In this essay, it will be discussed how Nathaniel Hawthorne’sThe Scarlet Letterengages with the role of women in the nineteenth century based on the example of the protagonist, Hester Prynne. To enable doing so, a number of critical voices on the topic will be analysed, and it will be discussed if, and how, the text portrays woman differently than they were wanted to behave when the novel was published in 1850.
In the nineteenth century, women were still considered inferior to, or at the very least vastly different from, men in some regards. It is based on this belief of the ‘separate spheres’ of the two sexes that women reigned over the household, while men had the right to do as they pleased in the outside world. American women were unable to vote until 1920. Their career choices were also quite limited due to their inability to pursue a higher education, with universities still mostly closed to women in the nineteenth century. It was believed that a woman’s duty and pleasure was to be a wife, and once married, whatever they possessed was their husband’s. Their social position was also much less stable. While a man was free to seek the company of women other than his wife and even prostitutes, an unfaithful woman was usually shamed and excluded from society. This is very much what happens to Hester, the heroine of the Scarlet Letter, who struggles with finding a job and a little respect after her relations with the priest Arthur Dimmesdale come to light.
Nan Lei explains: “Dimmesdale is worn out by […] his inner conflicts, his love for Hester […]. Different from Dimmesdale, Hester turns to be brave and positive toward the punishment and the scarlet letter A. Living in complete isolation from the community, Hester is determined to protect her lover’s reputation and tries her best to re-establish her relationship with people in town on a friendly and honest basis. She works hard to support her daughter Pearl, gives her hand to people in need and finally regains respect, dignity and admiration. […] Hester and Pearl leave Boston […]. Years later, Hester comes back to Boston and is buried alongside Dimmesdale after her death.”8
InThe Scarlet Letter, the portrayed women are usually pious, passive and obedient. Apart from Hester and her daughter Pearl, only the ‘town witch’ comes to mind when looking for an example of a different type of woman: Everyone avoids the witch, but she does not seem to care, and even tries to tempt Hester into witchcraft. This woman was meant to portray the historical Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656. It is very interesting that Hawthorne chose to include her: Witches did not behave the way a woman should: In a way, she mirrors Hester, and shows a different path that she could have gone: The path of maliciousness and open defiance of society, which ends in her death.
Hester Prynne, in comparison, has sexual relations out of wedlock, and is persecuted for it. While she does not receive a death sentence, her social standing is diminished after the incident. She has to wear a letter ‘A’ for ‘adultery’ for everyone to see from that day on. One of the reasons that Hester’s extramarital affair shocks the people around her is that, according to Kathryn Hughes, “women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men”1, thus a woman committing adultery was quite out of the ordinary. Furthermore, Hughes writes that “women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction”2. This point can be debated in relation to the Scarlet Letter: While Hester does love Dimmesdale, and seems to engage with him for that reason, she is also a young woman in her best years, and her husband Chillingworth, who was believed to be dead, was an old man when they married. Thus, she would most likely not be able to conceive a child from him. Since that was considered a woman’s duty, surely that can be a means to justify what she does. She definitely loves her daughter Pearl, and even when given the chance to part from her and start a new life elsewhere, she stays with her to teach her the moral values that she herself did not follow. She seems quite able to be a mother, as this quote from the text shows: “Lonely as was Hester’s situation, […] she possessed an art […] to supply food for her thriving infant and herself.”3 While she does her duty as a mother, she is also independent: She alone is the bread-winner for the family, since she is not able to rely on a husband to support the family. She must also have known what would happen to her when the truth about her adultery came to light, but she accepted the consequences. In that respect, Hester is a pioneer of the independent women of today, and quite a modern woman in regards to the time when the novel was written. It can thus be argued that the role of the woman, which was already in a process of change at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was portrayed as more than simply a man’s object and a means to produce heirs.
It should be mentioned that, while the puritan society that Hester lives in has strict moral values, it is also quite egalitarian in contrast to society in general at the time. Hester is not condemned for being a woman, but for the fact that she committed a crime, and even more notably, Hester is seen as the victim by her people, with a clergyman stating that she should “no longer hide the name of him who tempted [her] to this grievous fall”4. This is especially noteworthy since as women were seen as more moral than men, the reader could have suspected that Hester’s punishment would exceed that of the man she was with. For many decades, women were also regarded as the descendants of Eve who, after being tricked by the snake in the garden of Eden, convinced Adam to try the forbidden fruit. In a society based on religion, then, this emancipated approach is quite astounding. The puritans seem to be pioneers of today’s society that is based increasingly on equal rights, and the role of women at the time is definitely challenged in that respect.