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The Use of Hester in The Scarlet Letter

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne makes Hester Prynne the central figure in the story much like Susanna Rowson does with Charlotte in Charlotte Temple. The plots of the books are centred on these women; the storylines occasionally move elsewhere to inform the reader of the happenings of other characters, but always returns to their respective female protagonist. The authors’ use of their leading ladies differs when providing a theme, however.

Susanna Rowson uses Charlotte Temple as an example for the reader. By taking the reader on a journey through Charlotte’s life of perpetual misery, Rowson’s narrator is able to point out where Charlotte makes poor decisions. With the reader now aware of the misdirected choices of Charlotte, the narrator warns the reader that any young girl could end up in the same type of predicament. She then teaches the young female reader how she should react in a similar situation and the “sober matron” reader how to prevent such a dilemma from happening to her daughter. In summary, Charlotte Temple’s actions are used to directly teach the theme as Rowson wishes.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne uses his main character in a completely different way. It is common for a reader of The Scarlet Letter to determine that the theme of the story is that adultery is bad, but that is not the case. Hawthorne is not promoting adultery; that is true: As Darrel, Abel states in his essay, “Hawthorne’s Hester,” “Although we are expected to love and pity Hester, we are not invited to condone her fault or to construe it as a virtue.”1

Hester Prynne and her lecherous sin are Hawthorne’s means of conveying a different message; Hawthorne is more interested in uncovering the flaws of puritan society and the hypocrisy of their reactions to Hester. The character of Hester Prynne is created to exploit these flaws indirectly.

The Puritan culture is one that recognizes Protestantism, a sect of Christianity. Though a staple of Christianity is forgiveness for one’s sins, this has long been forgotten amongst the women of Boston: “Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants.”2 When Hester is first brought out of her prison cell, the gossiping Goodwives recommend much harsher punishments, from a brand on her forehead to death.

Hester, who had done little wrong prior to this sin of adultery, is no longer seen as a human being, but merely as a symbol of evil and shame upon the town. The Puritans, one of the most devoted groups of bible scholars, forget one of Jesus’ most famous quotes, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” The women forget to look inside themselves before they cast their opinions upon Hester. It is not these people’s right to determine Hester’s punishment, not the women’s nor the magistrates’; such a right is reserved only for God.

When the ordeal at the market-place finally ends, Hawthorne reverses the roles as Hester is the only person in town without sin while the townspeople are vain and self-righteous. Hester continues her life, ostracized on the outskirts of town. She is obviously repentant, as she chooses to remain in Boston, even when she is free to go elsewhere and start her life anew. “Here… had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like because the result of martyrdom” (SL 57). She has become a modest woman, seeking “not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence, of the plainest and most ascetic description” (SL 58).

Hester takes up the occupation of a seamstress, a job that, as shown by the golden embroidery around the scarlet letter, suits her well. Her creations become the fashion of the town: “Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby’s little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the coffins of the dead. But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride. The exception indicated the ever relentless vigour with which society frowned upon her sin” (SL 58).

The preceding quotation is important to understanding Hawthorne’s opinion of Puritanism. These “morally perfect” people are committing the sin of vanity without a second thought, and their hypocrisy shines through, as they have no problem wearing anything of Hester’s creation except for a wedding veil. With this in mind, Hester now appears to be the only wholly pious person in town. She spends her free-time making clothes for the poor as a form of penance, rejecting the joy she gains from her needlework as a sin, but even the needy who receive the gifts of Hester Prynne “often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succour them” (SL 59).

Years later, this negative treatment of Hester no longer takes place. She is well respected by the townspeople for her philanthropic and virtuous ways: “Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one” (SL 110). People began to interpret her scarlet A as Able, rather than by its initial meaning. Hester refuses to embrace this new opinion of her, however; she performs these benevolent acts and then leaves, refusing to accept any form of gratitude.

The conclusion of the townspeople’s arrogant attitudes towards her allows Hawthorne to put Hester on a new task. Her thematic job, as provided by Hawthorne, of revealing the hypocrisy of the Puritans is finished; her new role is that of a secondary character. She is used to aiding in showing the allegorical significance of the actions of Pearl, Chillingworth, and most importantly, Reverend Dimmesdale.

Hester Prynne is never truly the theme’s center of attention like Charlotte Temple is; she simply helps to promote Hawthorne’s arguments about Puritanism and metaphorical ideas about the other characters. Therefore, it is never of great importance how Hester should turn out in the conclusion; it is merely for the benefit of the reader’s interest that she becomes a friendly ear to the women of Boston in the end.

Hawthorne does use her to impart his final words of wisdom though: “at some brighter period, when the world should 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” (SL 177). Also, the narrator leaves a final unanswerable question amidst the words of Hester – was she herself actually the destined prophetess, “lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise” (SL 177) that Hester had envisioned?

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The Use of Hester in The Scarlet Letter. (2021, Mar 01). Retrieved July 12, 2021, from