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Hester Prynne is considered to be both one of the first heroines and feminist icons in American Literature. This is despite Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, being labelled as a misogynist, threatened by the growing feminist movement. How Hawthorne portrays his female protagonist and her interactions with the overbearing society around her prove that Hester Prynne is in fact the female heroine of “The Scarlet Letter”.
A Romantic Heroine is defined as a person who chooses not to conform to the flaws of society, but rather rises above them. Common traits of Romantic Heroes are isolation and regret for his or her actions. A heroine is a woman of distinguished courage or ability, possessing good character judgement and morals. Both descriptions apply to Hester Prynne. Although Hester is beautiful, which is described as shining behind her as if to make a “halo of the misfortune”, her beauty barely compares to her strength of character. We first meet the incredibly strong Hester on the scaffold with Pearl in her arms, beginning her punishment. The first description of Pearl notes her “natural dignity and force of character”. Despite feeling as though “her heart had been flung into the street for them to spurn and trample”, her face did not reveal her thoughts and her demeaner is described as “haughty”. Even though she has just stepped out of prison, her actions are described to be of her own free will. Hester also endures her punishment and the judgement alone. She does not succumb to the pressure of revealing Dimmesdale as the father and when she is told to “speak out the name of thy fellow sinner”, she refuses. Her loyalty and love for Dimmesdale is admirable. Hester also shows emotional strength by remaining in Boston and facing the humiliation rather than running away. She stays even though she is “alone, apart, a living critic of society”.
Hester is a devoted mother, even though she knows her daughter will be at a disadvantage because of her absent father. She names her daughter Pearl because she was “of great price-purchased with all she had, her mother’s only treasure”. Hester names her Pearl to associate purity and innocence with her rather than sin. Hester fought the authorities who tried to take her child away and provided for herself and her Pearl. The simple fact that Hester is able to raise her child while her punishment is ongoing shows her determination. Rather than seeing Pearl as a representation of her sin or the Scarlet Letter in another form, Hester chooses to see Pearl as a gift from God—the only company and link to humanity that she will have now that she is ostracised.
Despite being publicly humiliated by the Puritans, Hester remains kind and humble. Because she is shunned by her community, she has no friends or obligations. Her time is split between being in solitude or helping those in need such as the governor whom she sat with as he died and her charitable work. She does good deeds despite the people she helps not showing her the same generosity in return. Through her pious actions, Hester turned the A into a symbol of her good will, taking away the shame it was intended to represent. Rather than meaning “Adulterer”, the Scarlet Letter represented “Angel” or “Able”. In addition, Hester does not dress lavishly even though she had the ability to make beautifully embroidered clothing and hides her beauty by wearing the typical Puritan clothing.
In Chapter Five, “Hester at Her Needle”, the reader discovers that she independently supports herself and Pearl. This would not have been an easy task at the time. Hester becomes a seamstress and creates beautiful garments even though Puritans are supposed to be against such luxuries. Hawthorne describes her talent by saying “she had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic—a taste for the gorgeously beautiful”. There is irony present in the elaborate needlework of the Scarlet Letter. It is described as “fantastic flourishes of gold thread” and the letter is decorative, going against the laws that demand sombre, unadorned attire.
Hester made a difference to the Puritan society. Hester was not only able to survive the strict rules set by the Puritans but she also broke them and was able to emerge as a powerful female character respected by the other women in the community. A feminist movement was underway when Hawthorne wrote “The Scarlet Letter” and the patriarchy was being challenged by women in America, which resulted in a shift in female societal roles. Hawthorne himself was threatened by the growing feminist movement that could possibly displace his position in the literary world. Feminist critics could argue that Hester is the embodiment of strong-willed feminist women and thus is an important and complex heroine in American literature.
It could be argued that Hester Prynne is a transcendentalist. This term describes an optimistic person who has faith in the future, loves and sees God in nature. They are also honest and individualistic; much like Hester and her beliefs. Although she was scorned from society, she never tried to hide her mistakes. On the other hand, Dimmesdale made it appear like he did nothing wrong. He covered up his mistakes to protect his status. Hester followed her heart, not deliberately breaking the Puritans rules. Hawthorne says “the Scarlet Letter is a passport into regions where other women dare not tread… and they made her strong.”
On the other hand, some critics believe that Hester is not the heroine of the story. Some believe that rather than a heroine, Hester is a martyr or a victim to the Puritan society as they manage to destroy all happiness from her life with their rules and regulations. However, Hester can also be seen as a temptress, much like Eve from the Garden of Eden, as she enticed Dimmesdale with her beauty and made him commit a sin. Hester repeatedly provides evidence that she does not feel guilt for her sins which makes some readers believe she is not a heroic character.
Overall, I believe Hester Prynne is in fact the heroine of The Scarlet Letter. This is because Hester possessed the characteristics and traits common in heroes in literature and she sacrifices herself in order to save the person she loves.
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