Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is scorned, hated, humiliated, and ridiculed. However, towards the end of the novel, she is loved. Not only does Hester cahnge, but the community changes as well. Both the sin itself, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and the community played key roles in Hester’s development. She began the novel as a Puritan woman and. As she grew spiritually, left as the perfect Puritan woman.
The character of Hester Prynne changed significantly throughout the novel The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne, through the eyes of the Puritans, is an extreme sinner. She has gone against the Puritan ways, committing adultery. For this harsh sin, she must wear a symbol of shame for the rest of her life. However, the Romantic philosophies of Hawthorne put down the Puritanic beliefs. She is a beautiful, young woman who has sinned, but is forgiven. Hawthorne portrays Hester as “divine maternity” and she can do no wrong. Not only Hester, but the physical scarlet letter – a Puritanical sign of shame – is shown through the author’s tone and diction as a beautiful, gold and colorful piece.
From the beginning, we see that Hester Prynne is a young and beautiful woman who has brought a child into the world with an unknown father. She is punished by Puritan society by wearing the scarlet letter “A” on the bosom of her dress and standing on the scaffold for three hours. Her hair is a glossy brown and her eyes deep-set black. Her attire is rich and carefully caressed her slender figure. The scaffold is a painful task to bear; the townspeople gathered around to gossip and stare at Hester and her newborn child, whom she suitably named Pearl, named because of her extreme value to her mother. In the disorder of faces in the crowd, young Hester Prynne sees the face of a man she once was fiercely familiar with, whom we later learn is her true husband, Roger Chillingworth. Her subjection to the crowd of Puritan onlookers is excruciating to bear, and Hester holds the child to her heart, a symbolic comparison between the child and the scarlet letter, implying that they are truly both intertwined.
Prynne is imprisoned with her child, both of whom are emotionally and physically exhausted from the punishment at the scaffold. The husband, Roger Chillingworth, passes by and is commissioned to be the physician to the two, and remedy them of their sicknesses. She is surprised he had come at such a time where she was at a point of such horrendous turmoil. He demands that she cannot reveal his identity, yet he also wishes to know the identity of her lover, the father of the child. She refuses to tell him. Later in the novel, we discover that Arthur Dimmesdale is the confidential lover.
Hester is released from her cell, after which she resides for the next few years in a hut by the sea. Her child, Pearl, is a devilish, impish, terribly behaved child, that is indifferent to the strict Puritan society. Pearl is a pain to please, having her way all the time because of her mother’s failure to subdue her to the proper Puritan etiquette. Hester knits and weaves for the townspeople, except for weddings, which people believe would cause misfortune and unrest in their marriage. They knew that the Seventh Commandment was, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and they stuck by those rules. The Puritans were truly a people governed by God.
The novel explains that the Governors repeatedly attempt to take the child away from Hester, as she has been deemed unfit to raise the child without the influence of genuine Puritan law and order. These attempts are failed, for Arthur Dimmesdale, the father and minister of Hester Prynne, insists that the child is a bond, a necessity of the young woman who has nothing if she does not have the child. Another influence upon Hester is Mistress Ann Hibbens, who is reputed to be a witch throughout the community. When Hibbens asks Hester to join her in the forest at night to sign the Black Man’s book with her own blood, she insists that she cannot. However, she states that if her little Pearl would be taken away, she would gladly join the witch-lady in the forest that night, and sign the great book in her own blood.
Pearl continuously mocks authority in the novel, a key characteristic of the imp-child’s demeanor. She asks stupid questions that she already knows the answer to, like, Mother, did you ever sign the black man’s book, and, Why does the minister Dimmesdale hold his hand over his heart? The mockery does not end there, however, and Pearl goes on about her retarded ways, throwing rocks at other children that look at her the wrong way and swearing at them. It pains Hester to watch her child go about the world as if possessed by an agent of Satan, and she both loves, and in some ways, loathes the child. When Chillingworth is at the beach picking up plants for formulas to cure Dimmesdale, who is deteriorating in health, he talks to Hester, who hates him deeply for what he has done to Dimmesdale over the last few years. He mentions that the magistrates may let her remove the scarlet letter, but she declines. She now is revered and respected by most members of the community because of the letter upon her bosom, for to many it represents able, and not adultery. Her strength to satisfy the needs of others and comfort them is a gift that many of the townspeople respect, and the word in town is that the letter does indeed stand for able. Hester is strong with her letter, having it be a part of her for so many years, while Arthur has concealed his letter upon his chest, which gnawed out from his inner soul.
Later in the novel, when Chillingworth is at his height of having his way with Dimmesdale, the weakened minister, Hester and Arthur meet in the forest to discuss their future. Here in the forest, Hester removes the scarlet letter, and drops it on the ground. She then removes her cap, letting her beautiful, glossy brown hair shine in the rays of the forest sunlight. Here, Hester Prynne has made a significant change from her somber, drab appearance, to her beauty of days long passed. However, after feeling rejuvenated, she is disappointed to see that her own child, Pearl, will not recognize her change, and, demands that her mother bind the badge of sin back upon her bosom. She then goes back to business, telling her beloved Arthur that she will set sail with him and Pearl to the Old Country after the Election Day sermon, which Dimmesdale is to speak at.
Soon enough, however, the drama unfolds as Chillingworth discovers that the trio are boarding a boat to cross the sea after the Election Day, and he books himself to travel with them, since he is obsessed with torturing Dimmesdale. Then, the big day came, and Hester was gleaming with joy in anticipation of a new life without ridicule or guilt. After preaching a powerful sermon, the good minister was walking along with the crowd, when he felt the weight of an overbearing guilt upon his shoulders; a power that he had felt before had grown immensely domineering upon his frail frame. Hester comforted him to the scaffold, and stuck by him to the end, as he admitted his sin of adultery, which shocked the people of Boston, leaving many with their jaws dropped.
After Pearl got married, and Chillingworth was long dead, Hester Prynne returned to Boston to recollect and to repent. The townspeople came to her, some staring in awe, some revering her presence. She had changed so much after she had taken the first step onto the Boston scaffold. After death, she was buried near Dimmesdale. Hester Prynne was truly an able woman.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Scarlet Letter, The. Boston, MA, 1850.
Newman, Lea. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Mass, 1979 p. 199-208 and 331-348.
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