Often in society people are criticized, punished and despised for their individual choices and flaws. In the novel, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author attempts to show the way society casts out individuals simply because their ideas and deeds differ from the common values. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses Hester Prynne to symbolize that those who challenge social conformities can benefit society as a whole. Though she has been banished for committing adultery, she sees that the community needs her. Through her generous accomplishments, the community realizes she is a person who, regardless of her sin, can affect the community in a positive way.
At the beginning of the book, Hester Prynne is publicly humiliated as a punishment for breaking a Puritan belief and one of the Ten Commandments; adultery. She is then forced to stand in front of the town for hours as the crowd tries to break her down with criticism and shaming words. After her release, “the scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as much always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame of a fellow-creature” (63). They almost took a delight in her punishment, having thought they cleansed the town, and therefore only leaving a “pure” society. They thought that if they treated her so horrible that no one would ever even think of breaking the law again. As the story begins the townspeople do not see her as a necessity but as a nuisance to get rid of. They do not realize the need for which they have of her. And that she is just as much a part of the community as they all are. So in a sense when they banish Hester they are banishing a part of themselves. After this, she is given more punishment by having to wear the letter “A” embroidered on everything she wears as a reminder to everyone that she has committed adultery. She is thrown out of town and is no longer a community member. She suffered these ordeals and punishments because she was an affront to them; she is an individual and that scares them. These perfect Puritans threw her out of their lives because she was not a drone to their ways, but a distinctive person.
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Fear was the motivation that drove the Puritans to exclude Hester Prynne from society. This new society was afraid that their community would fall apart “in a land where iniquity is searched out and punished” (68) if they did not seek out those individuals that were immoral in their eyes. Their fear of sin and wickedness drove them in their quest to do what they felt was right. Society had to protect itself from its own judgment. Their fault was that they only saw Hester for the crime she had committed but not as the woman she was. When the community banished Hester Prynne they succeeded in upholding their morality but lost an individual. The community is nothing more than a collection of individuals. Although they do not see this point now perhaps they will in time. Since everyone within the community was subject to scrutiny, when someone was caught being bad, everyone could be glad it was not he or she. This closed-mindedness could only see hatred for Hester Prynne and the need to identify her with the letter “A”. This way everyone would look at her rather than one another.
Not only is Hester banished from the community and has to live extremely far from the rest of them, but she is also alienated as well. Punished already by living outside her community, the people were still not satisfied with this punishment and chose to pass their negativity on to their offspring. “Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast…as the figure, the body, the reality of sin” (83). The mothers of the children in the community would point her out and tell their children not to be like her. They would use her as an example of the consequences of being an individual and going against society’s rules.
“Children too young to comprehend wherefore this woman so be shut out from the sphere of human charities…coming forth along the pathway that leads town ward; and, discerning the scarlet letter on her breast, would scamper off with a strange, contagious fear” (85).
The fact that the community went to so much trouble to never let her forget what she had done, and the fact that she accepts society’s condemnation, says she does not run away from her problems. As much as the community tries to totally ostracize her from everything, both physically and mentally she still sticks with it and that shows how willing she is to accept the consequences of her past decisions.
When Hester is forced to live apart from the townspeople society begins to learn what Hester’s real nature is. Society is able to see her for what and who she is and realizes that she is an asset to the community. The community realizes Hester’s honesty in her wrongdoing and her willingness to repent, by the fact that she does not deny anything that she had done. They see her as a good person and someone gifted with the talent of sewing, “by degrees, her handiwork would now be termed as fashion” (86). With this, the people started accepting her back into their lives once again. So they used her and were willing to overlook her sins when she looked to be of value to them. Even though Hester is considered the worst person in the community, she manages to give back to the community by caring for the poor. She barely gets by with the money she gets from her sewing skills, but still, she shares what little she has with the indigent. Even though, the people that she gives food to still insult her, she continues anyway.
“Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her infant, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them” (87).
Even the poor consider themselves better off than Hester. They may have been financially poor, but not morally. Hester had no obligation to feed the poor but she knew it was the right thing to do. As time goes on, Hester’s good deeds finally got noticed by the community and life takes a turn for the better for her. They finally figured out that they could not crush her spirit, and found out that they really needed a person like that in their community.
Over time the community began to soften their views about Hester and slowly she reclaimed a place within the community. Despite all that she had been through, she never spoke up in her own defence. She let her skills and charity for others speak for themselves and it was through those very actions that brought her back into the fold. People in the community even started to discuss whether or not the letter “A” should remain on her clothing. “It was debated whether or not the scarlet letter was to be taken off her bosom” (163). With this, the people are beginning to consider that maybe Hester has fulfilled her punishment. Although she has gained their acceptance once again, it was mostly due to her not ever backing down from her silence. She gained the respect of the community with her tenacity, her sewing skills and her charitable ways with the poor in the community. Being an outsider she was able to see the community for what they really were and was able to continue on with her life which led to her being recognized for her good character.
The whole time the letter “A” was stitched upon her clothing it stood for only one thing, adultery. But as the story goes on and the community finally starts accepting her again, through her good deeds, the letter “A” starts representing other words.
“Such helpfulness was found in her-so much power to do and power to sympathized -that many people refused to interpret the scarlet “A” by its original signification. They said that it meant “Able”: so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (156).
She was “Able” to deal with a town that hated her, and then a town that accepted her for her good works. Society was able to look past their hatred for her and see that in fact, they needed her. And finally, she was able to stay, where she wanted to be.
Over time the fact the Hester didn’t crumble and in fact, stood taller despite her exclusion the Puritan society opened their eyes to see that good can survive even in the heart of a sinner. And that despite everything they tried to do, out of their fear of losing their values, individuals would still make mistakes and cause differences in the community. Thus saying that within a community there will always be individuals to test the limits of society.
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