Note: this essay was written under duress and may not represent the actual views of its author.
Note #2: the initial failure to soft-link this essay was due to my parents' insistence that I go to bed immediately or I would not be leaving the house ever again. But I retain the soft link soft link below as a reminder of my inadequacy.
"Another View of Hester": The Feminine Prophetess
The feminist movement first began its development in the 1800s, a development that Nathaniel Hawthorne was no doubt privy to. The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne, one of nineteenth-century American literature's most powerful and striking heroines, exhibits many of the newer virtues of womanhood that were being exalted over the protesting cries of traditional society. Her refusal to show shame or guilt at a victimless crime of passion is an assertion of her independence in a society where women's main purpose was of procreation. Her independence from the supporting power of a man, and her own personal drive to see her will satisfied - to see Dimmesdale leave with her and Pearl - is a show of the power of human emotion that surpasses any historical idea of "womanhood".
Hester Prynne - despite the idea of her crime of adultery not only as a deadly sin in the eyes of Puritan theology, but as an act of evil in the eyes of both our and Hawthorne's society - spurns the Puritan community's attempt to humiliate her through her separation and marking. This brazen refusal to accept guilt (and indeed, even the sardonic flaunting of her crime) indicates a conscious decision on the part of Hawthorne to refuse condemnation of Hester for her act of love. He ends his first, introductory chapter with the image of a rose bush that has sprung up about the wastes of "the black flower of civilization, a prison." (58) This rose bush is attributed by legend to have been left by the footsteps of Anne Hutchinson, a persecuted and religiously individualistic radical who rejected both her society's view of women and its stately and pharisaic enforcement of doctrine to the exclusion of the passionate soul, and was banished for it. Hawthorne offers up a rose from this buch as "some sweet moral blossom, that may . . . relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." (58) Despite the seeming emphasis on the frailty of Dimmesdale in his hypocrisy and the nature of the Puritan community this struggle depicts, Hawthorne's singular moral cause in this story is the offering of Hester's, if not truly righteous, then utterly human story of rejection of the imprisoning commands of accusatory society and her will to fight against them - even if done in silence and fear.
Hester herself, and her actions in the book, leave little doubt of Hawthorne's intent for her as a character. Hester's initial action as a character, even as she appears into the narrative, is to push away the town-beadle ("who represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law" 62 ) when he attempts to pull her into her humiliating march. Hester reveals the Scarlet "A" for which the book is named: meant to be a punishment, she has embroidered it on her chest intricately and with beauty, as though it were such a grandiose ornament as no Puritan lady would wear. Indeed, this presentation of a mark of individual rebellion (a poor quality in a lady in the 1600s or the 1800s) as something to which pride is attached is an audacity on the part of the character and author that is displayed in the book's title: "It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself." (63)
In both this decoration of the symbol of her crime as something near-divine, and the similar decoration of the product of sin, her daughter Pearl, in gaudy clothing, Hester demands that if there be recognition of her crime, it will be on her terms. But what about the other criminal? "Had Hester sinned alone?" asks Hawthorne (94). Dimmesdale is an interesting contrast to exemplify Hester's heroic status. As a man and a powerful one in the community, he cannot work up the courage to force his fellows to accept his complicity - nor does he have to, as he is not the one who produced the child. The mark of the A, the child, the pointing figure of blame: all of these are assigned to Hester in the traditional role of the woman as Eve, as Jezebel, a temptress who is responsible for the fall of the man made in god's image. "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression" (1 Tim 2:13-14). Hawthorne presents, through Hester's flaunting of these characterizations and Dimmesdale's weak and self-pitying acceptance of them, a view of not only society's injustice towards women, but the strength of a woman in her silent rage against that injustice.
Hester is indeed a lone woman, one who can satisfy the needs of herself and her child without the support of any man in the household, and one through whom Hawthorne reiterates the idea of woman as self-sufficient and individualistic in her own right. The idea of a woman who was not a widow living by herself in the American wilderness would have been shocking to any of the colonists of that age: a woman lived with her family until she was married, and then moved into her husband's house. Hester's continued presence near the community and her support of it, despite no word or proof of death from her husband or her egregious crime, is portrayed by Hawthorne exactly as proof of her extraordinary ability in what is traditionally seen as an utterly ordinary "female" task: sewing. (Hawthorne speaks truthfully that sewing was "the only art within a woman's grasp" (91); all the other arts had been long removed from her hands by a misogynistic society.) "Her needlework was seen on the ruff of the Governor, military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band. . ." (90) Even as society rejects her as an "acceptable" woman - forbidding her to sew the wedding veil of a virgin bride - it is forced to depend on her for those "male" ornaments of state. "Hester at Her Needle" sews the painful tapestry of her life and that of her daughter by her hand alone. ". . .it might have been a mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life. Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin." (91) Hester runs her own household with this mode of subsistence, another anachronism that serves to set her apart from the clucking Puritan brood hens who mock her. As John Garraty details in his The American Nation (p. 275, "The Family Recast"), the idea of a male worker who was absent from home life did not exist until the Industrial Revolution. The father, in a traditional economy, was the leader, master, and sovereign of his household. Hester Prynne, arguably American literature's most famous single mother, fills the roles of both father and mother to her daughter: pursuing in-house industry to feed and clothe her, and at least attempting to educate and "tame" her. Hawthorne presents Hester, while guilty of her crime, as an emboldened and independent figure whose major tie to the town is one of the will to love.
Perhaps in another connection between the heroine and the tortured Dimmesdale is to be found the most revealing aspect of Hester's independence: she will not admit Dimmesdale's crime, because she loves him far too much to do so. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, has a thanatic, self-destructive intent to force the revelation of his complicity without having to bring himself to admit his actions as freely as Hester was required to. In the book's telling marketplace scene, Dimmesdale practically pleads with Hester to reveal his secret and thus damn him in the eyes of his fellows: "Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him. . .though he were to step down from a high place . . .better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart throughtout life." (76) Dimmesdale, indeed, admits he has not the courage to admit. Hester refuses to do it for him. Dimmesdale's weakened condition, his subjection to the pricking of his ailing conscience at the hands of Roger Chillingsworth, his not-so-subtle pleas to his congregation that he is a horrible sinner - all of these are to no avail when it comes to Hester's powerful, aggressive, and secure love for him. Chillingsworth's evils have effect only because of the Reverend's pious self-denial of his own soul for the prescriptions of his religion: " 'Why should a wretched man, guilty. . .prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!' " (139). Dimmesdale needs love to command him rather than using love to guide himself - and no reader would argue, it is certain, that Hester Prynne does not show far more love for the "hero" of the book than he does for himself throughout this entire episode. Indeed, by the book's later meeting in which the fateful decision to lead is made, Dimmesdale has been reduced by his hypocritical nature to a figure of utter weakness: " 'Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me!' " (203) It takes Hester's concern for Dimmesdale as an object of her own love to convince him that he must leave if he is to live, he must cast away his guilty strictures of thought and accept moral responsibility, instead, for his family. In the book's climax, Dimmesdale has a chance to escape his life and guilt as a "deadbeat dad"; instead, he takes the "moral high road" by proclaiming his guilt and immediately dying, leaving Hester and Pearl to strike out for Boston on their own. Dimmesdale has escaped, he has been absolved by his confession of doctrinal violation, and Hester is left holding the ropes. The reader must ask himself: is Hawthorne's true motive to portray an abandonment of love and family for personal release as the epitome of morality? Or is Dimmesdale's ultimate crime, the one that causes him to weaken and die, not his passion, but his hypocrisy - that which Hester fights against, and ultimately is forced to abandon?
It will no doubt be argued that this assignation of motive to Hawthorne, that of a feminist author who promoted "values" in the sense of the woman's inimitable value to society and the family and her capability to assume traditionally male roles, is one of dubious historicity. After all, no 19th-century male could have possibly been "enlightened" enough to actually mean that Anne Hutchinson - or Hester Prynne - the feminine prophetess, was justified in her rejection of patriarchy and doctrinaire authoritarianism. Could he? We conclude, therefore, and indeed seal the case, with Hawthorne's own words from the novel's conclusion.
"Women, more especially, - in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced or erring and sinful passion, - or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought, - came to Hester's cottage, de-manding to know why they were so wretched, and what was the remedy!. . .She assured them. . .of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it. . .a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness."