Puritan society vs. Hester Prynne
Fangirl Fridays - The Scarlet Letter
One might think this is a weird topic for fangirling, but I don't know. I was always pretty impressed by some women in the classics, and Hester is one of them. I've read this novel a few times and loved it on every reread. Nathaniel Hawthorne never really gives his opinion in the story he presents. My impression was that he only wanted to show the hypocrisy of puritanism without actually saying whether he approves of it or not. I wanted to write about this, and show how I experienced this novel and what I got from the character of Hester Prynne.
Click through to read my thoughts on this.
Puritanism began in England, and its goal was to purge the Church of corruption. But as the movement grew the object of its interest became social amorality, and they insisted on their strict rules of living. After they settled down in New England, the town of Boston, they formed their colonies and started to spread their laws. They even tried to impose their way of life to the state, not just church. Salem is a moralistic and gloomy town where everyone dresses in colourless clothes and lack joy and happiness. That is excellently shown on the Election Day holiday, where they can't even relax and enjoy themselves. They are able to find fault in everybody and they seem to enjoy in "tormenting" the "fallen members of the flock."
A good puritan has to serve God, God's word is his law, and he has to live his life strictly following His rules. All puritans lived their lives through prayer and the study of the Bible. Ministers and preachers were the most esteemed members of society, and prayers meant nothing without their preaching, because the preachers taught them what was immoral in God's eyes, and thus taught them how to live. A Puritan's only occupation was his religion which made him self-righteous and superior to others because he was living by God's rules and not man's. For, everything a man created is evil. But they hid themselves behind their plain clothes and existence so that no one would see that they too, were people. In my opinion, that was the main reason for their need to publicly shame their sinners, so they could remind themselves to be obedient and maybe even to hide their own sins by pointing fingers at someone else.
Enter Hester Prynne, who represents one of their "fallen members." They ostracized her and gave her a letter 'A' to wear so she would always remember her sin and always remind others of what she is, an adulteress. Hester's transgression was worsened by the fact that she lived in Puritan society. She shows herself as proud in the very beginning, when she embroiders the letter "A" with gold thread.
When I read the book, I wondered why she didn't leave after everything that happened, maybe she wasn't going to let them (elders) make her feel ashamed for her actions, so Hester stayed, and the scarlet letter starts to be taken as a symbol of her own experiences and character. Her past sin is a part of who she is; to pretend it never happened would mean denying a part of herself. And for that reason, Hester is very determined to integrate her sin into her life. But soon our main character begins to see advantages that the letter gives her, she realizes the it enables her to explore the world outside puritan rules. The setting in the book is also meaningful, when Hester sees the opportunity to explore "the outside world" it means she is allowed to go into the woods that symbolizes a world without puritan rules where, in puritan eyes, evil is, and by evil they mean everybody who doesn't follow their rules. While, in their eyes, civilization is represented by the puritan world, for they are the only civilized human beings.
"But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness. ...The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,- and they had made her strong and thought her much amiss."
As a result of her sin, Hester begins to do a sort of penance by helping the poor and the town's women in their homes, but that makes no difference, for those women insult her constantly and criticize every move she makes. They whisper when she passes them in the street and hold themselves superior to her, they forbid their children to play with Hester's daughter, Pearl. I think, all that made Hester feel lonely and resulted in her becoming more contemplative about things and people that surround her, and here, I got the impression, that she started to look slowly but surely outside her "puritan box." Being in the homes of the town's most respected puritans she saw that they were no different from her, but better in hiding their imperfections. As I said before, everything imperfect was unacceptable, because they felt that being imperfect wouldn't bring them closer to God. My impression was that Hester discovered there was a bigger world outside of puritan society where she could be who she really was. What happened in the past was a sin, but in Hester's case, it resulted in knowledge, because her sin showed her what it was like to be human.
Puritans live their lives through a sort of mathematical equation and they never step out of the box. Their plain clothes functioned as a uniform that made them all look the same, and lose their individual identities. That is why their society wouldn't develop and grow, because they were not open to new ideas. It was strange to them to sympathize with others, even if they didn't necessarily approve of their actions, and that could be the reason they didn't understand Hester. In the book, Hester Prynne represents a kind of balance between complete order and disorder. She values her religion and respects it, but she also enjoys having her own opinions and ideas, and that is something a true puritan doesn't do, think for himself.
Before being marked with the letter, Hester was a beautiful woman with luxuriant hair and red cheeks, but since misfortune befell her and she was ostracized, she was pale and seemed older than she really was. On the other hand, when she takes the letter off and lets her hair down she becomes herself. It seems to me, the only thing that made her one of them (puritan) was the letter, because the letter was confining her true person.
"The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. Oh, exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took of the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness of her features. They played around her mouth and beamed out of her eyes a radiant and tender smile, that seamed gushing from the very hart of womanhood."
The letter's original, intended meaning was as a symbol of shame, but as time passed it became a powerful symbol of identity to Hester and the town's people forgot what the letter really meant, because Hester showed them that she was a good person, and even the women began to realize that her whole punishment came out of the sexism of the elders. What was interesting is that next to the letter, the biggest reminder of her sin was her daughter, Pearl. To be honest, I don't know why they even gave her a letter 'A' to remind her of the sin, Pearl was living and breathing proof of it, and compared to the child the letter really looses its function. It actually helps us to realize the complete meaningless of their system of judgement and punishment.
Pearl has two functions in the novel, first of all she is Hester's daughter and secondly she is a much more real symbol of her mother's sin. The way I see the child is that she represents all that the puritans tried to erase in the human being; freedom, liveliness, rebelliousness, curiosity and individuality. Through her, Hester is able to express herself. For example, Hester would dress her in beautiful dresses, while other children were dressed in the plain puritan way. Thanks to Pearl's curiosity, the mother is introduced to some other views in life, and because of a child's strange way of thinking, her mother sometimes thought that the little-one wasn't completely human.
"It was a look so intelligent, yet inexplicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl was a human child."
Although the child is a product of her supposed sin, Hester never regrets having her, and she even names her "Pearl" as being of great price – purchased with all she had – her mother's only treasure! Once, the town's elders tried to take the girl away from her mother for they thought the child wasn't getting a proper christian education, and then we see how Hester fights for her, implicating indirectly her lover to help her, and that shows that she is willing to do anything for her little-one, even ruin a life of a man she loves. When she sees her daughter she finds the strength to go on and is willing to defy any authority, and I believe that the child was the reason Hester came out of the whole story as a winner. Her soul didn't suffer as Rev. Dimmsdale's did. She has a loving daughter, a burden-less soul (because her sin was not only confessed but obvious) and, in the end, a nice and peaceful life, her ostracism started as a punishment but ended as a reward, she freed herself of the puritan chains and grew as a person.
So, I hope this answered your questions as to whether or not Hester should be fangirled about. Considering this is a story of a woman in the 17th century she's pretty amazing. The elders tried to ruin her spirit and destroy her person but they failed, and I think it is because Hester admitted her "sin" and lived proudly with its consequences. She knows that her actions were wrong but she doesn't regret them and moves past them into the future. By judging her, the elders tried to show everybody the the punishment for a sin like Hester's was great, but it backfired on them, for Hester never cried nor begged for forgiveness. She even turns out as a selfless woman never criticizing her lover for not stepping out, moreover, she is concerned with his health, and she still respects him as she did before. Lastly, they had to accept the fact that she was a good and generous person, but they never really accepted her back in their society.
What do you think, Saucy reader? Do you agree that Hester was a pretty admirable character to fangirl about?