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The Evolution of Hester’s Scarlet Letter Essay

In the novel, The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is forced to publically wear her sin on her sleeve. She committed adultery, which was a sin that was highly chastised by the Puritan society. The Scarlet Letter that Hester wore first symbolized the burden and humiliation that accompanied the sin. Throughout the novel however, the meaning of the letter changed to parallel Hester’s own development into a strong, independent woman.

The letter starts out as a symbol of shame. A public trial in the presence of her fellow New England citizens forced Hester to wear this shameful letter. As Hester was standing on the pillory, her punishment for committing adultery was to display the “mark of shame upon her bosom” for all to see (Pg 58). The Scarlet Letter diminished Hester’s image by subjecting her to public humiliation, which affected her emotionally and mentally. Puritan women at the pillory claimed that the Scarlet Letter could possibly be hidden on the outside by physically covering it, but “ the pain of it will be always in [Hester’s] heart” (Pg 49). Hester had to endure belittlement and harassment at the hands the disappointed Puritan mob.

Even the Puritan children, “the most intolerant brood that ever lived,” made disparaging remarks about her (Pg 83) because they “scorned [Hester and Pearl] in their hearts”(Pg 84). Hester was forced to the bottom of the social ladder if even children can get away with making fun of an elder without fear of punishment in such a rigid society. The various tragic events exacerbated the guilt that Hester felt. This is demonstrated when she told her husband, Chillingsworth, that it was her fault for committing adultery to conceal the identity of the person with whom she committed the sin.

She hid the identity of Pearl’s father because the constant humiliation and rebuke that she had to endure led her to believe that her sin was completely her burden to bear. Hester knew that “her deed had been evil” (Pg 80) because Pearl acts out in a hostile and sinful manner. Pearl has grown to become a walking embodiment of the Scarlet Letter. Consequently, Hester felt overwhelming guilty. However, as the novel progresses Hester’s attitude towards the Scarlet Letter changes and the meaning of the letter goes through a metamorphosis that would help Hester wear the letter with pride.

When Hester no longer saw the Scarlet Letter as a symbol of shame, it represented her freedom from the letter’s hold over her as she wore the letter with pride. Though she could have easily been defeated and sunken into despair, she persisted through the hardships. She became a productive member of society by sewing miraculous materials, which allowed the people’s perception of her to change. This can be interpreted as a change in meaning of the Scarlet Letter. Before, it had stood for adultery, but eventually people recognized it as a symbol of “her many good deeds” (Pg 142). The changes in the letter, both physically and symbolically, reflected the perception that people had of Hester.

Hester transformed into a “powerful peculiar,” an individual who was “so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick” (Pg 142). Despite her initial difficult circumstances, Hester turned around her life. As Hester experienced her transformation, she showed resentment towards her punishment. She knew that there were others in the community who committed sins, some even greater than hers, but these atrocities went unpunished. Consequently, Hester’s changing attitude revealed that while she saw her act as a sin, she felt that her punishment was unjustified due to the hypocrisy that was prevalent within the society.

Hester realized that the persecution against her was unfair given the hypocritical standards of the society and that other people should perhaps wear their own Scarlet Letter for the sins that they have committed. Her path to redemption instilled the confidence in her to believe that she was not inferior to others; if others were not going to own up to their own mistakes, she was not required to do so either. She was no longer sorry for what she had done because while she faced the consequences head-on, others were cowardly concealing their sins in order to evade public humiliation and punishment. Due to the double standard in society, Hester decided that the act was not as evil as it was made out to be by society. She told Dimmesdale that “what [they] did had a consecration of its own” (Pg 170). The Scarlet Letter was supposed to remind Hester and the townspeople of her sin, but “the Scarlet Letter had not done its office” (Pg 145).

The meaning of the Scarlet Letter that Hester wore changed throughout the novel to parallel Hester’s own path to enlightenment and freedom from societal pressure. The metamorphosis of Hester’s image and the change in her inner thoughts represented how she overcame the burden of the Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter was an embodiment of Hester’s life.


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