The Character Analysis Of Hester Prynne In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance novel The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, commits an act of adultery that leads to her ignominy amongst seventeenth century Puritan society and the immortalization of the notorious scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom. While some readers may argue that Puritan law and the scarlet letter successfully repress Hester, she meaningfully expresses herself by going against her society’s norms.
After Hester’s release from prison, she uses her time alienated from society alone and with her daughter, Pearl, to positively develop. While Hester chooses to wear somber clothes as penance, she designs and embroiders elegant clothes for Pearl to wear in public: “Her mother [Hester]… had bought the richest tissues that could be procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its full play in the arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child wore, before the public eye” (Hawthorne 81). Hester purposely chooses to make Pearl the living personification of the scarlet letter, a symbol for the passion in which Pearl was conceived, as a constant reminder of her sin, but also as an outlet for her creativity to flourish, which would otherwise be hindered by her society. Hester also uses her needle-work to subtly flaunt her exceptional craftsmanship and thriving mental state to the church and state. During Hester’s interview with Governor Bellingham, Reverends Wilson and Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, Pearl is dressed in an elegant, crimson dress which symbolizes their constant fight against the church and state, which view the mother and daughter only as sinners.
Hester’s fight leads her to defend Pearl during her interview and prove she is a capable mother who is not repressed: “She [Pearl] is my happiness!—she is my torture… Pearl keeps me here in life!” (100). Hester believes her love of Pearl trumps the provincial Puritan religion. Throughout Hester’s alienation from the Puritans, she “[assumes] a freedom of speculation… which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter” (143). Hester’s resort to introspection allows her to rebel against society by putting her own emotions and feelings above the values of the church and state. She becomes a woman far ahead of her time when she objects society’s view of women; demands women to be in a fair position relative to men; and develops a free will, a major theme Hawthorne frequently alludes to. For Hester, she did not care whether she was breaking the Puritanical code of law or not; “The world’s law was no law for her mind” (143).
After some time and charitable work, Hester undergoes significant changes, both publicly and internally. First, Hester takes the initiative to put others before herself and becomes a “self-ordained… Sister of Mercy,” which make the townspeople view Hester as an able woman rather than an adultress (141). Hawthorne’s use of the scarlet letter as an allegory reveals how Hester does not let it or anyone else dictate her future; although she is punished, Hester is able to build a better image for herself and not be tempted into evil. Hester has had opportunities to submit herself to evil, like when Mistress Hibbins tries to persuade Hester, while leaving the Bellingham’s mansion, to join her and the “Black Man” in the forest. However, Hester’s strong love for Pearl and repugnance to stoop so low as Hibbins keep her grounded and focused on the right path through life. Two, Hester also develops true emotions and a sixth sense, none of which the other Puritans have: “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!” (174). Hester has come to a major life point where she can break away from the rigidness of Puritan society and foster her own strength and independence. She can experience the good and bad in life and recognize if someone has sinned, which allows Hester to connect to those on a personal level. Some readers may deem Hester repressed because she loses her femininity over time—she becomes cold, hides her hair under a cap, and dresses like a nun. While this is true for most of the novel, Hester’s femininity never actually leaves her. When Dimmesdale agrees to leave Boston with Hester, the scarlet letter’s heavy burden on her undoes itself, “Her [Hester’s] sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back” (177). Hawthorne’s descriptive diction symbolizes Hester’s liberation from her own punishment and the approval of God and nature in her decision to be true to herself. With Dimmesdale by Hester’s side, her passion for him and individuality comes out of the shadows which enable her to temporarily forget about her guilt.
Although Hester has done enough to make up for sin and has lived in Europe for many years, she still returns to Boston “of her own free will… [and] resumed the symbol of… so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom” (227). Once again, Hawthorne emphasizes Hester’s free will, which supports the idea that she is not under the restrictions that society places on women; Hester can function as her own human being. Her return to Boston also signifies that this is where her identity has lingered, and thus her only place for reconciliation. However, it is also the place where Hester can continue to defy Puritan law as she becomes a positive role model who counsels women who have also sinned. Her experiences with the good and bad in life further Hester’s relationships with these women as she can connect with and assure them of a better future. The scarlet letter was established by the Puritans to repress Hester. However, “the scarlet letter had not done its office” (145).
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