As created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, the character of Hester Prynne is a powerful woman. She interacts impressively with those around her in the epoch that the story takes place – Puritan America of the 1640’s. If she had lived in the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) it is certain that she would also be looked upon as an influential woman of that time. In fact, if she had lived in our day, there is no doubt that she would be a leader among women in our society.
The source of Hester’s power is her moral integrity. Now, that may be a fantastic claim for the main character of a novel that addresses adultery. But I am confident that you will at least understand the thesis, if not agree with it, once the evidence is presented and considered.
We will first review the social structure that prevailed in Puritan America, including the roles of men and women. We will observe how Hester related to the male hierarchy and especially how she dealt with the austere consequences of her choice that were thrust upon her. The strength of Hester’s moral character will become apparent as she remains true to promises made to other key characters in the story. Her power will clearly be made manifest in a few final scenes in which it is obvious that she is the real pillar of the most important relationships in her life.
Hester Prynne rises above the events that mold her life, and demonstrates how embracing her identity and especially her sexuality allow her to be a powerful influence for good among all those who know her. Through Hester, Hawthorne helps us see the personal power of a woman, in this case a woman of deep passion who is forced by a cold society to subdue and master that passion, which is so evident in her youth, beauty and spirit.
Hester Makes Her Appearance
We are introduced to Hester as she comes out of the jail where she had been incarcerated ostensibly for adultery and presumably where she gave birth to her daughter, Pearl a few months previously. She had come to this land ahead of a husband, who was apparently lost at sea. We are not certain if she is a member of the Puritan faith, but it is certain that she now lives among their society. Looking for direction in her time of recent loss, she seeks guidance and comfort from the local minister. Comfort turns to passion and the result is now borne in her arms.
She emerges to “a people amongst whom religion and law are almost identical” (Hawthorne, 45). The crime of adultery could have been punished by death or by public flogging, but in this case, Hester is required to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her bosom as a sign to all of her crime. Being good with the needle, she has made it into a beautiful emblem, and embroidered it with a gold thread.
Some of the people are surprised, but show no sympathy. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead,” (Hawthorne 47), proclaims one of the women in the market-place where Hester is brought forth for public ridicule. “This woman has brought shame upon us all and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” (Hawthorne 47).
The magistrates of the community are no more compassionate than the gaggle of gossiping women as they interrogate her publically and once again ask her to reveal the father of the child. They even have the Reverend Dimmesdale implore her with passionate speech to name her lover. Looking directly into his eyes, she refuses and expresses the desire that she “might endure his agony, as well as mine” (Hawthorne 63). This is a clear indication of the moral strength of this woman. She knows what it will do to the minister if she names him. But she is willing to sacrifice herself that he might continue on in his office. That is impressive! But he cannot hide from the torment of his own guilt and shame.
The Long-Lost Husband Appears
A major character in the story makes his appearance in the market place and witnesses what is taking place without revealing who he really is – Hester’s long lost husband who had been delayed by both shipwreck and falling among savages. Hester had recognized him but they did not speak until later when he comes to visit her and the child in the jail. He is a scholar and a chemist and treats the distraught pair that they may be at peace. A conversation ensues in which we come to know that theirs was a loveless marriage. He also asks her to name her lover but she continues to refuse.
He then swears her to secrecy regarding his identity. “I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” (Hawthorne 71) said Hester. And she took the oath. Once again, we see that Hester is a woman of moral integrity as she never reveals who he is until much later in the story and only then after getting his permission. She wonders what his purpose is at the time but it becomes obvious later that he is out for revenge. He promises that he will discover her lover and destroy him, which he proceeds to do by becoming close to him over time.
Hester Learns From Her Punishment
Hester accepts her punishment, wears the scarlet “A,” becomes an outcast from society and yet finds a way to provide for herself and Pearl by her skills with the needle as a seamstress. At one point, hearing talk that the magistrates are considering her fitness as a mother, she goes to the governor to deliver a pair of gloves and to discuss with him the welfare of the child. She is told that she may not see his worship now. “Nevertheless, I will enter,” (Hawthorne 96) she answered as she pushes past the servant and makes her way into the house to find the governor. By this one simple action we sense the dignity and power of this woman. She cannot be deterred when she has a mission to perform.
She has heard aright, they have been considering the child’s welfare and ask her mother what she can do for her. “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this,” (Hawthorne 102) and lays her finger on the scarlet letter. She has obviously already become a wiser woman as she emphasizes the lessons are for Pearl’s good. They address Pearl directly and ask her who made her, hoping to determine if she has learned from her mother some basic Christian doctrine. Pearl replies that she has been plucked by her mother off the wild rose bushes that grew by the prison door.
Hester Defends Herself With Passion
It doesn’t look good for Hester but she passionately defends herself by proclaiming, “God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness—she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” (Hawthorne 104) Wow! What passion!
She then turns to Reverend Dimmesdale and says, “Speak thou for me! Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest—for thou hast sympathies which these men lack—thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!” (Hawthorne 105)
She knows what she is doing. Here is the father and she knows that he must defend her rights as the mother or risk exposure himself. Once again, the moral courage of Hester shines forth as she courageously defends herself by virtue of her position as a woman and mother, in spite of the control of the male-dominated system. Her influence upon Dimmesdale is obviously very powerful as he is able to convince the governor that Pearl should remain with Hester, for both their sakes. The mission for which Pearl was born has not yet been fulfilled.
Hester gets Permission to Break Her Oath
Space does not permit numerous other examples that demonstrate the power of this woman so we will consider the two most obvious. Let us skip forward to the forest scene where the Reverend Dimmsdale is returning from a visit to a friend. It is Hester’s intention to reveal to her lover the true identity of the man who is seeking to destroy him. As was noted earlier, she obtained permission to break her oath after confronting her husband and demanding that he release her from her bond.
She can no longer stand what her husband has been doing to her lover with his slow torture, both emotional and probably chemical. She convinces the old man with her eloquent and passionate speech that the Reverend needs to know the truth. Relenting to her persuasion, he says “It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now, go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man” (Hawthorne 163).
The Famous Forest Encounter
She waits for the Reverend on the forest path. She calls his name and they begin their first private conversation in seven years since the night of their passion. His pain is almost palpable to Hester. He is so miserable because of the lie he has been living for so long. She reveals the true identity of the doctor; that he was once her husband and that he has been taking his revenge out on the Reverend for all these years. She begs his forgiveness. He refuses.
“Oh, Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame!—the indelicacy!—the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this!—I cannot forgive thee!” (Hawthorne 183) And then, with the power that only a woman has, and in what is arguably the best scene in the book,
…with sudden and desperate tenderness she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her—for seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear, and live! (Hawthorne 183)
The Power of a Passionate Woman
He cannot resist the power of this passionate embrace and so forgives her and asks God to forgive them both. Now for only a brief moment in the forest, we are privileged to witness once again the awesome power of this woman as they make plans to leave and go away together to England. “If this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain—so tender to soothe!” (Hawthorne 190) Hester then
undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves. The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream … The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair, and down it fell 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 seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour (Hawthorne 191).
This scene is so powerful because it illustrates the influence of one woman upon a man whom she loves. Such was “the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly-born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (Hawthorne 192) Trite as it may seem, and overused as the phrase may be, Hester’s personal power was the power of love – a love that heals and that binds two souls together. And Hester was blessed with an overabundance of this powerful gift.
We must conclude this essay demonstrating the power of this woman by considering the last scene. After delivering an emotional election-day speech, the minister comes forth from the church and goes to where Hester and Pearl have been waiting for him at the scaffold, the same place where she was publically ridiculed for her crime seven years earlier. He has resolved that he is too sick to live much longer and decides that running away is not the best thing to do. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
“Hester Prynne … in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! … Come, Hester—come! Support me up yonder scaffold” (Hawthorne 237).
Drawing obvious strength from Hester as she supports him with her arm about him, he makes public confession of his part in the crime of passion that brought forth little Pearl. Speaking in the third person, “He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! (Hawthorne 240) Baring his breast, he shows the multitude the he too bears the mark of his sin, even though it is not described in detail.
“Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.” (Hawthorne 240). He acknowledges Pearl as his child and she kisses him. She has been waiting for this day for so long. At last, her earthly father has acknowledged her as his. “A spell was broken … Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled” (Hawthorne 240). The minister dies after his confession, now believing that his soul is saved and attributing it to the torture of Hester’s husband and the ignominy of his confession before the people of his crime and in hiding his sin all those years.
Although it seems such a sad and unfulfilling ending, think about what has just happened, all because Hester Prynne endured her punishment with courage and strength of character. She did not give up. She loved Pearl and raised her as best she could. She turned a deplorable and unfair situation into a triumph because of her determination to see that things were set right in the end. She suffered public humiliation and ignominy for seven years while it appeared that the man who was her partner in crime got away, adored by others.
And yet, because of her love for this man, she was able to cause him to confess his crime, acknowledge his child and perhaps, even help to redeem his soul. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” (Hawthorne 241) Nathaniel Hawthorne left us with the dying words of the Reverend expressing doubt that he and Hester could ever be together in the hereafter. “I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion” (Hawthorne 241).
But love knows no bounds, including time and space. Who is to say, if these were real characters, that they couldn’t be together in the world to come, bound by the power of the love demonstrated by Hester Prynne? Hester lived on, quietly, and became something of a legend in the community of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace because of her suffering. She continued to wear the scarlet letter to the end of her days, but she wore it as a symbol of her power. This is a power that no man could ever wield. Such a power belonged only to a woman with the courage and strength of moral character like that of Hester Prynne.
Source: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850.
New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
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