A discussion of Hester’s individualism as presented in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.
The Scarlet Letter In Hawthorne’s revered novel The Scarlet Letter, the use of Romanticism plays an important role in the development of his characters. He effectively demonstrates individualism in Hester to further our understanding of the difficulties of living in Boston, the stern, joyless world of Puritan New England. It is all gloom and doom. If the sun ever shines, one could hardly notice. The entire place seems to be shrouded in black. The people of this society were stern, and of course repressive. They always put a lid on more natural human impulses and emotions than any society before or since. But for this reason specifically, emotions began bubbling and eventually boiled over, passions a novelist such as Hawthorne could seize at red heat and use for the basis of an effective novel. Hawthorne shows Hester’s sheer determination to live in this society directly through her actions and relations to others, and indirectly through the presentation of herself and her child and through her internal emotional struggle. Hester’s adultery creates a feeling of dismay and hostility within the people of Boston. They are not only shocked that she has done such a thing, but also because she won’t reveal the name of the father of the child. Although the usual penalty for adultery is death, the Puritan magistrates have decided to be merciful to her declaring that Hester’s punishment will be to stand for several hours on the scaffold, in full view of everyone. In this “powerful but painful story,” (Chorley 184) Hester realizes her sin, and acknowledges that she must pay the price for her crimes. She might, Hawthorne tells us, have left the narrow-minded colony to start life all over again in a place where no one knew her story. The sea leads back to England, or for a woman of Hester’s strength, the track leads onward into the wilderness. But Hester turns her back on these escape routes. She stays in the settlement, shackled, as if by an iron chain of guilt, to the scene of her crime and punishment. As Hester stands on the scaffold, thinking of her husband, he appears before her startled eyes at the edge of the crowd. And his first gesture is indicative of the man. Whatever shock or dismay he may feel at seeing his wife on the scaffold he immediately supresses his emotions and makes his face the image of calm. The glance he bends on Hester is keen and penetrative. Here is someone used to observing life rather than participating in it. His is a “furrowed visage” (43). Chillingworth looks like a man who has cultivated his mind at the “expense of another faculties – a perilous enterprise, in Hawthorne’s view” (Loring 187). Where his overbearing intellect will take him, Hawthorne wants us to think that he could be the catalyst for great conflicts later in the novel. Chillingworth’s finger raised to his lips, commanding Hester’s silence, begins a pattern of secrecy that is the mainspring of the novel’s plot; a secrecy that Hester must maintain in order to protect both her and her husband from the harshness of the Puritans. Hawthorne’s emphasis on the ability of Chillingworth to analyze the human mind and reasoning foreshadows his treatment of Dimmesdale later in the novel. Hawthorne shows that while Hester realizes she must pay for her sins, her actions demonstrate a hidden defiance against the people of Boston and their laws that she finds to be trivial. Hester thinks of Pearl as a great sorrow reminding her of her adultery, and a great joy in having a child. Although the mother is not permitted to clothe herself in bright colors, she finds a sense of relief in dressing her child in gleaming colors, imaginatively arranged. Hester dresses her child in her own “wild, desperate, defiant mood, that flightiness of her temper” (66). As Hester’s new garments represent her restraint in dealing with the world around her, Hawthorne uses Pearl’s attire as a vehicle by which Hester deals with her new life after being imprisoned. Since Hester is unable to dress in colors that please her, she uses her child as an indirect way to do so. When Hester exits the prison, she makes a striking contrast to the grim, joyless crowd of spectators. She walks into their midst with a radiance undimmed by her stay in prison. She carries herself with a stately, natural grace. Hester steps of her own free will in to the open air. It is the move of a woman who, even in the hands of the law, chooses to be seen in control of her own destiny. Her defiant expression is one where pride predominates in a mixture of emotions. Everyone sees the scarlet letter “A” elaborately displayed on her breast. She has also added an embroidered gold border around the symbol which was “so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy” (39). What a beautiful letter is actually is! Made not out of “simple red flannel used for colds and rheumatism” (39), as one irate woman observes, but elaborately embroidered with threads of gold. A badge of shame that looks more life a sign of defiance, thrown in the magistrate’s teeth; a sign by Hawthorne signify Hester’s feeling towards the laws of the Puritans that she feels are insignificant. Throughout the novel as Hester demonstrates her defiance to the citizens of Boston and the laws she is subjected to, an awareness of sin and guilt finally sets in as another rung on her emotional ladder. When walking in the streets, strangers curiously scorn the letter, and yet Hester never covers the token of her adultery with her hand, as she is sorely tempted to do at times. Once in a while Dimmesdale looks at the letter, and for a moment she feels relief, “as if half of her agony” (56), is being shared. Being alone much of the time, Hester’s mindset is somewhat affected. She begins to believe that the scarlet letter has furnished her with a new sense of sin and a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. Despite these thoughts, Hester continues to feel that no one is as guilty as herself. From these thoughts, Hester beings for feel guilty for not warning Dimmesdale about her husband who plans to seek a subtle revenge. Hawthorne wants us to think back to the scene where he gives Hester something to relax and she thinks that he is poisoning her. Chillingworth responds by saying that there are more subtle ways to get revenge. This shows that there is a great difference in what Chillingworth says and means. This trait that Chillingworth carries scares Hester into thinking about how powerful a man he actually is and how helpless Dimmesdale will be from the his strict scrutinization that he faces later on in the novel. Dimmesdale does not even have an idea as to who Chillingworth actually is. Along with a worry for Dimmesdale developing, Hester also beings to view Pearl, not just as her loving child anymore, but as a demon; a product of her adulterous sin. Pearl has sprung from a guilty passion. As the child grows, the mother sees intelligence and beauty before her. Hester has named her baby Pearl because she represents a purchase of a “great price” (65). Man has given Hester a scarlet letter to remove her from human sympathy, whereas God has given her a lovely child placed on that same bosom. Hester becomes apprehensive that her own sin will be reflected in the child’s nature by some “dark and wild pecularity” (68). Pearl shows some rebellious characteristics like her mother when she terrorizes other children in Boston. In appearance and temperament Pearl reflects her origin. The product of a broken rule, she will not obey rules herself. Born of a runaway passion, she has a wild and stormy nature. Hawthorne presents Hester in a way to show her deep love and concern for her child, but later in the novel, as Hester enters a stage of guilt and awareness of her sin, her feelings change and begin to view Pearl as a demon; a product of her own sinful action. Hester’s final realization of her sin changes her outlook on both the people of Boston and on herself. She acknowledges the fact that her adultery was wrong. Now she makes an effort to change herself and accept her punishment. On the surface, Hester’s submission to society has deepened. She lives more than ever in conformity with the rigid Puritan code. With no reputation to lose, Hester has conducted herself with such circumspection that not the busiest gossip in Boston can find a hint of scandal to report. Hester’s charity to the poor continues, and she accepts, without complaint, the ill usage she receives at their hands. Hester uses her spare hours not for the detailed work she loves, but in the making of coarse garments for the colony’s indigent. “Hester became two people: an inner and an outer person” (Colacurcio 230). Outwardly, she still acts as if she’s defiant and that nothing can get in the way of her pride, but on the inside, she begins to feel a great deal of admission to her sins, trying to change herself. What’s more, Hester has taken new steps to redeem herself in the eyes of God and man. She has become a self-ordained Sister of Mercy. Her new role is that of a tender and competent nurse to the colony’s ill and dying. The scarlet letter has become a sign of Hester’s community with people in trouble. In households darkened by sorrow, the red token glimmers with comfort. A grateful public has invested the scarlet letter with a new meaning. The “A” no longer stands for “Adulteress.” It now means “Able.” Even though her actions show a repentance and give readers a feeling of her radically changed personality, Hawthorne’s intention was to give us another meaning. Condemned as an adulteress, Hester has become a free thinker, something far more dangerous in this stuffy, illiberal world. Once she was a dissenter, a person who broke with her society over a single law. Now Hawthorne gives her the role of a heretic, a person who questions the basis of every law. Despite, Hester’s external efforts to rehabilitate herself, internally, she still shows her defiance to Puritan law. Hawthorne’s effectiveness in demonstrating Hester’s individualism is awesome. Henry F. Chorley could not have explained this novel any better when he said “sin and sorrow have never been presented in such severity, purity, and sympathy than by Hawthorne” (Chorley 184). Hawthorne places Hester Prynne, a beautiful woman in a society such as Puritan Boston and shows how she endures the punishment and oppressive treatment that she receives. Her determination and perseverance have shown that despite being subjected to laws that she feels unfair, she is still able to maintain her pride internally, while the citizens of Boston think that she has submitted to their rule. Hawthorne carefully tracks Hester’s plight through and emotional roller coaster of ups and downs. He shows several stages of her actions and how they were accepted by the Puritans. The author’s main goal in this novel is to show that no matter what we are faced with and no matter how badly we are criticized for it, we must maintain a strict set of values.