Scarlet Letter and Feminism
Hawthorne’s views and opinions influenced his writing as the Puritans and transcendentalists of the eighteen hundreds viewed women in different ways. The Puritan society was a society centered on the males. It was a common belief that men are superior to women. The thought was supported by the church, which is a big deal (because life revolved around God and pleasing him), in sermons that preached that “the soul had two parts, the immortal masculine half, and the mortal feminine side. ”1 Women were not included in church or town meetings because they were expected to stay home and be a house wife.
The fact that the names Patience, Silence, Fear, Prudence, Comfort, Hopestill, and Be Fruitful1 were common names for girls puts women’s place in society into perspective. Women were not supposed to leaders and active members of the community, but more of second class citizens that obeyed the real leaders, men. Their main focus was to bear children, tend to the house, and obey the man of the house. With marital sex being encouraged, the status of women was elevated. However, women were typically not trusted in the community as daughters of Eve because it was thought they were naturally greedy for power.
With no trust in women, people did not doubt that some of the women in Puritan society were “witches”. During the Salem witchcraft trials the accused were almost all women with a few exceptions of men being accused. During the Puritanical time women did not ban together and were not viewed upon well. Often women made it worse for other women like in the Salem witchcraft trials it was predominantly women accusing other women. The first chapter in the Scarlet epitomizes the Puritanical view on women. The women of the community thought that Hester’s punishment should be far more severe, to the point hat execution was an option. “The ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges,” (36) was the biggest advocate of Hester’s desired demise. It can be implied that based on Hawthorne’s description of the woman’s physical appearance he is also referring to her personality. She is ugly on the outside and inside. These Puritan women were evil and cruel. The overall view Puritans had on women was that their job was to be obedient, helpful, caregivers in a male centered society. The Puritans were a very classical society. Transcendentalism was a fresh new idea that started in the eighteen hundreds.
Transcendentalism is the idea that all people equally know themselves and how the world around them is more than what meets the eye. Transcendentalism at the very beginning was influenced by women. In the Transcendentalist Group Margaret Fuller was a major contributor. She was a proponent of Brook Farm, which was an idealist town that lived with Transcendentalist views. More importantly she was the main editor of The Dial, the newspaper that the Transcendentalist Group published. She had final say as to what the group would put in print for the public; a huge job for a women of the times.
The responsibility Fuller had was not common and demonstrates how Transcendentalists were giving women more rights. In the group and her especially they stood for women’s rights. This was the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. Other women such as the Peabody sisters were also important people in the Transcendentalist movement. They were big proponent of education for women. One of the sisters was a trailblazer becoming the first women publisher and owning a book store popular with social reformist. One of the other two sisters, Sophia Peabody, married Hawthorne.
Being a Transcendentalist, Hawthorne, was very much influenced by Transcendentalist thoughts and opinions. It can be said that he projects his progressive feminist views and opinions of the eighteen hundreds into his novel. The Scarlet Letter therefore cannot be seen as a true representation of Puritanical society. He is casting his views on a society with completely different values, which he may not have even completely understood. Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester as the main character who is a strong and self-sufficient women is a view that a Transcendentalist would have on woman.
It is not the view a Puritan would have on women. As the protagonist in a feminist novel, Hester displays her strength and superiority to men both morally and with internal strength while challenging traditional gender roles. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne is the main character and protagonist throughout the novel. The entire novel is based around the sin of Hester. The novel is based off her actions. Every step of the way through the novel Hester is involved in one or another. Sometimes she is directly involved and in other scenes she is indirectly involved.
When Pearl and she are being ridiculed in the town square she is a main part of the scene. She is indirectly involved in a scene like when Chillingworth examines the chest of Dimmsdale. Although she is not literally in the scene, the scene would never have taken place without her “betraying” Chillingworth. So even when Hester is not present in the scene she is still involved. As the protagonist in the novel, Hester displays her superiority over men in one way by being much more mentally tough than the main male characters. Mental toughness refers to how calm and poised Hester is when she faces adversity.
Hester accepts the fact that she has sinned and is willing to accept responsibility for her actions. She does run away from her punishment, but takes it in stride. By accepting responsibility for her actions she immediately expresses that she is stronger than Chillingworth. The reason that Hester committed adultery is because Chillingworth was a bad husband to her making it so that she could never love him. Chillingworth proves the fact that Hester could never love her when she exclaims, “I hate the man” (120). Hester at that point is fed up with Chillingworth’s vengeful plan to hurt Dimmsdale.
Chillingworth never once accepts or realizes that he is the root cause for her misbehavior instead blaming Dimmsdale. The consequence of Chillingworth being a bad husband is that Hester now loves Dimmsdale. Chillingworth displays his inferiority to Hester as he does not accept the consequences of his actions while she does accept responsibility. Hester also shows strength by not letting the “A” ruin her life. Instead of going into complete seclusion Hester embraces the “A” by embroidering it and making the embroidery very elaborate.
Making the “A” ornate implies that she knows she is wrong and has sinned, but is not going to let the sin ruin the rest of her life like the “A” tarnishes her clothing. Over the next several years while wearing the “A” Hester does nothing, but good for the community. Through her charitable work in the community and time Hester is eventually offered the opportunity to remove the “A” from her chest, but declines. By keeping the “A” on her bosom Hester is telling the community that she is strong enough to continue wearing the “A” in public unlike her male counterpart, Dimmsdale who is not strong enough.
He must wear a shirt over the scarlet letter he has given himself. Not only is Hester mentally tough enough to continue wearing the “A”, but she also knows that taking off the “A” is morally wrong because the fact has not changed that she has still sinned. Hester is not only tougher than men in the novel, but she is also morally superior. She may have sinned and committed adultery, but the male characters also sinned. Dimmsdale had sex outside of marriage which is not as bad as adultery, but he never admits his guilt making his actions inferior to Hester.
Chillingworth worth throughout the novel plans and tries to inflict as much harm as possible on Dimmsdale which can be considered worse than Hester’s sin. Both Dimmsdale and Chillingworth conceal their sins and never accept their punishment for their sin which tells you about their character. Their moral standard must be lower if they cannot live up to what they have done. Dimmsdale in particular openly denied his sin to Pearl and Hester. When he replies, “Nay; not so, my little Pearl! ” (105) to Pearl’s request to stand with her mother and her at noon, Dimmsdale is not only denying his sin, but also the product of his sin.
Lying alone is a sin yet Dimmsdale keeps lying to himself and the public about who he really is as a person. Even though the novel is based on Hester’s sin her, sin is not the worse sin committed in the novel. Hester’s morality is really exemplified when she refuses to tell the town who fathered her child. Nothing good can come of her letting the father be known. If Hester tells the town that their beloved minister is the offender who impregnated her, the town would be devastated. One of the most trusted members of the community would be cast in a different light.
He would no longer be an upstanding member in the community or church and the town would no longer have a reverend. She realizes that no one would benefit from the knowledge and wants what is best for everyone. It is obvious her morality is superior to men here because she knows it would be easy to tell the town, but telling the town would also be wrong. Men in the novel frequently take the easy way out instead of the right way. Unlike men in the novel Hester did not take the easy way out. She was a single mother raising a child all by herself and instilled very strong morals in her daughter Pearl.
Even though Pearl may seem like a dark child her intuition between right and wrong is almost always right. She appears to be able to tell the morally right and wrong apart from each other when others are not able to see what she sees. Before anyone in the novel realizes that Chillingworth is evil Pearl warns her mother to, “Come away or yonder old Black Man will catch you! ” (92) like he has caught the minister. Pearl is referring to Chillingworth as the Black Man. Since this is early on in the novel it could be a foreshadowing of what Chillingworth will become later.
Her sense of morality is especially heightened around Dimmsdale and her mother though. She does not let her mother take the “A” off her chest even though it makes Hester happy because Pearl knows it is wrong not to accept one’s actions. Pearl realizes that the “A” represents her and by her mother taking the “A” off, Hester is saying that Pearl is wrong. Pearl throughout the novel is a dark child because she is smart child. She figures out that Dimmsdale is wrong in denying her. As soon as Dimmsdale begins accepting Pearl it is almost as though she becomes a different person.
She is no longer dark, but a very bright child. This occurs because she knows it is right for Dimmsdale to accept her. Dimmsdale is morally right for accepting her and his acceptance changes Pearl. In the novel Pearl has one of the strongest senses of morality which can be directly attribute to her mother who remains calm in the face of adversity because of her mental and moral strength. Throughout society Hester is treated by everyone as if she is the devil all because she committed a sin. In the community Hester is by far not the only sinner and therefore is being judged by hypocrites.
Hester’s judgment is almost identical a scene in the bible when a women is about to be stoned to death until Jesus speaks to the crowd that “the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. ” Jesus’ quote makes the people realize that they all are sinners no matter what they think. It is the same with Hester, she is not the only sinner in town, but she is the only one who has been publicly criticized. It can be said the other sinners in the town who have not publicly admitted their sin are worse than Hester, even if they committed a lesser sin.
They would be worse because by not admitting their sin they cannot repent and make good for their sin, making them even more hypocritical when they chastise Hester. The Scarlet Letter through and through is a feminist novel. Hawthorne makes it very clear the novel is a feminist one by constantly challenging gender roles and exposing a double standard. Hawthorne demonstrates his challenging of gender roles particularly through the characters of Hester and Dimmsdale. Hawthorne first challenges gender roles by making Hester the most important character in the novel.
Women were not typically the stars of novels then, but side characters. By making Hester more important than men Hawthorne challenged the men first society that both Hester and Hawthorne lived in. A feminist ideal that Hester really exemplifies is that she is self-sufficient woman. She does not need a man to help her and tell her what to do. Hester raised Pearl as a single mother in a time where being a single parent would be unheard of. By raising Pearl well Hester proves that she does not need men, a feministic quality. The most important way that Hawthorne challenges gender role though may be through Hester’s sin.
Hester sleeps with a man other than her husband and therefore is choosing her own lover. She is not trapped in the male centered society where a woman has no choice in her man and must marry a man even if she does not love him. She proves that she is not stuck with one man and has a choice. The idea that a woman is choosing her lover is really challenging gender roles. It is challenging gender roles because men were always considered the leader of the family unit and the dominant figure. By not being subject to one man Hester proves she is the dominant figure in her relationships.
Hawthorne not only challenges gender roles through Hester, but also through Dimmsdale. The traditional view of a man is strong provider who is honest and hardworking with a good set of morals. A hardworking man does not take the easy way out, he takes the high road. Examining the characters, the above description fits Hester a lot better than it does Dimmsdale. Dimmsdale cannot be considered an honest man with a good set of morals, which is ironic because he is a reverend. He refuses to admit to his sin with Hester publicly. He takes the easy way out by letting Hester take all the blame for the sin.
If he would have taken the high road by admitting his wrong and moving forward he would have been fulfilling his gender role. By not fitting into the traditional gender role of a man, Dimmsdale makes Hester the more dominant person in the relationship. Hawthorne specifically challenges traditional gender roles in society by reversing the roles and making the female dominant over the male. The female over the male is the epitome of feminist thought. In Hawthorne’s ground breaking novel, The Scarlet Letter, he implements his transcendentalist’s views to create America’s first feminist novel.
I personally believe that this is America’s first great novel and feminist novel all in one. He is the first one to capture America without a European lens and does so with his own beliefs influencing his writing. Unlike Europeans who wrote about the elite and aristocratic, Hawthorne wrote about an everyday normal city, something that is distinctly American. His transcendentalist views made him put feminism at the forefront of issues. I think that a main goal of this novel is for the advancement of women. Throughout the novel he promotes feminism in many different ways.
He creates a female character, the protagonist, that is superior to men both morally and inner strength wise. By doing so he is challenging the status quo and the traditional gender roles of men and women. In addition Hawthorne exposes how there is a double standard between men and women and their punishment for the same crime. Women are normally treated more harshly than a man, which is completely wrong and goes against equality for women. Outside research 1 (http://www. ushistory. org/us/3d. asp) http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/transcendentalism/ http://www. ushistory. org/us/26f. asp