Scarlet Letter: Hawtorne's Feminism in the Puritan Society

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In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne created a story about a woman who was to endure the disgrace of the scarlet letter “A” that sewed on her garments as a symbol of her adultery. This character's name is Hester Prynne. Nathaniel Hawthorne created this story after he was fired from his job working in the Custom House in Salem. Hawthorne is from a strong Puritan background, but some say he is canonized as a feminists writer. Even though Hawthorne originated from a conservative heritage, no Puritan sexists could have created the character of Hester Prynne as he did. He made Hester a strong, independent woman and has indicated great sympathy towards her. However, in Nina Baym’s criticism article, Revisiting Hawthorne’s Feminism, if The Scarlet Letter was a biblical story, the Puritan society would have viewed Hester’s circumstance as “Authur Dimmesdale was the protagonist and Hester Prynne as the temptress Eve; Hester was no more than a sexual and doctrinal temptress whose scheming led poor Arthur Dimmesdale, the novel’s best hero, astray” (Baym 563).

At the beginning of the book, there is a short autobiographical allegory of the narrator who finds the scarlet letter, puts it on his chest, and feels it burn. The narrator signifies that he relates to the scarlet letter and admires the woman who wore it, he did not see the authorities’ intentions of its punishment. Through Hester, he exemplifies something different, being able or admirable. Hawthorne does not agree with Puritan laws and views, he would rather show how males are also imperfect and that there should be equality between the two genders. “Hawthorne’s male characters usually oppress or reject women at his own cost as well as hers, rather than surrender to them, leads to the male’s downfall” (Baym 563). Hawthorne has created Hester as the Heroine and Dimmesdale as the Damsel in Distress. He is struggling with his guilt conscience while he is having to watch Hester’s ability to make something of herself and be able to benefit from her mistakes. Through this novel, Hawthrone provided a new shape of writing to the New England literary culture that moved into the Romantic thoughts of Literature.

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The Scarlet Letter’s interpretation of the Dark Romantics Movement is in Hester's decision to have a relationship with Dimmesdale that goes against Puritan morals. As we know the prison in the novel represents the Puritan society of strict and harsh standards, it also symbolizes Hester standing on her own, regardless of what others may think.

Baym states, “people are challenged that Hawthorne’s aggressive or rebellious women are threats to masculinity; that his inevitable punishing or containing of truant women demonstrated deep hostility to them and a profoundly conservative view of their proper place; that this penalizing reflected discomfort over the ongoing feminization of the literary profession” (Baym 564).

Hester was wrong in the aspect of committing adultery, but she admitted her transgressions and was punished for them. She could have exposed Dimmesdale as the father, instead, she decided to stay away from Dimmesdale because she respected and loved him. During this time, she began to reinvent herself by being able to provide for her and Pearl. This was not normal back in those days, that was a man’s job. She was rewarded for her honesty and truth through new reputations for herself. Majority of the time, women are looked down upon for things that men get away with. In another article, Dearest Beloved, Baym correlates that T. Walker Herbert accurately describes men, “as their rivalry takes center stage, the narrator's disengage from their heroines ….They put up a fog of ambiguities, ironies, self-consciousness, and multiple points of view to screen their convert participation in the men’s struggle for narcissistic self-empowering” (Herbert 246-47). Hawthorne shares that men think that women need them to save them in every crisis, but Hester Prynne is a strong example of the opposite. She went through all of the shame and guilt that was thrown at her from society alone. Dimmesdale thought it was best to save himself before he could save Hester, which shows the situational irony of the fact that he is a Minister who is supposed to help others repent their wrongdoings to God. His actions are always just about himself.

Nathaniel Hawthorne created a separation between the authority and middle-class in The Scarlet Letter. The culture of Hawthorne’s society oppressed women into bourgeois services and convinced them that their natural duties will cherish and protect them. Society needed to have control over them so that there would not be any movements of women’s rights or social change. Hathornes responded by creating Hester as a sign of the emerging middle-class. Sacvan Bercovitch thinks the return of Hester in Boston was the novel most important event, “A woman’s own choice, Hester elects to become the agent of her own domestication in the most carefully prepared for reversal on classic American Literature, Hester herself imposes the symbol” (Baym 567). Hester was not phased by what society thought of her. After she comes back from settling Pearl into her new home in Europe, she comes back to live in the same cottage and she even offers guidance to those who come to her. “She had returned, therefore resumed - of her own free will, for not the magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,- resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale” (Hawthorne 154). Hester finally acknowledged how much her past defined her, and that she found a sense of contentment in the choices she has made. The people who seek her guidance are because of her experiences with sin and shame, even though society could never have seen her as an example for people to look up to. Typically, they would go to a Preacher (Dimmesdale) for advice, but as seen through Hester’s situation, Dimmesdale was battling a harsh battle of sin within himself. He was not truthful with his followers and it led to his death.

During the time Hawthorne wrote and published The Scarlet Letter, having any female protagonist or hero was unheard of. The conservative beliefs of the Puritan society to keep women down are not found in Hawthorne’s work. However, his work gives a struggle with the objection against social arrangements that are so unjust to women. From Baym’s readings, “Stressing the way Hawthrone inevitably punishes and/or silences unconventional women, they find his plots antifeminist, reinforcing a culturally conservative agenda, and testimony to authorial misogyny” (Baym 565). Hester undergoes harsh punishment by the masculine egotistic government and they force her to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her chest, but Dimmesdale gets away with no discipline at all. Hester and Dimmesdale's sin is the same but Hester is caught while Dimmesdale is free, he conceals his sin due to his position and status that the society put on a pedestal above everyone else. “While thus suffering under bodily diseases, and gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul … Reverend Dimmesdale has achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office. He won it, indeed in great part, by his sorrows’’ (Hawthorne 88). Dimmesdale’s sermons, from the perspective of the town, are the best they have ever been. His ability to be a Reverend is enhanced by the fact he feels far more wicked than many in the crowd. However, Hester was rewarded with her strength by following her heart, while Dimmesdale was punished for staying discreet in his secrets and it ultimately destroyed him. Hester succeeded as a single mother by supporting herself and Pearl, and when Pearl grew up she was valued as a member of the community. She has a sympathetic heart that has learned many lessons from her mistakes, Dimmesdale’s cold heart prompted his demise.

Towards the end of the novel, Hester suggested that Dimmesdale should leave Boston so that he can be happy again. She wants him to let go of his sins and to travel his journey alone, as she was through the whole punishment process of their infidelity. In Chapter 16, Hester has one plan she intends to accomplish, “ to make known to Mr. Dimmesdale, at whatever risk of present pain or ulterior consequences, the true character of the man who had crept into his intimacy” (Hawthorne 110). She wanted to be honest with him about Roger Chillingworth and upfront with the town about Dimmesdale being Pearl’s father, but Dimmesdale persuades her not to tell anyone. She then feels remorseful for how depressed Dimmesdale is. Dimmesdale’s response is all for himself by requesting her to accompany him because he doesn’t have the strength or courage to venture out in the world. Once again Dimmesdale manipulates Hester and Hawthorne describes Hester as “the wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart. Only a woman’s heart can be so worked upon” (Baym 573). Hawthorne expresses that Hester is in love with Dimmesdale, but he is in love with himself. He only looks after himself, he doesn’t help Hester whatsoever. After Dimmesdale's death, we do not see Hester weep or mourn the loss of her lover. We see her life without the love of a man. She didn’t need Dimmesdale after all. She has disentangled herself from the abuse of authority to find a life of independence.

All of Hester's actions were based on what was best for her daughter, Pearl. She sacrificed everything for Pearl, who was Hester’s greatest blessing and her downfall in society. Whenever the townsmen were contemplating taking away Pearl from Hester, she was ready to defend her own even if it took everything she had. Pearl was Hester’s treasure and was the only thing keeping her heart from going over and signing her name to the devil. She turned to Dimmesdale and cried, “thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much stronger they are, when that mother had but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose my child!” (Hawthorne 72). Pearl was what kept Hester good and alive. God blessed her with a wonderful child that led to the redemption of her sins. If Hester was the seductive temptress as said in the first paragraph, she would have died, not Dimmesdale. Instead, she survived through the love she had for her daughter. The last thing to take away from Baym’s article is, “As long as there are two sexes in the world, a just and human polity must perceive each as equal to the other. But the very difference between the sexes that demand better forms of human intimacy also impedes their realization” (Baym 575). The relationship between her and Dimmesdale was all about him. She did not find happiness in a man, but in herself and her daughter. Through Hawthorne’s feministic view of Hester’s sin, although he does not encourage adultery, he feels that her sin was not as bad as everyone thought it was. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth's sin was out of selfishness and revenge, while Hester’s sin was out of love and passion. She was the one who admitted her sin, but her punishment outweighed her crime. Without her punishment, she would have never been strong enough to face the Puritan society and would have still been under their control.

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