In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the effects that society have on Mistress Hester Prynne are shown in different ways. For example, the change from what the reader first learned of her being an adulteress to becoming a humble servant of doing good. The effects of society are shown in her very being. Hester keeping quiet about her lover, taking care of Pearl, wearing the scarlet letter, hiding her beauty, and fighting to keep her daughter. Going from being an adulteress to feeding the poor is a drastic changed that is usually influenced by others.
The Puritan society wanted life to be a certain way, a utopia, and if you did something wrong you were punished. Society also believed that everyone is born evil and is a natural-born sinner due to the fall of Adam and Eve, and the only way to get into Heaven is if you are lucky enough to be chosen by God. The puritan society was also against individualism and wanted everyone to be the same. With these beliefs throughout the society, there were very strict rules that were to be followed, and if not, the magistrates gave you a sentence.
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The sentence that the ‘gossips’ wish Hester had received was that of the actual sentence supposed to be given, which is death, and not the lean sentence that she was actually given. The society and magistrates sentence making Hester wear the scarlet letter “A” shows that they are trying to punish her by embarrassing and belittling her in front of everyone. Hester, with her pride and dignity, stood on the scaffold with her infant daughter in her arms, bearing the mark of her sin on her bosom.
Shame was a big issue in puritan society. While waiting for Hester to come out from the prison door, a remark was made, “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (Hawthorne, 49). Many puritans in the Boston community did not associate with Hester because of the shame. They used Hester as an example, to their young ones, of what they do not want to become. The punishment that Hester received also made the townspeople believe that they had done some good, humiliating her and making her an outcast had made the society “pure”.
While on the scaffold for the first time, Reverend Wilson has Reverend Dimmesdale ask Hester who her lover is. Hester doesn’t respond with any words. Just a simple shake of her head. This is an example of rejecting society. Everyone wanted Hester to tell, to admit who her lover was, and when she did not, there was an only disappointment from the crowd. Above her, Reverend Wilson was getting angry and decides that if Hester told who her lover was, then she would be freed from the scarlet letter. Hester still refuses, refusing to cause her lover pain and be responsible for it.
For the townspeople this form of public humiliation was simply not enough, so they decided not to even acknowledge her. To them Hester was “ . . . like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt . . .” (Hawthorne, 78). The only time that the townspeople would talk to Hester is when they were seeking her fine needlework skills or ridiculing her for her sin. In a way, Hester’s needlework a form of repentance because she uses it to make clothes for the poor. The feeling of remorse is shown in Hester for when the townspeople abandoned and shut her out, she just kept to herself. If someone was to call out to her on the street, she would silently, simply raise her finger to the scarlet letter, and just proceed walking.
Even though the townspeople had always wanted Hester to name her lover, and give her daughter a father, she refused and raised her daughter on her own. When the townspeople started talking about how Pearl would be better off raised by someone else, Hester went to the governor to fight for the custody of her daughter. When Governor Bellingham asks what Hester can teach Pearl, the conversation is as follows; “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this !’ answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token. ‘Woman, it is thy badge of shame !’ Replied the stern magistrate. ‘It is because of the stain which that letter indicates that we would transfer they, child, to other hands.’ ‘Nevertheless,’ said the mother, calmly, though growing paler, ‘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, albeit they can profit nothing to myself” (Hawthorne, 101-102). This conversation between the magistrate and Hester show that Hester wants to own up to her sin, take care of the life that came from sin, and teach her not to sin.
Hester could have very easily gone someplace new, and start anew, but she did not want to. She could have become someone different if she had moved. Changed her name. Changed her image. Changed her history. But Hester didn’t want to do this. She understood that she had committed a crime and had to pay for what she had done. So Hester removed herself from within the society and moved to the outskirts of Boston in a tiny cottage. The effect that the scarlet letter on her bosom had on Hester was a great one. It caused her to be able to take care of her daughter, herself, and the less fortunate. It gave her the dignity to be a single mom, which caused her to live in shame. It gave her the strength to fight for her child, even if no one would fight with her. The ability to keep her and Dimmesdale’s secret, and her and Chillingworth’s secret. The scarlet letter was the mark of Hester, not only to the townspeople but also to little Pearl. “The very first thing which she had noticed in her life was – what? Not the mother’s smile . . . But that first object of which Pearl seemed to become is was – shall we say it? – the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom! One day . . . Putting up her little hand, she grasped at it, smiling. . . Then, gasping for breath, did Hester Prynne clutch the fatal token, instinctively endeavouring to tear it away; so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl’s baby hand” (Hawthorne, 88). Pearl, first recognizing the scarlet letter in relation to her mother, would never part from the letter.
Pearl is the ultimate symbol of Hester’s crime. A daughter was born from two people having an affair and is forever proof to that sin. Pearl is also the ultimate symbol of the scarlet letter because, in puritanical times, there were only very neutral tones, but Hester “. . . arraying her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold-thread” (Hawthorne, 93). The colours in Pearl’s wardrobe match those of Hester’s scarlet letter. When Hester thinks she has finally found freedom from the scarlet letter towards the end of the novel, Pearl doesn’t let her. When Pearl notices the patch gone, she throws a fit, screaming and breaking into convulsions, until Hester comes to pick up the letter and put it back on. “Dost thou know thy mother now, child ?’, asked she reproachfully, but with a subdued tone. ‘Wilt thou come across the brook, and own thy mother, now that she has her shame upon her — now that she is sad?” (chapter 19). Pearl responds yes to her mother, showing that Hester’s misery would be forever with her. Pearl is more of a punishment for Hester than the scarlet letter because everyone knows how she became .
After the Reverend Dimmesdale had admitted his sin to the town, and his death which came right after, Roger Chillingworth life meaning was gone, and died about a year after. Upon Chillingworth death, Pearl had inherited all of his lands, and Hester and she had moved to Europe. Some years had gone by that Hester’s little cottage had remained abandoned, until one day, some kids nearby saw a woman walk into the house. At the moment before going into the house, she turned, as if she heard something, and the scarlet letter was seen on her bosom.
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