Female inferiority is prevalent in Puritan society. However, in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne exemplifies the ethics, independence, and beauty that defy typical feminine standards in the 17th century. Thus, Hester becomes a feminist champion in the novel through her exceptional characteristics and her support for Arthur Dimmesdale.
To begin, Hester Prynne’s good looks, talent, and untainted principles separate her from ordinary Puritans and elevates her status in the narrative. First and foremost, her beauty separates her from the classic Puritan woman. She has “dark and abundant hair” that is “so glossy that it [throws] off the sunshine with a gleam” and “a face” that is “beautiful from regularity of feature” and “a Scarlet Letter” that is “fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom” (Hawthorne 7). In Puritan society, women are taught to be submissive and to be obedient to all of her community’s ideals. Women in Puritan households withold their beauty and cover as much of themselves as possible, including their hair. Moreover, they often dress in drab colors of brown, black, and grey. Believing that ostentatious looks and dress can lead to sin and temptation, the New Englanders avoid these tendencies. But Hester’s tremendous beauty and sumptuously ornamented letter in this setting distances her from those values. These fundamental differences give her clarity from the rest of the community’s women, who live life in total compliance.
Prynne’s decision to not obscure her beauty allows her to retain her identity, unlike other women who submit themselves to the constrictive boundaries of society. Moreover, she is described as “Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (Hawthorne 113). Able is to possess adequate ability or resources to accomplish something. In the 17th century, women are considered mediocre to men and rely on them to provide. Strength and able are words that describe a man in this time period. Women are typically left at home to clean, cook, and watch the children. However, Hester, unlike other women, can provide for herself. Her skill with a needle provides all the necessary income for her family. A responsibility such as this would be considered something the man in the house would do. Hester is able to have independence, something all Puritan women lack. With the ability to provide for herself, she gains the freedom of life that men in the community exercise.
In addition, Prynne is honest. She “[has] striven to be true! Truth [is] one virtue which [she holds] fast, and [does] hold fast through all extremity” (Hawthorne 149). After leading a deceitful affair, Hester acknowledges her sin and submits to a life of public humiliation, although difficult to cope with, in order to redeem herself. For example, whenever she enters town, she neither shirks away nor hides her bosom, but accepts degradation from members of the community. Puritans also “[emphasize] woman’s descent from Eve and her innate irrationality, both of which [make] her more vulnerable to error and corruption than man” (Saxton). However, Hawthorne does not depict Hester in this manner. Instead, Arthur Dimmesdale succumbs to error and corruption. The pastor preaches to his congregation more than one hundred times, subtly hints at his sins, but never fully reveals them. Such instances show his dishonesty and lack of integrity.
As a Puritan minister, Dimmesdale is supposedly ordained by God and knows that he must confess. The notion that Hester follows the rules of society with more integrity than that of a man signifies her superiority over men. Not only that, the vast disparity between Hester’s moral compass and that of Dimmesdale’s indicates her integrity is greater than that of any individual in the community, as Dimmesdale is considered to be the most holy individual in the colony. Through these instances, Hawthorne creates a protagonist that is not only vulnerable in a man’s world, but surpasses the normally dominant gender. Therefore, Hester Prynne’s attractiveness, abilities, and ethics allow her equal or exceed the status of men in her community.
Next, the support Hester that provides to Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale and his later downfall permits her to bypass the boundaries of female submissiveness. In the novel Dimmesdale asks Hester to “think for [him]!” as “[she] is strong” and to “resolve for [him]” and “advise him what to do” (Hawthorne 152). Customarily, Puritan men are the authoritative head of the family. The woman’s relationship with him is one of compliance and service. Puritan women can only make major decisions involving the family after gaining approval from the men. However in The Scarlet Letter, Hester gains control in her relationship because her counsel will influence Dimmesdale’s life. This occurrence symbolically transfers the authority and power from men to Hester. Additionally, the minister highlights her strength and fortitude and recounts his despair. He narrates how he “[is] powerless to go. Wretched and sinful as I am, I have no other thought than to drag on my earthly existence in the sphere where Providence hath placed me” (Hawthorne 153). The reverend lacks the courage and determination to even run away.
When Hester attempts to convince Dimmesdale to leave New England because of Roger Chillingworth’s poisonous presence, he decides he cannot leave for the reason of being lonely. These passages in the novel show men’s weakness and highlight Hester’s fortitude. She remains resolved throughout the entire incident while Dimmesdale suffers a breakdown. His need for support culminates to final emotional scene. The minister, after he “[withholds himself] for seven years,” asks Hester to “come hither now, and twine thy strength about me” and “support me up yonder scaffold” (Hawthorne 208). Dimmesdale’s last decision to unveil his sin requires Hester’s help. At the beginning of the novel, Hester stands by herself and bears the brunt of shame alone.
Dimmesdale is incapable of withstanding it independently. By invoking his affirmation of sin with support from Prynne, Hawthorne takes away the courage and fortitude that define men. He subsequently passes away from “what he bears on his own breast” and “own red stigma” which “has seared his intermost heart” (Hawthorne 210). The former lovers trade places, as Hester gains the esteem that the minister once had while Dimmesdale disgracefully reveals his transgressions. The last scaffold scene increases the influence of women. Arthur Dimmesdale dies in scandal and dishonor, while Hester rises as an emblem of redemption. Thus, the immense support Hester offers Dimmesdale and his demise allows her to surpass the restraining confinement of male supremacy.
In conclusion, Puritan women are suppressed and considered inferior to men. Throughout their society, women are constricted and confined by the ideological values of their society. The Scarlet Letter is an exception to these principles and it overflows with examples of female superiority. In conclusion, Hester Prynne’s innate strength of character, gifts, and support to Arthur Dimmesdale allows her to transcend the typical restrictions of male domination.
Saxton, Martha. “Bearing The Burden? Puritan Wives.” History Today44.10 (1994): 28. History Reference Center. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Austin: Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1999. Print.
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