Christopher Bigsby's "Hester". A Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"?

Hausarbeit, 2014

17 Seiten, Note: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Christopher Bigsby and the birth of Hester

3. Short literary examination of the novel Hester

4. The connection between Hester and The Scarlet Letter
4.1. A rewrite or a retelling
4.2. The character arcs
4.3. The psychology and the dimensions of Hester’s characters
4.3.1. Arthur Dimmesdale
4.3.2. Roger Chillingworth
4.3.3. Hester Prynne

5. Comparison of the content in Hester and The Scarlet Letter

6. Christopher Bigsby’s motive for Hester

7. The “homage-character” of Hester

8. Conclusion

9. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The Scarlett Letter is a text which has always enjoyed a considerable amount of attention and significance in literary circles and by an extensive range of authors. It has been rewritten a large number of times and several authors have attempted to expand or offer their own version of the tale presented by Hawthorne.

The Scarlett Letter enjoys such a position in literature that several authors have attempted to explore and contribute to it in their own, creative and special way. Christopher Bigsby’s Hester also falls under the category of the works which have utilized Hawthorne’s text to offer other versions, extensions or explanations. The just mentioned novel by Christopher Bigsby serves as a background explanation of the lives and actions of the characters in The Scarlett Letter, especially Hester Prynne. This all happens in reflection prior to the events and points in time depicted in Hawthorne’s novel.

Hester is primarily a text dedicated to the happenings in the lives of the characters of The Scarlett Letter at an earlier time and how they arrived at the conditions and junctions depicted in The Scarlett Letter.

The following term paper will center on the question if Christopher Bigsby’s novel Hester pays homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or not? It will also examine if the here mentioned text can be seen as a recycled literature, a spin off or a rewrite.

Since Hester is a novel which centers on explanation and background more than other factors, it cannot be underlined to be a rewrite of The Scarlett Letter in a technical sense even though it may seem so on the surface because of some of its characteristics . It can fall under the category of either recycled literature or spin off because it takes the main idea of The Scarlett Letter and utilizes it to come up with different strings of text.

Furthermore, it adheres to the characters of The Scarlett Letter and their lives but offers the author i.e. Christopher Bigsby’s own version of their background and prior actions, which also causes it to fall under one of the two categories just mentioned above- recycled literature and spin off.

Since the author of Hester attempts his very best to do justice to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel and the back story of its characters, therefore, it is fitting to claim that Christopher Bigsby’s novel Hester does pay homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter.

2. Christopher Bigsby and the birth of Hester

Christopher Bigsby, professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia in England, was born in the year 1941in Scotland. The novelist and biographer is also known as the director of the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies.[1]

Bigsby published more than forty book concerning the American culture, literature and theatre. Also, he is well known for his study about Holocaust literature and the biography of Arthur Miller. In addition to that, he is also co-writer for two BBC television dramas and works on a BBC radio drama. The radio is a well known territory for him, as he was broadcasting many years with the BBC[2].

The following paper is centered on the first novel written by Christopher Bigsby - Hester: A Romance. It was published in 1994 and awarded with the McKitterick Prize. Besides the already mentioned prequel to the Scarlet Letter, Bigsby also wrote a sequel to Hawthorne’s novel titled Pearl: A Romance, which was published one year after Hester.[3]

As a professor for literature Bigsby became obsessed with the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and tried already in early ages to imitate his language. During a journey to Austria, Bigsby discovered in a antique shop in Salzburg a book that started to change his way and was the beginning of his love to Hester Prynne:[4]

Alongside editions […] wedged securely on a shelf and coated with Austrian dust, I found a biography of a man I had long admired. […] But it was then, I think, that Hester was born, for in looking at one book I recalled another which began with a woman emerging into the sudden light of a New England day. That book was The Scarlet Letter; its author was Nathaniel Hawthorne. And I repeated Dimmsdale’s sin: I feel in love with her.[5]

And with the great passion of love Bigsby started to write a sequel that admired the character of Hester Prynne and the work of his inspiration Nathaniel Hawthorne.

3. Short literary examination of the novel Hester

As the novel Hester depicts the historical event of settlement in the new world the same way Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter does, it can be seen as to be a historical novel. It is set in Norwich, England and Boston in the 17th century. As a prequel, Hester provides all information that are needed to understand the decisions and positions of the characters in the The Scarlet Letter.

Hester by Bigsby goes back to the beginnings of Hester Prynne as a teenager. She is the American Adam of the story or the character which depicts a brave sense of purity in the start and an underlying desire to explore and experience new things. This character is the personification of opportunities and prospects. Hester Prynne’s beginnings in the novel Hester provide foundations for her character’s development in The Scarlet Letter, where she lives in exile from the community and leads her existence with an underlying sense of independence, worldly wisdom, courage and care.

By giving the reader additional information that cannot be read in Hawthorne’s text Christopher Bigsby helps to fill in gaps that were left open and answers question that might occurred after reading The Scarlet Letter.

The author tried to imitate the style as much as possible and create a novel that could connect without any problem to the inspiring work. The structure and style of language were quietly nice copied. By reading Hester one will find similarities but also discover that the novel has its own identity.

The novel Hester can be classified as Bildungsroman:

[C]lass of novel that deals with the maturation process, with how and why the protagonist develops as he does, both morally and psychologically. The German word Bildungsroman means novel of education or novel of formation.[6]

To describe the personal and biographical development of the fictional characters within a novel, the prototypical Bildungsroman is based on a trichotomy of youth, years of education and master craftsmanship. In Hester, the trichotomy is realized by showing Hester's time with Chillingworth in Norwich, describing her sea voyage on the ship Hope and showing features of her life in Boston.

4. The connection between Hester and The Scarlet Letter

The connection between Hester by Christopher W. E. Bigsby and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is very strong. Hester serves as the prequel to The Scarlet Letter and documents the background arcs of various characters in The Scarlet Letter and how several things got to the point they were at in Hawthorne’s text. Hester underlines the choices made and the paths taken by its characters, which led to their lives and emotional states in The Scarlet Letter. It makes an emphatic statement about the beginnings of characters like Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale in the story and their most defined character traits.

Christopher Bigsby's Hester has been underlined to be a "de-centered retelling" of the text with its basement settled on the text The Scarlett Letter [7].

4.1. A rewrite or a retelling

In other words, even though Hester is not a rewrite of the text The Scarlett Letter, it is a retelling which takes different components of the text and centers on them in a distinctive manner. Hester is a tale which expands The Scarlett Letter instead of telling a new story, but its journey of accomplishing this task is not one-dimensional and it offers its readers valuable insights into the characters of The Scarlett Letter, which matter to a considerably significant degree. Some characteristics of Hester are evident from the detail that it acts as a way to explain the events before The Scarlett Letter in an "in-England, voyage-over" fashion[8].

This causes the narrative of Hester to unfold in such a manner that the reader can make a connection with it effectively.

4.2. The character arcs

In addition, it also sheds light on the arcs and equations Hester shares with Chillingworth and Dimmesdale in its own manner[9]. There is an entire back story explaining what was lacking in the marriage of Hester with Chillingworth which caused her to flee and ultimately fall for Dimmesdale the way she did and Bigsby’s coverage of these arcs certainly adds to the details presented in The Scarlett Letter. Moreover, there is a requirement to note that Hester Prynne’s heartbreak and disappointment with her marriage played a substantial role in driving her toward breaking the laws of God and man and having an affair with Dimmesdale, and Bigsby plays an efficient job making a statement about that:

[A]s he who refused to share her life or even the time of day while love was no longer a language which spoke her condition. Her natural language now was tears. The conviction grew in Hester’s mind that hers had been no marriage and search as she might she could find no fault in herself except she had entered into a pact against her soul.[10]

The Scarlett Letter makes a statement about the degree of evil Chillingworth accomplishes at a point in time when he derives pleasure out of the suffering of others. Hawthorne’s text also makes it clear how Chillingworth coldly embarks on a journey of revenge against Hester.

Bigsby traces the background of the arc between Hester and Chillingworth by making it clear how Hester made a decision to marry Chillingworth as an outcome of her naiveté:

Childishly intent to interest her in every experiment, every theory, every fancy, he showed her books in languages she knew nothing of from countries of which she had never heard […] He held her with his stories, seduced her with his experience.[11]

Also he depicts how Chillingworth turned out to be the opposite of what she wanted and expected him to be. He describes how Chillingworth ignored her and made her spirit die with his cold behavior and indifference, and how his treatment of her as a possession instead of a human being and a partner resulted in causing her to find a way out of the marriage.

The situation between the married couple is at the center of Hawthorne’s story and Bigsby’s backdrop serves as an effective addition.

4.3. The psychology and the dimensions of Hester’s characters

4.3.1. Arthur Dimmesdale

Bigsby’s Hester also attempts further to delve deeper into the psychology and dimensions of the characters, staying true to them and expanding details. At one point, Hawthorne describes Dimmesdale in a very religious sense. At one point, Hawthorne describes Dimmesdale to be considered by his fans to be almost a "heaven-ordained apostle"[12].

While Bigsby also centers on those aspects of Dimmesdale’s personality which have already been underlined by Hawthorne, he also goes on to shed light on what goes deeper than that as far as Dimmesdale is concerned. In addition, there is a need to note that The Scarlett Letter also makes it clear that while Hester stands as a symbol of courage and spirit, Dimmesdale may come across as passionate and promising on the surface in the start while being indecisiveness, self-tormenting, guilt-ridden, driven by conscience, sympathetic , and somehow cowardly beneath. He also becomes a powerful minister who lives with guilt underneath. Especially after Dimmesdale gets informed about Hester’s state after their intimate contact, his character shows obvious signs of being guilt- ridden. [13]

Bigsby also does a sufficient job of exploring the angle presented by Hawthorne in this context and makes the shortcomings of Dimmesdale’s character as clear as possible.

It can also be underlined that the position of respect Dimmesdale enjoys is evident from the following lines in The Scarlett Letter:

Good Master Dimmesdale, the responsibility of this woman's soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.[14]

These words underline how people view Hester in a shameful manner while assign a considerable amount of respect to the character of Dimmesdale. This is a point where the contradiction between the images of Hester and Dimmesdale held by people is evident even though they played an equal part in the illegitimate birth of Pearl. Even though this is proceeded by a choice made by Hester not to reveal the name of the father of her baby, it should be noted that had Dimmesdale had courage and been as noble as people view him to be, he would have spoken at the point the man addresses him using aforementioned words.

Bigsby explores this arc of Dimmesdale’s character as well by covering the aspects which underline the lack of courage Dimmesdale suffers from.

4.3.2. Roger Chillingworth

Furthermore, this is reflected in the descriptions surrounding other characters as well. One of these examples is Roger Chillingworth. He acts and thinks in the manner and form of a mad scientist and a cold and evil husband:

At the time of which I speak there was living in that place a man whose ideas where not those of his contemporaries. Indeed he had withdrawn himself precisely because he shared so little with them. Today we might call him a scientist. They had sharper words for those who saw things others did not. That isolation however had worked upon his mind so that he fancied himself.[15]

On the surface, Chillingworth has been described by Hawthorne to be "calm, gentle, passionless" but it has also been underlined that beneath that, he possesses a "quiet depth of malice" [16] .

Not only does Bigsby cover these angles, but he also goes on to explore other dimensions associated with the character of Chillingworth, an example of which is how “cold and terror” leave an impact on Chillingworth at a point in the story.

Both pieces of evidence are sufficient to make a statement about how Chillingworth’s character has many dimensions and experiences a multidimensional array of elements. Both texts go from documenting the evil in Chillingworth to the end which underlines the hopelessness and gloom associated with his character. Not only does Bigsby center on different aspects, but he also does well at covering the transformations associated with the story of Hawthorne.

Therefore, Bigsby pays homage to Hawthorne’s text and its character by skirting and circling what makes the story and the people in it what they are.

4.3.3. Hester Prynne

Hester Prynne of The Scarlett Letter is strong and has the ability to face the world and adversity in its severest forms. Hester faces a lot in life and even though she is human and does feel afraid at times, she deals with life’s challenges admirably, one by one. This is evident from Hawthorne’s words when he describes her: “Hester

Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity[17]. Hester's words in Bigsby's Hester go on to highlight, this attitude:

I have courage, perhaps, which I never knew I had, no, nor never knew I should need neither. And tomorrow I may stand in the sun and hold my child for all to see nor shall I do so with aught but pride and this pride be no sin.[18]

This makes an emphatic statement about the detail that Bigsby explains Hawthorne’s account of the inherent courage in Hester, which she herself may have been unaware of, efficiently. This also presents something very significant because it underlines the growth in Hester.

When Hester proceeds in life and encounters one hardship after another, she comes to act with the kind of courage she herself did not know she has always been in possession of. Further, Hester's courage is evident from The Scarlett Letter when she faces the crowd with her infant. She does feel self-conscious and has a sense of shame but is still confident enough to face the crowd. This is evident from:

[S]he took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors.[19]

This demonstrates that despite knowing the complexity of the situation, Hester manages to deal with it with the assistance of her courage. Bigsby keeps the trait of courage alive with the assistance of underlining Hester's thoughts prior to this public appearance. Hester acknowledges how she has courage and thinks how "[…] tomorrow I may stand in the sun and hold my child for all to see" [20].

This continues the determination Hester has and how it helps her move forward. Bigsby does not fall short in underlining how Hester experiences a sudden burst of the kind of courage even she did not know she had.

5. Comparison of the content in Hester and The Scarlet Letter

Furthermore, Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter centers on the outcomes of the actions of its characters and Hester makes a statement about the details and conditions surrounding these actions.

Bigsby goes on to inform the readers of Hester about Hester Prynne's earlier family and married existence. The unique nature of Bigsby’s version of this story is clear from the detail that even though Hawthorne’s novel centers on and revolved mostly around the central years of the existences of its characters and onwards, Hester revolves around their backdrops and those preliminary happenings which proved to be instrumental in outlining their destiny[21].

On the one hand is The Scarlett Letter, revolving around those outcomes and impacts that sin and shame have left on the emotional states and journeys of the characters[22], and on the other hand is Hester, centering on those original factors and arcs in the story which led to those aforementioned consequences.

Bigsby’s story serves the true purpose of being a prequel in this manner. Bigsby’s Hester also sheds light on why the marriage Hester had with Chillingworth did not work and what made her escape it. She ends up marrying Chillingworth, who is many years older, without comprehending his true character and nature. Hester is misled by his knowledge to believe that he would be as informed about life’s other aspects as well [23] .

Furthermore, she is also naïve enough to believe that his intellect will translate into true “wisdom” [24] . In simple words, marrying Chillingworth is an ill-informed and rushed decision for Hester, who does not know what she is getting herself into. Later, she attempts to engage in many acts and practices to get rid of her sorrowful marriage to Chillingworth [25] . This is clear from Bigsby’s description of the origins of this marriage i.e. "Together they entered the house, though not hand in hand, and together mounted the stairs, but the fate towards which she moved was not that about which she had dreamed. So the night which was to have begun their marriage ended it"[26].

Going into her marriage, Hester was a young girl with a burning spirit and certain dreams. When she marries Chillingworth, she expects it to be her dream come true but it is clear from the first night after her marriage that she made a mistake and this marriage is not going to be a happy one.

Hawthorne demonstrates the later stages of life of Hester and how she faces the world with her daughter but Bigsby captures all that was wrong with Hester and Chillingworth’s marriage. It can also be established that Bigsby's Hester engages in a re-Englishing of Hawthorne's text[27]. This is also a complex procedure and is based on a substantial number of dimensions.

Another characteristic of Bigsby's text is also evident from the detail that Hester centers on the 17th century, underlines links with Civil-War England, and sheds light on Norfolk emigration history[28]. This also causes Bigsby’s text to unfold in such a manner that it presents the characters of Hawthorne’s text in an atmosphere which is close to the original and yet unique.


[1] University of East Anglia. “Biography”. Web. 21 January 2014. <>

[2] University of East Anglia 1.

[3] Bigsby, Christopher W. Hester: A Novel [about the Heroine of the Scarlett Letter]. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. Print. position 33.

[4] Bigsby, position 34.

[5] Quote from Bigsby, position 3128.

[6] Quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Bildungsroman.”. Web. 21 January 2014.

[7] Bell, Millicent. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. Print., 84.

[8] Bell, 84.

[9] Bell, 84.

[10] Quote from Bigsby, position 695.

[11] Quote from Bigsby, position 2689.

[12] Quote from Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876., 136.

[13] Bigsby, position 2494.

[14] Hawthorne, 78.

[15] Quote from Bigsby, position 112.

[16] Quote from Hawthorne, 158.

[17] Quote from Hawthorne, 226.

[18] Quote from Bigsby, position 2815.

[19] Quote from Hawthorne, 63.

[20] Quote from Bigsby, position 2815.

[21] Kakutani, Michiko. "Books of the Times; How Hester Prynne got that Tell-tale Letter." New York Times. 1994. Web. 31 December 2013. prynne-got-that-tell-tale-letter.html. 1.

[22] Kakutani, 1.

[23] Kakutani, 1.

[24] Kakutani, 2.

[25] Jacobson, Karin. CliffsComplete: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. New York, NY: Hungry Minds, Inc., 2001. Print., 221.

[26] Quote from Bigsby, position 547.

[27] Bell, 84.

[28] Reif-Hülser, Monika. Borderlands: Negotiating Boundaries in Post-Colonial Writing. Amsterdam u.a.: Rodopi, 1999. Print, 75.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 17 Seiten


Christopher Bigsby's "Hester". A Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"?
Bayerische Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg  (Angelistik)
"Spin-Off, Mash-Up and Rewrite: Literary Recycling"
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
498 KB
Spin-Off, Hester, Mash-Up, Rewrite, Recycling, Nathaniel, Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Christopher Bigsby
Arbeit zitieren
Stefanie Holzmann (Autor:in), 2014, Christopher Bigsby's "Hester". A Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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