The Search for Women’s Autonomy in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

In nineteenth-century America, if a group of people had even suggested the possibility of hearing a message concerning women’s rights and liberation, they would most likely have been branded insane. When Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most influential work, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850, most critics assessed that the novel presented the story of a woman’s sinful rebellion against the institution of marriage and her deserved punishments. Interpretations from nineteenth-century critics repeated prevailing views of women at the time, namely, that the female sex served society best as a domestic worker, responsible for both educating and nurturing children as well as fulfilling the sexual needs of her husband. Suggesting an ideal of femininity contradicting this patriarchal order could only result in contempt for whoever put forth such an idea. Later literary critics, however, in reexamining the work in light of twentieth-century feminism, arrive at different interpretations.

These more contemporary scholars focus on the book’s central character, the young woman, Hester Prynne, who commits adultery with a pastor named Arthur Dimmesdale in 1600’s Puritan New England. The Puritans, on discovering Hester’s guilt (though not Dimmesdale’s), ostracize her by forcing her to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her breast, which labels her an adulteress. Hester also has to suffer with the knowledge that her husband, Roger Chillingworth, psychologically tortures Dimmesdale for his role in the affair. Under the punishment of the scarlet letter, Hester begins to assess her situation in light of women’s liberty, while at the same time raising her daughter, Pearl. She considers not only why she is being punished by her neighbors but also what to do with the feelings she is experiencing as a woman who desires her voice to be heard. Thus I argue that The Scarlet Letter functions as a proto-feminist text, specifically, the building blocks towards women’s autonomy.

In this essay, I shall establish a structure concerning The Scarlet Letter’s relation to women’s liberation. I will first offer an analysis of the text itself, showing how Hester stands against the Puritan’s symbolic, theological system as the woman daring enough to voice equality for all women. Next, I will explain how early critics of the book did not see the novel as a banner for women’s social justice and how their failure represents gender views in nineteenth-century America. Then I aim to counter the interpretations of the male scholars with arguments from twentieth-century intellectuals focusing on the novel’s foreshadowing of early feminism, mainly through the roles of Hester and Pearl. My conclusion will consider Hawthorne’s views of women, or, for that matter, marginalized individuals in nineteenth-century society.

In “The Minister’s Vigil,” chapter twelve in The Scarlet Letter, members of the Puritan community interpret two mysterious signs: a red, flaming meteor shooting through the sky, and a black glove found stranded next to a daunting scaffold erected in the middle of the town square. The religious authorities view the letter “A” engraved in the asteroid’s rocky composition as a symbol for “Angel,” while they see the lost glove as the Devil’s way of signaling the secret guilt concerning its owner, Arthur Dimmesdale. An official of the church even remarks on the black glove and Dimmesdale: “‘It was found this morning, on the scaffold where evil-doers are put up to public shame. Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence’” (Hawthorne 104). Since the clergymen base their existence on the dictates of Christianity, they link natural phenomena to their moral ideals. Ironically, such a disposition is vain in the eyes of a theologian who serves as the basis for their society’s structure: John Calvin. The American Puritans drew heavily on the theological teachings of Calvin when forming their society, but their views on symbolic manifestations seem to clash with Calvin’s teachings on signs. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin speaks of signs as pertaining to human experience: “And daily experience shows that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a manifestation of God. In consequence of this blind passion all men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they thought God was visibly depicted to their eyes” (Calvin 97). If Calvin interprets sign searching as a vain passion unfounded by truth, why are the American Puritans so sure they know what the physical manifestations around them signify? Such judgment seems to be presumption on their part, labeling that is not founded on what their predecessor taught. They are guilty of hypocrisy since they do not follow the rules of the man who is revered as their key forefather.

On the other hand, in “Another View of Hester,” chapter thirteen, the narrator presents the reader with a Hester Prynne who is an active thinker capable of initiating change. His discourse addresses a mind that arrives at conclusions before deciding to act; it is thoughtful, reflective, and rational, perhaps the most reliable perspective yet offered in the text. As Hester reflects on life, she has a “tendency to speculation.” While Puritan speculation spurs hasty judgments, Hester’s thinking leads her to a dark inner world: “though [speculation] may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her” (Hawthorne 108). What follows is a description of her reflecting on the situation of women in nineteenth-century America: “As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (Hawthorne 108). The narrator represents Hester’s realization that women are not essentially inferior to men but have become so through a “long hereditary habit.” In other words, differences between the sexes are social instead of natural; women have been conditioned overtime to accept an unfair and unsuitable domestic role. Believing, based on interpretations of biblical scripture, that her place as a wife was to be in the home, taking care of children, and pleasing their husbands, women repressed their desires to be free, to go out into the world of opportunity.

There is more to Hester’s thinking, in particular, that women’s emotional nature must change in order to endure progress. The narrator comments, “Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated” (Hawthorne 108). Hester’s emotions are subject to change over time. This shift will create problems for her in the midst of positive growth; even if she were to succeed as a champion of women’s rights, would she always feel the same way about her feelings? Will her emotions remain constant throughout the process of reconstructing society? One day, she will feel positive about her changing role, but then the next day she may doubt it anddarkly brood over its consequences. If she is not in touch with her heart, then she will notbesatisfied with who she is. Thus, to have her “truest life,” she must be true to her inner self.

Hester not only assesses her station in relation to society, she ends up thinking about her actual thinking. The narrator mentions that, “A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise of thought. They are not to be solved, or only in one way” (Hawthorne 108). At the end of chapter thirteen, though she does not reach full emotional closure over her situation, she is able to conceive of practical steps and take action. The narrator writes “In fine, Hester Prynne resolved to meet her former husband, and do what might be in her power for the rescue of the victim on whom he had so evidently set his gripe” (Hawthorne 109). Before this point, Hester has only suffered the condemnation of the Puritan community, being subjected to an identity forced on her due to her sin, and not having the strength to set affairs into her own direction. Now, she is able to be an actor in her own drama, attempting to initiate change and rescue Dimmesdale from the psychological torture of Roger Chillingworth.

Will such acting and reflecting save Hester from a dismal situation? The narrator mentions the word “labyrinth” in regards to the result of Hester’s surmising. She ends up confused after her thinking, unsure of how to proceed. Just when she thinks she has reached the answer to one question, ten more appear to taunt her. Such confusion can engender despair into a mind that seeks closure and solace from a seemingly daunting situation. When she struggles to convince Chillingworth to relinquish his grip of vengeance on Dimmesdale, Hester laments: So far as concerns the overthrow or preservation of his fair frame and his earthly state, and perchance his life, he is in thy hands. Nor do I,-whom the scarlet letter has disciplined to truth, though it be the truth of red-hot iron, entering into the soul,-nor do I perceive such advantage in his living any longer a life ghastly emptiness, that I shall stoop to implore thy mercy. Do with him as thou wilt! There is no good for him,-no goodfor me,-no good for thee. There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide usout of this dismal maze. (Hawthorne 113) There can be no doubt that this is Hester’s thinking, for instead of free indirect discourse, the narrator is now employing direct discourse in Hester’s speech. Her inner feelings have been unleashed. It does not matter whether or not Chillingworth gives up his control over Dimmesdale’s mind: there is no “good” for anyone, no way to obtain peace and solace in the midst of their human drama. Since the narrator has Hester repeat the phrase “there is no good,” not only does it establish the dismal tone of the passage, but the reader sees directly into the emotional fervor and confusion of its main character. Her thinking leads to many different twists and turns but reality itself poses no helpful clue.

In spite of her doubts though, Hester grows in her resolve still. The way in which she acts towards Chillingworth is a monumental shift in the way she has previously acted.  Before, she submitted to Chillingworth as a newlywed wife, in the days before she came to New England. She married him without any consideration of her own personal desires and dreams. Yet now, she will not “stoop to implore his mercy” to get her or anyone else out of the situation. If she had remained a subservient wife to him, she would have been there to serve but also do nothing without his special permission as her husband. Now that she stands tall in her despair instead of groveling on the ground, she is being defiant in a way she has never been before. Though she has not solved her problems, she will go down in glory, being true to her convictions to the very end.

Despite the textual evidence above that demonstrates Hester’s regard for the plight of women in general, some critics argue that feminism has nothing to do with the book’s essential message. Hawthorne the author may have considered women’s voice to be a trifle at best. T. Walter Herbert Junior draws on the personal insecurities of Hawthorne when concerning Hawthorne’s views of women in the nineteenth-century. Herbert mentions, “Hawthorne was profoundly disconcerted by women who displayed the forthright public assertiveness that he himself lacked, as he shows in his venomous assaults on women writers and in the postmortem denigration of his erstwhile friend, Margaret Fuller” (Herbert, Jr. 285). In this way, Hester’s rebellion against the Puritan legal code exemplifies a subconscious desire on Hawthorne’s part to be as daring as the female writers of his time. Yet, he fails to do so, and, instead, sides with the men of the period in viewing the literary and cultural contributions of women as irrelevant and fit to be cast away, even labeling his contemporary women authors as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” His shortcomings are presented most clearly in that, even at the novel’s end, with her secret lover dead, Hester cannot live the dream her heart has always yearned for: to be in a meaningful romantic relationship. How can Hawthorne support the notion of women’s rights in The Scarlet Letter if he shuns the idea of female liberty?

Hawthorne seems to favor a more subservient position for women in regards to the family. Herbert draws on Hawthorne’s relationship to his daughter Una, and how he wished her to be a traditional woman, one destined to play the usual role of womanhood. There were times during Hawthorne’s fatherhood where Una would throw random and unexpected tantrums. These outbursts concerned Hawthorne, making him wonder if Una was a sane human being. Hawthorne would rather have Una be a subversive woman and serve her society in gentleness and humility. Herbert says, “The gender system that ascribed nurturing tenderness to women and combative individuality to males was conventionally regarded in Hawthorne’s times as a law of nature and of nature’s God” (Herbert 287). Herbert points out the constructs of gender that Hester’s community supports; women are to remain under the finger of men, to obey their every call. Men are to protect women and children with their strength and valor.

Nineteenth-century critics, being influenced by a predominantly Christian culture, interpret the book through the lens of salvation. Scholar Daniel Manheim mentions that the plot of The Scarlet Letter centers on Dimmesdale’s redemption from sin, not Hester’s cry for women’s rights. He focuses on the word “chain” as a redemptive symbol regarding Pearl’s role with Dimmesdale. Mentioning Dimmesdale’s cowardly vigil on the scaffold at night, Manheim says, “When Arthur, Hester, and Pearl hold hands for the first time up on the scaffold, and Hawthorne writes ‘the three formed an electric chain,’ he may be comparing the minister’s false confession to a newfangled mechanical bond of dubious fraudulent strength” (Manheim 179). Failure to own up to his adultery with Hester, Dimmesdale hides from his rightful shame. As a result, his soul is in danger of damnation, since he refuses to adhere to the confessions of his creed. As Manheim argues, “The final chain appearing in the middle of the climax of the novel suggests that the public reunion Pearl is about to be granted will have ultimately redemptive power” (Manheim 179). Since Dimmesdale acknowledges Pearl and Hester at last, his soul is spared condemnation and, even in death, he leaves as a sanctified saint. Pearl stands as the initiator of the pastor’s change towards a pure heart, since she challenges Dimmesdale during each of their meetings to abandon his sin and turn back towards the grace of God.

Women writers of the time appeared to support male-centric views of The Scarlet Letter as well. Robert S. Levine mentions that not only did critics view the book only as the dramatic unfolding of Dimmesdale’s spiritual redemption from Hell, but also that the few women writers who read the book also viewed Hester’s plight against the Puritans as a meaningless trifle in comparison to Dimmesdale’s struggle. Levine says, “The only response by an American woman writer was Anne W. Abbot’s. Abbot’s review offers an appreciation of Hawthorne’s portrayal of ‘mental torpidity’ in the prefatory ‘The Custom House,’ but for the most part focuses on Hawthorne’s failure to invest the novel with a proper Christian spirit” (Levine 275). The only interpretations that nineteenth-century scholars offered praise the world that Hester so vehemently despises: a society controlled by stern male patriarchy. They want the book to look towards the “Christian spirit” of past Puritanical religious rituals, rituals that place women on a lower social playing field than men. The idea of the novel being viewed through the eyes of an emotionally enslaved woman is absurd. Hester’s deliberate wearing of the scarlet letter in defiance of Christian teachings repulses these scholars, motivating them to cast away the book as immoral.

Yet, in spite of scholarly insistence that The Scarlet Letter can only be viewed as a despicable demonstration of wayward women, there is ample counter evidence of women being considered as distinct voices of change in Hawthorne’s era. Hester depends on her own love as a woman to fight back against the despair of her difficult position. In this way, she hopes to signal to men that there is more to a meaningful relationship than merely self-love. Twentieth-century critic Nina Baym argues that Hester Prynne seeks a kind of love in which each of the sexes is viewed with respect. Baym mentions in her article, “Revisiting Hawthorne’s Feminism,” that she, in the 1970s and 1980s, had already argued that the works of Hawthorne foreshadowed a meek and humble expression of feminism, and that the current article would only further that position (541). Baym points out that: Awareness of the recalcitrant reality of human nature occupies Hester’s meditations on reconstructing the social system, which include the tasks, in order, of tearing down of society and rebuilding it, altering what in men is either their very nature or “‘its long hereditary habit,’” which has become “‘like nature;’” and still somehow producing a “‘still mightier change’” in woman herself, “‘in which perhaps the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will found to have evaporated’” [Hawthorne 108]. This “ethereal essence” is her capacity to love. Should that be destroyed, then the social formation of which Hester dreams is an impossibility, because it is grounded in exactly that love, the only counter to male self-love. (Baym 556) If she were to lose touch with her emotions, Hester would lose her battle, having no further hope for herself. Her capacity to empathize with those in need embodies her vision of how society needs to be restructured. One example of Hester’s kindness is when she consoles Dimmesdale in the forest; she explains to him that he can let her assist him in carrying his guilt: “Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it” (Hawthorne 124). Instead of crawling in her misery, Hester uses her painful experiences to help her lover cope with his struggle with religious and spiritual authority. As such, moving from a blind faith in tradition and into a new era of mutual understanding serves as the basis of her rebellion against the Puritan theocracy.

Since her feelings for Dimmesdale invest the story with its drama, the novel can be essentially looked as a love story. Her rebellion against the Puritans stems from her desire to love a man who, at least at the moment of sexual gratification, remains by her side, something Roger Chillingworth failed miserably to do, being locked up with his scientific endeavors. In relation to Hester and Dimmesdale’s affair, Ernest Sandeen explains how The Scarlet Letter essentially represents a call for women’s romantic aspirations to be met. Writing during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, Sandeen argues for women’s liberation; women at this time were demanding not merely equal rights with men, but asserting that women are even superior to the men who have victimized them throughout history. However, Sandeen is less radical. He focuses only on love and gentleness. Sandeen explains that “If Hester is willing to endure the torture of the scarlet letter, it is because she is still in love, not because she is penitent. Her suffering is not the price she agreed to pay for her guilt but the cost she is glad to bear for her love. Her apparent humility and patience conceal her inner subversion of the penance imposed upon her” (Sandeen 425). Though Hester is more than willing to serve the Puritan community as best she can, enduring the shame of her letter, she remains alive as a lover ultimately unashamed at what she has done. Her argument is not one of radicalism but simply of kindness and respect. She refuses to repent and renounce her ties to Dimmesdale, repulsing early right wing critics of the book who want her to be subservient to the Christian definition of womanhood.

In speaking of Hester’s relationship to society, there lies a stark division of interests. New England stands divided between paganism and Christianity, and this split is evidenced by the settings the novel portrays. Levine mentions that, “there is a distinct divide between the artifice of the town and the naturalness of the woods, with the town regularly associated with the patriarchal authority of the Puritan masters and the woods with the antipatriarchal authority revolutionism of Mistress Hibbins and Hester” (Levine 282).  The Puritans create a social network based on Christian ethics that repress natural passions in human beings in favor of a more spiritual duty towards God. On the other hand, Hester’s rebellion in committing adultery with Dimmesdale represents her faith in feminine passions and needs. Her wishes position her in opposition to her community’s dictates and laws, generating the novel’s prime drama. The forest becomes the setting where she admonishes Dimmesdale to run away with her and Pearl in order to gain a new and more fulfilling life; the seclusion from society the woods provide her allows her to safely express herself without interference.

Hawthorne may also have drawn from actual historical figures in constructing The Scarlet Letter, indicating that Hester’s desire to go against the grain was not a new concept among nineteenth-century Americans. Even in the 1600’s, certain figures questioned the validity of Puritanical thought. Critic Michael Colacurcio, in his article “Footsteps of Anne Hutchinson: The Context of The Scarlet Letter,” draws on Hester and Dimmesdale’s forbidden bond in discussing actual historical people relating to the pastor and his parishioner. Hester, by defying the religious doctrines of the Puritans, relates to Anne Hutchinson’s resistance to the Protestant work ethic, how salvation is dependent on works and not faith only. Hutchinson maintained that works were not necessary for the soul to be saved. All one needed was faith in God’s work on their behalf alone.  In addition, Dimmesdale represents John Wilson, a man reputed to have been an ally of Anne Hutchinson in spreading her beliefs (Colacurcio 306, 308). These connections are relevant in that they show how history relates to Hester’s plight; just as Hester was stigmatized, so were actual women of the past. The issue of social justice is timeless and universal for women. Hawthorne could very easily have been inspired by these historical religious figures standing out as a heretical threat to what the Puritans attempted to establish in the New World: Christianity unadulterated by false teachings. Colacurcio argues that, since Hester rebels in pure freedom, she will end up destabilizing the entire system of law in New England. She not only has fought against men, but also God Himself. The Bible, through the book of Exodus, demands that adultery be shunned. Though Colacurcio sees that Hester has indeed broken the fourth commandment, though, the Puritans have committed a far graver sin in failing to realize the needs of Hester.

Precisely what kind of authoritative system does Hester work under? The Puritans have a distinct judiciary construct; they host a government where men make all the necessary decisions in society. Hester, in attempting to voice her feelings, feels desperately overwhelmed by her odds in having her voice heard. As she fights against the current, her pleas for help will most likely be discarded as the rantings of only an erring woman guilty of sin. For her accusers, it is only just that she suffers for her adultery with Dimmesdale, being critical to the salvation of her soul. Critic Laura Korobkin examines this hierarchal form of justice. The primary focus lies with the question, “why do individuals have to obey laws regulating private behavior, laws that directly conflict with individuals’ deeply held principles, and which they have had no hand in making” (Korobkin 428). Hester’s complaint to her society is an argument: why can’t women change their lives if they are unhappy? Must they continue to suffer at the hands of others who do not care for their emotional welfare?  But there also comes a time in which the Puritans, according to Korobkin, give Hester a lesser sentence for her adultery than what would usually have been. As time goes on, “many people refused to interpret the letter A by its original signification. They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester with a woman’s strength” (Hawthorne 106). Thus, the more sympathetic side of the community is revealed, making her rebellion stand out to the reader. Hester though, will not relinquish her desires in light of this slight mercy from the community. She needs more than empathy and forgiveness. She needs change.

Hester’s disobedience can be linked to other literary pieces, attesting that the individual’s fight with society was a theme many authors discussed and not just Hawthorne. Another important scholar, Michael Pringle, considers the Scarlet Letter’s relation to Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.” Pringle focuses on an era of literary history known as the “American Renaissance,” how Hawthorne’s work compares and contrasts with his contemporaries’ contributions. In both cases, the main characters enact a form of disobedience to governmental authority for their own special causes. Yet in some cases, Hester’s defiance is different in that she, unlike the subject of Thoreau’s essay, does not have the power to resist for her own sake; she cannot willingly go against government law because, as a woman, she cannot exercise as much liberty (Pringle 33). Thoreau, a man on the other hand, can disobey his government more voluntarily, signaling the ability of men to alter the course of nineteenth century politics. As Pringle puts it, “she must first find power to act as an individual against a seemingly monolithic Puritan society if she is to resist the band of adulteress. The A isolates Hester, but hardly equips her with the power to resist; however, its indeterminacy enables her to exploit a weakness in the emblem her community uses against her” (Pringle 33). Hester forces the community to come up with different interpretations for her letter. In this way, they are challenged in their assumptions and beliefs about her and must struggle to maintain their judgmental views. Hester wields the scarlet letter more as a symbol of her rebellion instead of her shame; by using her own embroidery, she creates a meaningful way to transform her pain into something that stands for her endurance. Sandeen mentions, “Through her skill in embroidery she has converted the shameful ‘A’ into such an arresting work of art that it makes a mockery of the punitive intention of her judges. In short, her whole appearance seems to glorify the very passion for which she supposedly is being exposed to public shame (Sandeen 426). Sandeen points to Hawthorne’s techniques of using ambiguity as weapon against tradition; though the Puritans may the view the scarlet letter one way, Hester views it in another way, and she uses this distinguishment of interpretation to her advantage. While the Puritans aim to bring her to public humiliation for her deed, she deliberately points back at them, mocking that what they intended to be a punishment instead functions as a reminder of what she fights for. The letter represents her values as a woman. As Hester tells the governor who aims to take away Pearl, “‘This badge hath taught me, it daily teaches me, it is teaching me at this moment, lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better’” (Hawthorne 75).

The eagle (mentioned in Hawthorne’s preface “The Custom House”) also represents a cry for women’s rights. Hawthorne will exploit this national symbol in his aim to address women’s right to be free Americans just as men. In this way, Hawthorne (who, afterall, in his own lifetime was a staunch democrat focusing on human rights) signals a national call to consider the plight of marginalized individuals in society. America, as a nation, needs to be defined by all the sexes and not just the one that holds power in every facet of the country. Robert Martin, in his essay entitled “Hester Prynne, C’est Moi: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Anxieties of Gender,” says, “This eagle is treacherous precisely because, like Hester’s ‘A,’ its meaning is not fixed; although the eagle is ‘vixenly,’ she attracts those who imagine ‘that her bosom has all the softness and smugness of an elder-down pillow.’ Yet, they may soon encounter ‘a scratch from her claw’” (Martin 514). As the national symbol of America, the eagle is referred to by the pronoun “she,” representing womankind. For the moment, while Hester suffers the stigma of the letter, she humbly submits to her shame, moving on with her life and doing her best to take care of Pearl. But in time, she will still be the same woman she always was: an American dame asserting her individuality. Martin, like Sandeen, also points to Hester using the symbol to her advantage: “Her art may be presented as transgressively criminal, but it is also a response to a crime” (Martin 520). Hester can only deal with her transgression by finding a creative way to express what she values deep down in her heart. Otherwise, she will be overcome in despair of the solitude she must suffer. Her guilt, unless dealt with, will overcome her sense of self-esteem and worth.

In the literary marketplace of nineteenth-century America, women began to assert themselves. Interestingly, during the time Hawthorne published his work, women writers gained a decent foothold in the publishing industry; every few years or so, novels from female authors would be published in volumes throughout America. At times, their sales even surpassed Hawthorne’s own. Women could even alter the course as to how the publishing industry functioned.Scholar Michael Winship draws on the period after Hawthorne’s death; he focuses on his widow, Sophia Hawthorne. Around 1868, The Scarlet Letter and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin were in literary competition with each other. Both authors had wondered which of their works would see more sales. According to Winship, after Hawthorne’s death in 1864, when Sophia found out that “Gail Hamilton, another Ticknor and Fields author whose royalty terms had been changed in 1864 in a manner similar to Hawthorne’s, began to raise questions. She threatened to transfer future rights in her husband’s works to another firm” (Winship 422). Winship argues that Sophia serves as an inspiration for Hester Prynne, a woman who stands for herself when she feels that those she loves are being used. Her case is a prime example of women asserting their rights concerning their families, not passively going along with corruption and scandal. Sophia’s stubbornness links to when Hester openly argues with the Puritan magistrates concerning Pearl: “Ye shall not take her. I will die first” (Hawthorne 76). Both Sophia and Hester, women deemed not as courageous as men in their time, both demonstrate boldness for their causes, something unheard of at the time. They refuse to relinquish what brings most meaning to their lives. In this case, it is those whom they love and their reputations.

Speaking of the literary marketplace in nineteenth century America, Jesse Battan mentions that there was even an underground women’s readership that encouraged women to relinquish themselves from abusive relationships and repressed sexuality. This group was known as the Free Lovers Society. Battan says, “The Free Lovers most important contribution was their preoccupation with the emotional and erotic experiences of nineteenth century men and women, and their willingness to discuss these experiences in public venues” (Battan 2). The Free Lovers fly under the radar in order to establish a secrecy that allows women to freely express themselves concerning their deepest fears and longings. Therefore, they can avoid the stigma that men will release on them, one in which they tell them to repent from rebelling against American tradition. Because the novel centers on Hester’s willingness to present herself in front of the Puritans and accept her token of shame, it can be inferred that Hawthorne desires to bring to light the Free Lover’s cause. Hawthorne himself flies under the radar, as it were, indirectly pointing to the need for women to express themselves more freely. Besides, Hawthorne employs an aesthetic of ambiguity in his work, leaving the interpretations of his works ultimately up to the reader. By not directly stating his aims, he has a higher chance of avoiding stigma on his end as well. Arguably, he succeeded and failed in this endeavor. If anyone had discovered the Free Lovers workings in America, they would have been condemned openly by the public in the same way that Hester is condemned for desiring autonomy in regards to her sexual and emotional needs.

Another goal of the Free Lovers, according to Battan, was to protect “women from husbands as well” (3). Hester herself wants to be free from the influence of her husband, Roger Chillingworth, for he does not, according to Hawthorne, understand the needs of his wife, a dangerous dilemma in their marriage. Hawthorne says, “Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win with it the utmost passion of her heart” (Hawthorne 114). This passage calls for a dramatic reconsideration of how men should view their wives; if they want lasting marriages, then they need to consider what their partners desire as much as themselves. Otherwise, they will become domestic tyrants, overbearing their wives with harsh rule. This dark image of abusive husbandry links to a feminist poet of the twentieth century: Sylvia Plath. One of Plath’s poems, “Daddy,” is inspired by Hester’s struggles with Chillingworth. According to Jo Gill, Plath compared Chillingworth to the father who had abandoned her, The ruthless persistence with which Chillingworth pursues his prey (anticipating the ‘brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you’ of Plath’s protagonist) and Hester Prynne’s frustrating inability, or unwillingness, to escape his influence and surveillance is precisely mimicked in the equally dreadful and inescapable intimacy between Plath’s speaker and ‘Daddy’ (in the notorious words of the poem: ‘Every woman adores a Fascist’) and in the final, if qualified and painfully achieved, transcendence of both women. (Gill) Chillingworth, in keeping with his vengeance on Dimmesdale, creates pain and friction in Hester’s life. His hold over the minister makes it more difficult for Hester to move on with the life she wants, one free to explore her feelings for Dimmesdale. In consequence, Chillingworth asserts his masculine control over Hester, forcing her to deal with her hopeless circumstances. Hester becomes so distraught that she fights back. In fact, because she is able to play Chillingworth’s game, she achieves a kind of “transcendence.” She can turn a blind eye to her pain and, with fierce determination, formulate a plan to save her, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. David Leverenz remarks, “What starts as a feminist revolt against punitive patriarchal authority ends in a muddle of sympathetic pity for ambiguous victims” (Leverenz 464). Each of the characters in the book struggles with a sense of place in the universe. They must consider if society supports them or not, and if not, what they can do for themselves to be more free.

Hester eventually reaches a dark dead end, for she begins contemplating her situation to be a hopeless lost cause. As a result, she begins considering the worst: murdering Pearl so that the child will not have to suffer her mother’s shame for the rest of her life. In her eyes, it would be better for Pearl to die than for her to grow in a world that will not allow her to have a voice. A quick and easy death will save her daughter from a lifetime of bondage.  Leland S. Person links this troublesome idea to racial mothering in the nineteenth-century. Person explains how Hester relates to African American slave mothers who would murder their children to keep them from suffering the cruelty of white slave masters. Person says, When Pearl is seven, “a fearful doubt strove to possess [Hester’s] soul, whether or not it were better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide” [Hawthorne 50]. This last thought proceeds directly out of the “dark labyrinth of mind” in which Hester has wandered during her seven years of ostracism and this infanticidal impulse leads directly into “the scarlet letter had done its office.” Among other features of her character, Hawthorne makes Hester’s motherhood issues for careful observation. (Person 658) The scarlet letter has trapped Hester; she is unsure as to what further steps to take will be in regards to women’s choice. After having thought of every conceivable solution to her dilemma, she can think of nothing else. Like African American slaves, Hester has no options. Just as slaves in America would grow up in the system of slavery present in the Deep South, Pearl will have no choice but to submit to the Puritans who will teach her to obey society’s standards concerning women in the world.  Either she goes with the rules of society or dies from humiliation, actual death, or despair. By comparing Hester to other women in different situations, Hawthorne indicates that the issue of women’s submission is universal and not merely limited to women like Hester. The authority of white men extends into every corner of the country. A call for women’s rights is ultimately a broader call for the rights of subjugated citizens everywhere, a theme that many nineteenth-century novelists dwelled upon, both in America and abroad. All alone, with no one to help her, Hester cannot find a permanent solution.

What if Dimmesdale, being the secret lover, can find a solution for Hester? Sadly, the minister can do nothing, for he himself is shackled in chains by the Puritans. Conflicted not only by his secret guilt concerning the adultery with Hester, but also by his conflicting standards of sin and repentance, Dimmesdale is trapped in a special maze of his own. Scholar Tadd Ruetenik explains Dimmesdale’s role: “Mass sympathy takes place during a mimetic crisis within a community. A sense of determinism brings forth the scapegoat before the unanimous condemnation of the people” (Ruetenik 75). Because Dimmesdale is thrust into a leadership position in the community, he must be responsible for people’s souls, namely, by being the representative of their collective conscience. The Puritans use Dimmesdale as a scape goat in that, instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, they blame the pastor instead. Such hypocrisy on the Puritans part allows them to maintain their power structure and mandates over their victims. As long as an individual is nonchalantly sacrificed, the Puritans can continue their ways and policies, unhindered. In addition, Sarah Chaney, in “A Hideous Torture on Himself: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature,” believes that scholars, over the history of interpreting The Scarlet Letter, treat Dimmesdale’s mysterious bodily ailment as a manifestation of his guilt and not as a sociological construct. In contrast, Chaney argues that self-mutilation was much more than a way for people in the Victorian era to deal with their sins (284). Ironically, Dimmesdale’s self-inflicting wound is his way of defying the judicial system of Puritan New England; since he punished himself, he escaped the processes by which justice is normally executed in the Puritan courts. His “penitence” removes the gavel out of the hands of the magistrates. They can’t punish the clergyman on their own terms. But then again, he proves that he is also mad and unstable, unable to be as rational as Hester in her thoughts and actions. In chapter twenty of the novel, “The Minister in a Maze,” Dimmesdale fails to distinguish what he ultimately values. After having just arrived from his meeting with Hester in the forest, he has conflicting and tormenting thoughts. His mind begins to suggest horrid blasphemies against Christianity, things that he would never have dreamed of, frightening him. Hawthorne refers to him as a “lost and desperate man” (Hawthorne 140). If he, like Hester, cannot find a way to help himself, how can he offer his lover assistance?

Hester’s final plea, then, is to be found in the actions of her daughter, Pearl. Pearl comes to represent the twentieth century feminist revolution to come. Even though the Puritans have a hold on Hester’s spirit, forcing her to comply with their definitions of womanhood, Pearl refuses to submit herself to anyone’s mandates, no matter who they are. She cannot be easily subjected. Her free and roaming disposition, unusual and forbidden as it is, is precisely what Hester needs to obtain for herself. Critic Cindy Loud Daniels remarks on Pearl’s function in The Scarlet Letter: Pearl is left unmarked by the patriarchy. The Puritan community assumes that Hester will carry on its traditions. Hester, though, cannot bring herself to quell her daughter’s wild spirit, despite the restrictions placed upon her both emotionally and physically. Hester knows the social authorities are viewing Pearl as a devil-figure, and they see her daughter’s connection with nature as proof of her mother’s misdeeds coming out in the actions of her offspring. Yet, despite Hester’s guilt, she sees her child as angelic and innocent, and it is this dichotomy that is at the center of Hawthorne’s characterization of Pearl. (Daniels 223) Pearl is far more than a symbol of Hester’s sin and Dimmesdale’s redemption; in defying the rules of others and controlling the novel’s plot, she foreshadows women taking command of their lives and fortunes. Since she is Hester’s only child, she too must suffer her mother’s ostracism and learn how she is to relate to the world. But unlike her mother, Pearl will not be at the whims of the Puritans. She will be in charge of her own life once the drama between Hester and Dimmesdale ends. If Hester herself cannot assume autonomy in her lifetime, at least her daughter can.

The elf-child serves as a complex symbol difficult to interpret. It seems that, according to the narrator, Pearl is a physical embodiment of Hester’s badge of shame. Afterall, the narrator says that Pearl “was the scarlet letter in another form, the scarlet letter endowed with life” (Hawthorne 69). In this way, Pearl, like the letter itself, is subject to many different interpretations to the reader. Millicent Bell examines how it is difficult to decipher what Pearl means. She says, “The mystery of meaning is expressed in the obliquity of Pearl’s own answers to the question of what she is. Hester wonders, ‘Child, what art thou?’ and is answered, ‘O, I’m your little Pearl’ [ Hawthorne 66]. Which is no answer for her name is a sign and not her significance” (Bell 458). However, it seems to me that Pearl represents feminine innocence. Pearl comes to ultimately symbolize women daring enough to ask honest questions concerning their roles in society. On examining Pearl outside Dimmesdale’s window, Chillingworth asks, “ Hath she affections? Hath she any discoverable principle of being” (Hawthorne 89). Chillingworth wonders if Pearl displays the expected submissive attitudes of women. So free and bold is Pearl in her natural expressions towards the world and the people in it that she seems to be unconfined by society’s strict laws. Her liberty in coming and going as she pleases is exactly what Hester secretly longs for each day as she suffers under the stigma of her letter.

Pearl becomes the catalyst that motivates Dimmesdale to come forward in the light of public humiliation and claim Hester and Pearl as his own. In accepting both his lover and daughter by blood, Dimmesdale finally exemplifies the responsibility that Hester needs. In this way, Hester receives what struggling women long for in a husband and lover: a man taking equal action for their cause.  In her article, “The Character of Flame: The Function of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter,” Anne Marie McNamara from The Catholic University of America, asserts that there lies a conflict between Pearl and Dimmesdale that summons the pastor to take at least partial responsibility in his affair with Hester and cling Pearl and Hester to himself. McNamara mentions that, The offense of her [Pearl’s] father against her is the deliberate and guilty concealment of parenthood during her whole lifetime…..She ignores her mother’s request that she love the minister. She is not cajoled by the promise of a future home in which the three will be together and in which Dimmesdale will love her dearly. Her only reply is the question, “And will he always keep his hand over his heart” [Hawthorne 136]. She clearly implies the guilt that will plague Dimmesdale even if he succeeds in the plans for escape which he and Hester are formulating. Her mother, not sensing the profound implications of the questions, lightly evades them. (McNamara 541) Pearl presents the minister with a challenging choice: you can either accept that you are a part of our lives or you can suffer a daughter’s rejection because you hide yourself from us in public. In this way, Pearl draws a distinct line between blindly accepting Puritan authority and hypocrisy and rebelling for not only her cause but also her mother’s. Through rejecting Dimmesdale’s false love, Pearl exemplifies women’s rejection of empty promises.

In light of The Scarlet Letter and nineteenth and twentieth century critics, what more may we infer concerning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s views on women? We can see that Hawthorne considered the issue of women’s liberation to be a complex one, not only open to different interpretations but also one that will take serious consideration and time to assess. At the end of the novel, Hester gives her final conclusion concerning the situation of American women. Hester counsels others of hers sex in regards to their problems: “She assured them of her firm belief that, at some brighter period, when the world would have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (Hawthorne 166). Such an optimistic outlook from a character makes me as the reader of Hawthorne’s bitter-sweet work appreciate Hester’s role and cause much better. In beginning my thesis, I had mainly seen the novel as Dimmesdale’s desperate struggle and how Pearl rescues him through her prodding. This interpretation was inspired simply because I know what it is like to be a religious individual confused over the matters of my own heart. Hester is confused as well. And yet, her strength in bearing the stigma of the scarlet letter is worthy of praise. I have come to appreciate her strong character in the novel as a result. Her walking forward into the uncertain future regarding the rights of her sex represents another inspiring case of how marginalized individuals can, and will, due to the desires of their heart, challenge the assumptions of their society, pursuing real and praiseworthy change.

 

 

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