(Shifting) Gender Roles in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Essay, 2021

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0







Works Cited

Djenisa Osmani

Text and Context I: Case Studies of Key Texts

April 1st, 2021

(Shifting) Gender Roles in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

The topic of gender roles is an area in society that has been a point of debate for several centuries. Even today, in many parts of the world, gender equality is discussed and fought for. Genders are assigned fixed characteristics and behaviors that are supposed to be followed to conform to society. If someone does not behave according to their gender role, it can very often lead to conflicts within society, even today. Gender roles are changing, but this is not a new phenomenon.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the novel The Scarlet Letter, which takes place about 200 years before his time. The novel is about a woman who has committed adultery and who has given birth to a child out of marriage. As punishment, she must wear the scarlet letter A at chest height for the rest of her life, a symbol of shame. This circumstance does not sound appropriate to our times, and even in the 19th century, when Hawthorne wrote the novel, some gender roles of the 17th century were no longer appropriate. The protagonist, Hester Prynne, does not conform to the conventions of her time and emancipates herself from the Puritan gender roles and even ends up not being condemned for it. Furthermore, she and the child’s father - the priest Arthur Dimmesdale - both demonstrate an exchange of gender roles in their ways of acting and characteristics.

In the following, I will first present the individual gender roles of the Puritans and those of the 19th century, demonstrating how they have changed, followed by an account of the feminine gender roles of Hester and her daughter Pearl. Finally, I will briefly present the extent to how the gender roles in the novel are shifted.


Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850, about 200 years later than the novel’s plot period, which is set around the end of the 17th century. It is important to distinguish that gender roles changed extensively within the two centuries.

Puritan Gender Roles. The role of women had conflicting views in Puritanism. On the one hand, there was the belief that every Christian woman was responsible for finding the path of salvation and the knowledge of grace and walking this path herself (Kerber 167). Women were in fact allowed to continue their education, but only in the Christian sense to be able to walk this path. Christian education, especially through reading the Bible, was crucial and very important. After all, the women in the family were responsible for passing on this Christian education to their children. But on the other hand, women tended to sin. Eve serves as an explanation thereby. After all, she had taken the initiative to sin by being seduced by the devil. Hence, women were classified as weak and vulnerable. Indeed, they were submissive in character and must be protected for their own good (168). First and foremost, a woman in the Puritan age is a mother and wife as well as a devout Christian, “accepting the “cult of domesticity” under which woman was ordained, by nature and God alike, to serve in the domestic arena as wife, mother, and keeper of home and hearth” (Murfin 247). A woman’s individualism and self-determination are excluded here. A Puritan woman should not only be a good Christian and submissive to God, but also to her husband. In particular, she must be selfless, devoted and support her husband. But the other way around, she cannot expect support from him (Kerber 168). According to Kerber, women did not even have a right of self-determination in religious or Christian terms. “Puritan women were automatically transferred from one church to another when their husbands moved, and older women ceased to have a voice in the disciplining of church members” (168). One reason may have been the fact that once she was married, her rights were transferred to her husband, who ultimately had the power to make decisions (Murfin 247). If she was not married, she was legally bound to her father. William Blackstone captures this position of the woman as follows, “[b]y marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing [sic]” (Blackstone 248).

It is noticeable that the woman’s role and that of the man in the Puritan age are to be found in two different spheres. The woman, devout Christian, mother, and wife who existed only in the sphere of domesticity, while the role of the man was given more rights. He was the head of the family and the protector of the woman. According to Blackstone, men were even legally obligated to bear responsibility for their wives and to be liable for them (249). Furthermore, there was a duty on his part “to provide his wife with necessaries . . . and if she contracts debts for them, he is obliged to pay them: but for any thing [sic] besides necessaries, he is not chargeable” (248-249). Furthermore, if the wife misbehaved, the husband had the right to discipline her (as well as the children and servants). These rights of the man, “the powers of naming, owning, and ordering” (Benstock 398) were justified as being God-given.

In addition, I would like to discuss the sexual situation between man and woman, as this also undergoes an enormous transformation regarding gender roles. Since in the Puritan age the own household was regarded as “centers of economic productions” (Herbert 70), it was also important to have many children. Finally, the children could thus also contribute to the family income by joining work at home. However, it should be noted that women were viewed differently from men in sexual terms. The Puritans viewed women as beings with “more powerful sexual desires than men” (70) and were thus less easily controlled. Hence, female sexuality was to be kept in line through religious, legal, and economic structures (Benstock 398). Adultery was considered bad for the man according to William Cobbett, but all the worse for the woman (Cobbett 246). A distinction was made between a woman’s adultery and a man’s adultery. The woman’s adultery is worse “because here is a total want of delicacy; here is, in fact, prostitution; here is grossness and filthiness of mind; here is every thing [sic] that argues baseness of character” (246). Moreover, it is added that she harms her husband insofar as she causes him financial inconvenience with a child that may have resulted from the adultery. The husband, on the other hand, committing adultery only brings shame to his wife or family (246). According to Murfin, adultery was even a crime in the Puritan age and could be punished by death (Murfin 241).

Gender Roles in the 19th Century. The gender roles of men and women changed over the 200 years. Men, especially middle-class men, now worked in politics or business rather than at home (Herbert 68-69). This, according to Herbert, also changed the situation of women. “Within the domestic sphere, . . . a wife lives out the essence of her natural womanhood by bearing and rearing children, and by cultivating an atmosphere of selfless devotion to which the husband can return from the soul-destroying competition that he must wage in the public world of business and politics” (68-69). The separation of the husband’s residence and workplace, or new career opportunities in the capitalist sphere that arose due to industrialization, resulted in a different family situation. The children now no longer worked in the household for the family income. They became a financial burden and so it was even more important not to have a large family (70). A kind of trend of sexual abstinence developed. Here, gender roles are redefined. Women are no longer uncontrollable passionate beings; they are now more responsible for keeping the husband abstinent. (Sexual) Purity is expected of them (70). Herbert even calls the woman’s purity “psychic birth-control” (70). Male purity now depended on the wife’s purity.

There was also a change in the spheres. “. . . nineteenth-century gender ideology is that it constructed a “male” world that was even more and decidedly self-consciously distinct from the ”female”” (Keil 35). The man was the economic branch that maintained the family financially and the woman’s work (which was mostly not considered work) contained the household and raising the children. Whereas in the Puritan age, so to speak, almost the whole family had worked for the maintenance of the family, now – in the 19th century - only the man is responsible.

However, the 19th century also brought some movements regarding gender roles. One example is the Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, which was held two years before The Scarlet Letter was published. Members wrote the Declaration of Sentiments along the lines of the Declaration of Independence, calling for equal rights, for men AND women (Easton 81). Thus, it is demanded “. . . that woman has rested too long, satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarge sphere which her great Creator has assigned her” (Seneca Falls Resolutions in Murfin 253).


In the following, with the help of some text passages from The Scarlet Letter, I will examine the extent to which the already mentioned characteristics of the female gender role of Puritanism were incorporated into the novel. It will be discussed how Hester Prynne opposes Puritan conventions, laws and traditions and emancipates herself, and what role Pearl plays thereby.

The Emancipation of Hester Prynne. Hester Prynne, a beautiful English woman living in Boston in New England, whose husband is lost at sea (later we find out that he is alive) but has given birth to an illegitimate child - a girl. She atones for the punishment - from now on to wear a scarlet A on her chest. In addition, she suffers the punishment of loneliness and the contempt of other people. In the previous point it was already explained that adultery, especially committed by women, was considered very problematic and worse than adultery committed by a man in the Puritan age. These were rules and laws that were stemmed from patriarchal structures. The reason given for Hester’s sin was the absence of her husband (Hawthorne 59). After all, he was not present to protect her (in that case, rather, to control her) or to prevent her from doing so, because a woman, as I have explained in the previous chapter, is not able to control herself, being weak and ultimately given to sin, as Eve was when she was seduced by the devil. This aspect is also echoed in The Scarlet Letter when the prison guard says to Roger, “Verily, the woman hath been like a possessed one; and there lacks little, that I should take in hand to drive Satan out of her with stripes” (67). I will revisit the connection of Satan and the female sex in the following point.

According to Benstock, however, Hester subverts these Puritan patriarchal rules and laws. She embroiders and embellishes the scarlet letter, which she is supposed to wear as a punishment and visible to everyone on her clothes at chest height, and she faces the punishment alone by not revealing her father’s name (Benstock 397). By embellishing the scarlet ace, she glosses over her offense, adultery. “The letter A, which is to stand as the sign of sexual fall, escapes by way of Hester’s needle the interpretive code it would enforce, opening itself to a wholly different logic. It makes a spectacle of femininity, of female sexuality, of all that Puritan law hopes to repress” (397). By not revealing the name of the child’s father, Hester opposes the Puritan ideology, namely “. . . to bring mother and daughter under the authority of God and man. . .” (397). She even disdains the punishment she had to undergo for her adultery, seeing the scene in the marketplace as a triumph, “[t]hen, she was supported by an unnatural tension of the nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph” (Hawthorne 73).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


(Shifting) Gender Roles in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
University of Stuttgart
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ISBN (Book)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Gender Studies, Feminism, Gender Roles, Puritanism, Hawthorne
Quote paper
Djenisa Osmani (Author), 2021, (Shifting) Gender Roles in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1159954


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