Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Richard Roundy
Category: Critical Essay
Hester Prynne’s Strength in The Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, begins as a pitiable character shunned by an entire society but evolves into a paragon of independence who serves as a beacon to those around her. Her story revolves around the scarlet letter she must wear on her breast as punishment for her adultery. Despite the public humiliation and estrangement from society caused by the symbol, Hester maintains her dignity and pride. Her forced solitude makes her grow into a strong female character in a male-dominated society. Because of her ostracization from Puritan society, Hester gains a strength of independence that she initially uses to personally oppose the patriarchy before developing it to a level where she can help others.
Hester’s position as a single mother shunned by society beleaguers her with hardships but also forces her to gain independence. Her suffering makes her capable enough to stand up to the governor of the Puritan society, the highest-ranking male official in her culture. Hawthorne describes her conviction as he writes, “Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate with almost a fierce expression. Alone in the world, cast off by it, and with this sole treasure to keep her heart alive, she felt that she possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to the death” (100). Hester reveals her strength of independence when she directly rebukes the governor’s proposal to have Pearl raised by another family. This moment crucially demonstrates the development of Hester’s strength and character as she can only exhibit such independence because she is “alone in the world” and “cast off by it.” The suffering she has endured made her feel that “she possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to the death.” Hester’s first use of her independence is indeed quite selfish, as even her attempt to keep Pearl from the Puritan governor sees her describe Pearl self-servingly as “sole treasure” and “indefeasible right.” Through further ostracization, Hester strength eventually matures to the level where she can use it to help others.
Hester’s self-sufficiency becomes more evident when she serves as Dimmesdale’s support as he says his last words on the scaffold. Right before his death, Dimmesdale tries to tell the town about his sin, but he is weak and cannot physically support himself. He calls for Hester in front of the entire town and “they beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold and ascend its steps” (230). This gender role reversal demonstrates that Hester’s strength now allows her to both physically and emotionally support Dimmesdale. The positioning of the characters implies that Dimmesdale relies on Hester. In addition to physically supporting him, throughout the novel, Hester has shouldered both of their burdens by herself. Dimmesdale does not possess the strength to do this and must rely on Hester. When Hester was tried for her sin in front of the entire town, she stands straight and accepts her punishment. The strength that Hester gains is specifically independence, and she develops this because the Puritans forced her to initially climb the scaffold by herself. In Puritan societal norms, women should rely on men when they have any problems. In Hester and Dimmesdale’s case, the physical representation of a gender norm reversal reinforces the notion of Hester as a stronger character than Dimmesdale despite her gender. Now that Hester’s independence can support others, she uses her strength to strive for social change in Puritan society, specifically targeting the discrimination against women.
By the end of the novel, Hester’s independence has developed to the point where she makes a choice that is entirely her own and is not influenced by the society that she is in. Her previous actions of standing up to the magistrate and ripping off the scarlet letter are necessarily influenced by the Puritans because she is rebelling against them. However, when she returns to the Puritan society after her stay in Europe, the choice is made entirely of her own accord. She upend all expectations of her when “she returned, therefore, and resumed–of her own free will…the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale” (239). She comes back “of her own free will,” demonstrating that Puritan authority no longer intimidates her and that her will is independent of theirs. When she returns to the village, Hester helps other women who have been mistreated by the Puritan society. Hawthorne describes, “Hester comforted and counseled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief that…a new truth will be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (240). Hester uses her strength of independence for social benefit by helping other oppressed women. Her new position in the Puritan society reinforces her independence, as one of the hallmarks of independence is the ability to be depended on by others. The final form of Hester’s strength allows her to serve as a source of counsel, or a beacon, for all of the other women in her society.
Because of the indignities and prejudices that Hester faces, she develops her independence from a quality that initially allows her to oppose the demands of the patriarchy to a strength on which others can rely for physical, emotional, and social support. Through Hester’s journey of trial and triumph, Hawthorne reinforces the idea that challenges are necessary for characters to become leaders. Hester’s character specifically mirrors a liberal feminist because she chooses to return from Europe to help other women who face struggles in the Puritan society. Like a liberal feminist, Hester seeks to help women fit in an existing social structure, to find equality in an unequal system. By choosing to accept the scarlet letter, Hester has found her own place in society and she, as a feminist leader, is capable of showing other the path she paved for them. Hester is a perfect archetype of a character who develops strength through adversity and independence through solitude.