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The Scarlet Letter: Living and Thriving in a Man’s World

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A tale as old as time, the role of both man and women have long been set. These roles have been given that if not met, are faced with serious judgement. Standards have been held for as long as time has been recorded. Recent years the severity of meeting these roles have become much less important and more of a personal choice. Whereas, in the past these were crucial to survive in a cruel society that demands certain standards to become a way of living. “The Scarlett Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne for example, sees an act of adultery that sends a Puritan Community reeling to try and grasp an understanding of such a horrific betrayal. The reader will see how differently men and women are treated in this society as a result of said acts. The reader will also see how different the standards for either role was held in that certain time of history. The reader will also see the very notable differences in how man and woman take this judgement and either grow from it or cower in shame.

A woman and a symbol of shame; That was what the scolding bold red ‘A’ Hester was made to wear was theoretically supposed to represent. Instead, Hester chose to turn the negative into a positive and give her symbol a whole new meaning. The purpose of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” was to reveal the level of hypocrisy the Puritan life really led in those times. The drama begins with Hester Pryne marrying a scholar, Roger Chillingworth, at a very young age. Chillingworth proceeds to send Hester to America but fails to follow her. It is in those times that follow that Hester has an affair with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. The act then results in a child, Pearl. Seeing as the setting of the story is around the 17th century, even just the idea of adultery is unfathomable. The actual act sends Hester into alienation at the hands of the puritan community. Hester is as stated earlier forced to wear the scarlet ‘A’ to shame her. She, however, chooses to let the symbol make her stronger and wears the bold ‘A’ with dignity. Although meant to represent her adultery, to Hester “the letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her, —so much power to do, and power to sympathize, —that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original satisfaction. They said that is meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (146). Hester is able to sway the community’s judgement solely using her strength and positive attitude towards the situation. As the story progresses, the community halts the alienation and begins to accept Hester back into society. The way this woman takes such a negative reaction and allows the pain to help her instead of diminish her, is a prime example of how women are able to grow from tough judgement despite set standards being broken.

Society has long held women to different standards than men and this story is no different. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale was just as big a part of the affair as Hester but he did not get a fraction of the same treatment. Hester refused to name him to the townspeople and Dimmesdale did nothing to own up to the act himself. As mentioned a child came from the affair, and Dimmesdale still refused to stand up and claim his child. The way this woman takes such a negative reaction and allows the pain to help her instead of diminish her, is a prime example of how women are able to grow from tough judgement despite set standards being broken. He wore his shame in secret and it eventually began to eat away at him. His metaphorical scarlet ‘A’ was such a heavy burden his shame over the matter began to become evident. When Dimmesdale questions, “happy are you Hester that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret,” his mortification over the matter is beginning to be expressed (151). His expressions show how a man cannot handle defying society’s standards. He allowed the shame to consume him instead of learning from the experience.

The differences of men and women’s reactions to standards is notable in the “The Scarlet Letter.” Hester is strong and better off as result of the act of sin, whereas Dimmesdale’s character is weakening as his mind overpowers him. This story highlights the strong female who does not allow society’s judgement and torment to deter her character. “Hester comes to accept her fate. She feels that in staying in Salem and accepting her punishment; in protecting the secrets of both her lover and her husband, she has accommodated her guilt, and made peace with God and the community” (The Scarlet Letter–A Story of Adultery, Shame, And Moral Conflict.). Whereas, the male lead in this story is a weak coward who cannot face the repercussions of his actions and needs saving. Dimmesdale’s “moral posture and his sinfulness – soon began to completely disassemble him” (The Scarlet Letter–A Story of Adultery, Shame, And Moral Conflict.). This story shows exactly what happens when standards are broken and society is clueless on how to deal with their ideals not being met.

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One of the most important symbols in this story was a character, Pearl. She is the product of the unforgivable sin and the way the community treats her is a direct result of their opinions on the matter. An illegitimate child is always a reminder of the affair. In the past, being an illegitimate child was not just a crime against god but also a crime against the puritan community. Pearl is not just a constant reminder of the affair, her role in society is at the bottom. The torment and alienation her mother receives is all she’s ever known. Her own father does not claim her because he too fears what society will do to him when he does. Yet, Pearl is still a symbol of hope. She does not let the negativity define her. She is very much aware of her situation and yet, her mother still sees her as a blessing. To try and find a better future, Pearl moves from the town. She “symbolizes that even though one is condemned, that doesn’t mean one’s life is over. Pearl managed to drag herself from the bottom of the social ladder to the very top” (Latta). She refused to allow society’s standards to control her and she was better off for it.

Around this period, women were still inferior to man. The puritan community held women to many more standards than man. Any attempts to break apart from these standards would result in alienation and condemnation. This specific community as did many others, believed women did not deserve the same rights as man. The community’s treatment towards Hester is a perfect example of how society does not place much value on a woman. Hester is punished by having stones hailed at her and alienated all over one moment of weakness. Her strong character was made to challenge these ridiculous standards. Hawthorne purposely highlighted how a woman was either a complete angel of devil. There was no in between with this community. Women either had to be perfect or would be seen as a complete heathen. Hawthorne’s female lead, however, refused to conform. Hester was neither an angel nor a devil, she was human. She understood her mistakes and still found her redemption. The women who spoke against these ideals were often judge and ridiculed as the community believed “the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew…before women can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (115). Hester goes above such standards as she is driven to rebel against a society who is so keen on keeping women inferior.

The Scarlett Letter further adds to ridiculous gender roles set in the puritan community by idolizing men. Men have long always been written as the tough unbreakable characters. Being seen as the superior gender, men were held to their own standards too. In the political structure of the Massachusetts colony, the “female sex remains entirely unrepresented and the powerful hold of patriarchy is maintained by the exclusively male government” (Eeckman). It was a man’s world in which women would only participate when “given” permission. This story does a great job and contradicting the puritan beliefs. The Puritan Society wanted to hold the men to such a high pedestal and yet it was the men who could not handle the repercussions of their actions. It was the men who could not handle their emotions. It was the men who weakened from the shame. Although men are usually written as the hero, Hawthorne compared the “Black Man” to a man not a woman. Hawthorne writes, “In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil’s office” to highlight the comparison (116). The men in this story in no way represent the tough brave role society has led them to believe they are. Instead the male characters in this story only cower when faced with their actions. Dimmesdale gives in to fear, while Chillingworth gives into revenge. Both characters fail to be what is expected of them.

The period of time this story is set in is so significant due to the major changes society was currently undergoing. Hawthorne meant for the Scarlett Letter to touch on certain issues that were arising in the 17th century. Women were beginning to question their limited roles and strive for more. The wanted to be included. They wanted the same rights as men. Although never clearly stated, Hester’s actions and belief correlate with feminism. Hawthorne purposely made Hester as the strong character in order to parallel what was presently occurring in history. Contradicting the puritan belief that women were weak, Hawthorne makes it very clear that the women in this story are strong. They overcome their obstacles and grow from them. Ironically the men in this novel are painted as the cowards. The Scarlet Letter “deeply reveals not only the Puritan’s bitterness and the women’s hardship, but also the strength of the Puritan consciousness and the lowness of the women’s status” (Ahmad). The contradictions are used to reveal the level of hypocrisy and ridicule that were instilled in this puritan society. In doing so, Hawthorne displays how one act can either define you and help grow as an individual or you can allow it to weaken you. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth allow the act of adultery to diminish their characters, whereas Hester and Pearl become stronger and wiser from the ordeal.

Standards have long been established in society in order to try and keep people in check. When individuals attempt to break away from these standards, society meets them with judgement. Society often fears change, but with time welcomes it. The Scarlett Letter displays just that. Hester is anything but the ordinary puritan woman. She goes against many of their values and comes to accept herself for who she is. She then proceeds to teach others to do the same. This strong female character persevered while the men around her cowered. In a society where women are not seen as very worthy, Hester showed that standards only matter if you let them. Present day, these same standards do not hold much importance as time has allowed individuals to reveal they are not important. As history changes, as do the standards. The Scarlett Letter reminds us all to go against standards in order to ignite change.

Work Cited

  1. Ahmad, Zaheer. “Hester Prynne as a Rebel to Puritan Society in Hawthorne’s Romance the Scarlet Letter.” Pp. 1-4. 2015.
  2. Eeckman, Sylvia. “Women in The Scarlet Letter.” July 2008.
  3. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter”. Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850;, 1999.
  4. Latta, Charlie. “Pearl’s Symbolism.” Teen Ink, 7 February, 2014.
  5. ‘The Scarlet Letter–A Story of Adultery, Shame, And Moral Conflict.” Uncle Guido’s Facts. Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’–Time, Inaction, And Regret, 1 November, 2015.

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The Scarlet Letter: Living and Thriving in a Man’s World. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“The Scarlet Letter: Living and Thriving in a Man’s World.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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