social rank in the community than those who were considered to be closer to sin. “Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. The spiritual beliefs that they held were strong. This strength held over to include community laws and customs. Since God was at the forefront of their minds, He was to motivate all of their actions” (Kizer, 2008). The Bible’s Genesis story of Adam and Eve thus established the most basic element of the Puritan society, the subjugation of women under men. “They [the Puritans] also spoke of salvation in terms of ‘covenant’ … emphasis was on a personal covenant of grace, whereby God both promised life to those who exercised faith in Christ and graciously provided that faith, on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death, to the elect” (Noll, 2004). For women to express their proportionate faith, it was required that they submit to their male counterparts as their keepers, protectors and punishers. While Hawthorne presents examples of women who are as ready to punish as men, he also provides examples of women capable of acting with more compassion. Particularly in his depiction of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne suggests that women can hold to equally high standards of conduct and generosity.

Arguments may be raised that Hawthorne was attempting to provide a moral story about the evil that lurks in women. Once Hester’s failure to adhere to Puritan standards was made obvious in the birth of her fatherless child, it was clear that Hester could not have the same depth of faith as the rest of the villagers. Thus, she is permanently identified as the greatest sinner of the village. Not only did she need to suffer as a member of her gender, but it was the responsibility of the community to hold her to the lowest status as penance, physically manifested in the scarlet letter she must wear forever. However, Hester turns this badge of shame into a brand of courage and strength. Having been “of an impulsive and passionate nature” (Ch. 2), Hester has little control over her life, but remains in control of everything she does. When she is placed on the platform, the town leaders give her the opportunity to lose the brand if she will name the father. Hester decides to protect the man who has not come forward on his own. In this simple sequence, Hawthorne quickly demonstrates that while Hester’s sin might be well known, winning her a poor position in society, it is a sin that was not committed alone. He is suggesting anyone in the crowd may have committed sins as bad as or worse than Hester’s but was more successful in keeping it hidden.

At this early point in the story, Hester realizes that the image of her shame, the scarlet letter, has already been branded into the hearts and minds of her accusers while the betrayal inherent in Dimmesdale’s silence and her neighbor’s lack of Christian forgiveness has seared into her heart. She tells Dimmesdale that the letter can now never be removed: “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as well as mine!” (Ch. 3). By claiming the letter, she is seizing the only form of personal power left to her. After taking the scarlet letter, Hester proves that she is capable of supporting herself and her daughter through her sewing even in a time period when women were generally dependent on their husband. Her strength is shown as she talks with Chillingsworth in her jail cell: “‘thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any’” (Ch. 4). Hester epitomizes the traditional woman’s position in that she had no say in her marriage. Although she was apparently wild and willful in her youth, evidenced by her own memories, her interaction with Roger Chillingworth proves she has only become stronger as a result of these experiences. In seizing the letter, she seizes control of herself as well as her independence. In this depiction, Hawthorne carefully illustrates the powerless position of women in Puritan society as well as the strength of moral resolve and determination women showed in attempting to live according to the rules set forth for them, regardless of their own personal feelings.

The strict social order of the Puritans meant that there was a high degree of social control within the villages. “These Puritans insisted that they, as God’s elect, had the duty to direct national affairs according to God’s will as revealed in the Bible. This union of church and state to form a holy commonwealth gave Puritanism direct and exclusive control over most colonial activity until commercial and political changes forced them to relinquish it at the end of the 17th century” (Noll, 2004). Thus, Reverend Dimmesdale’s role as the village preacher was more involved than what we think of as a minister today. “Though not theocracies, most colonies in New England were dominated by Puritan mores and doctrine” (Clark, 1999). Understanding this makes it easier to see how Reverend Dimmesdale could not associate with Hester after Pearl was born as he was the highest moral authority in the village. He and Hester came from opposite ends of the social spectrum, one representing extreme sin and the other representing ultimate righteousness yet Hawthorne calls into question which is the greater sinner and which is the better representative of righteousness.

It is interesting to compare Hester’s strengths as a sinner to Dimmesdale’s weaknesses as a pillar of moral character and righteousness. “Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister – an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look – as of a being who felt himself quite astray, and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own” (Ch. 3). While Hester is openly shunned and condemned for her sins, Dimmesdale proves incapable of dealing with the inner accusations that torment his soul. Meanwhile, their daughter is also shunned because of the nature of her birth. She was born without a father, in obvious and undeniable violation of her mother’s wedding vows as well as the word of God. Socially speaking, this meant that she is touched by the devil himself and is therefore unclean and unworthy. Watching these effects take shape on the woman he loves as well as his own daughter, Hawthorne draws an interesting contrast between the fortitude of women and the immensity of their suffering to the weaker and less honest sufferings experienced by men. Hawthorne supports the women’s cause by suggesting that Hester, who had to endure social isolation, economic suffering, eternal lack of affection and permanent shame and guilt yet still managed to keep his secret in her heart, support her shunned child and retain the strength to continue living, was stronger than Dimmesdale who had the full-hearted financial, emotional and moral support of his community yet couldn’t overcome his fears enough to avoid death.

It is difficult for a modern audience to understand why Hester would put up with all this. It is necessary to remember that the advances of society in Hester’s time were much different from the greatly advanced communities of Hawthorne’s day. While Hester could have made her way to the next town, this would not have accomplished anything more than making the two females homeless. She had entered town with a house already built and it remained undisputedly hers as long as Chillingsworth concealed his identity. “Building homes and establishing farms required intensive and often backbreaking toil” (Jones, 1853). However, even had she overcome the housing obstacle, existing trade between the various Puritan colonies would have identified her wherever she went. “New Englanders evolved an intricate web of interdependence to meet the demand for labor, working for neighbors who sold their labor in return” (Jones, 1853). Hawthorne is careful to illustrate how Hester, like many of the women of her time, is trapped within a social system that provides no viable means of escape without the ready and willing assistance of a man.

Hester’s strength is constantly brought into focus as she is forced to stand against the symbolic figure of her husband. The idea that she will always be hunted down is suggested in the description of Roger’s eyes as having “a strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner’s purpose to read the human soul” (Ch. 2). Roger’s words to her in the prison regarding the means he will use to discover her lover, ““Believe me, Hester, there are few things whether in the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought – few things hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery … There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him … Sooner or later, he must needs be mine” (Ch. 4) also suggest that there is nowhere for Hester to go where she could possibly hide from this scrutiny. In this depiction, Hawthorne conveys the sense of the Puritan female as being always under surveillance, constantly on her guard for any slip of behavior that might be construed as defiant or outside of accepted normal behavior.

Although most of these basic Puritan ideas were still a part of Hawthorne’s family belief system at the time that he wrote The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne himself was questioning the validity and purity of these concepts, particularly as they tended to vilify and weaken women. Realizing the degree to which the ideas were held only a few generations back, Hawthorne was able to trace a progression in society that led toward a more forgiving society. While sin indeed is the ruin of all mankind, his emphasis remains on the word ‘all’ throughout this novel rather than the more common emphasis placed on the feminine gender. In Reverend Dimmesdale, Hawthorne illustrates how hidden sin is present in every man. Upon his public confession, the Reverend Dimmesdale tells Hester, “He [God] hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people!” (Ch. 23). In this statement, Dimmesdale acknowledges that he has been made a better man through his sufferings, always kept humble because of the constant reminder of his own failings as a righteous man. In making this confession, Hawthorne accedes that there may be some benefit to the concept of constant surveillance as a means of keeping one holy, but he also clearly illustrates that this process, if applied, should not be applied to only one gender or the other. The strongest character remains Hester as she learns how to carry the weight of the town’s scorn yet still retains the strength to stand on her own. In her strength, Hawthorne suggests that women are naturally far stronger and more capable than they are given room to be.

Restricted by environmental concerns, the rigid social hierarchy and the even stricter tenets of Puritanism, Hester was provided with few options. Her world was limited by her society as well as the very real physical dangers she faced if she refused to fall in line. Like many women of her time, she was trapped in marriage, depended on her husband (to keep silent) and had no option but to conform to social expectations. However, Hawthorne leaves ample room for feminist analysis as he shows Hester to be a very strong woman making the best of the situation society has locked her into. In surviving with dignity, Hester emerges as the dominant character of the novel in upholding the Puritan ideals by which the society is supposedly bound. While he may agree that the concept of ‘trial by fire’ is the best approach toward inner salvation, Hawthorne makes it clear that women, by their very position in life, are already much closer to God than the men who profess to rule them.

Works Cited

Clark, Michael P. “Puritanism.” Encyclopedia of American Literature. Steven R. Serafin & Alfred Bendixen (Eds.). New York: Continuum Publishers, 1999, pp. 921-24.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1992.

Jones, Abner Dumont. “Cotton Mather.” The Illustrated American Biography. New York: J. Milton and Company, 1853, p. 59.

Kizer, Kay. “Puritans.” University of Notre Dame, 2008. Web.

Kramarae, Cheris and Treichler, Paula A., with assistance from Ann Russo. A Feminist Dictionary. London, Boston: Pandora Press, 1985.

Noll, Mark A. “Puritanism.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd Ed.). Walter A. Elwell (Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001, p. 857.

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