Historically motivated gender ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

Term Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Survey of Gender Roles in Historical Contexts
2.1 Gender in Puritan Contexts
2.2 Shifting Gender Understandings in Hawthorne's Time

3 Gender Roles in The Scarlet Letter
3.1 Female Gender and Hester Prynne
3.2 Male Gender and Arthur Dimmesdale

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

It has become an academic tradition over the past decades to scrutinize historical literary pieces for traces of feminism. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter has been a prime object of interest for several scholars in this pursuit. The story of Hester Prynne who is outlawed by Puritan society after having committed adultery represents an early work to have a protagonist who breaks with the law of her time. This might be the reason why in an earlier tradition the novel has been read with Arthur Dimmesdale, the young reverend and Hester's lover, as the central figure. Approaches involving feminism and gender studies challenged this reading. Their focus however primarily seems to be the tracing of feminist attitudes in Hawthorne's writing. In this approach the historical perspective of the literary work is often read from a contemporary angle creating a hybrid reading that involves three time frames, namely the Puritan time of the plot, the 19th century setting of the novel's writing and the contemporary moment of the novel's reading.

While these moments will always be involved in the reading of a historical piece, my approach to understanding gender relations in The Scarlet Letter will focus on the two historical eras. The 200 years that passed between the time of the plot and the time the novel was written present a crucial period of changing gender relations that are a core issue in the novel. Overall the ambiguous portrayal of The Scarlet Letter's central characters Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale represents a critique of Puritan gender relations while simultaneously reflecting the change in gender roles of the 19 th century, Hawthorne's time of writing. This can be proven by looking at the gender understandings of the different ages and relating them to the treatment of men and women in the novel. In this pursuit it is crucial to examine both the male and the female main characters and set them in relation to each other. The overall goal will be to understand how masculinity and femininity is created in the relationship between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.

2 Survey of Gender Roles in Historical Contexts

To analyse the novel for its gender relations it is vital to first look at the understandings of gender in Puritanism and Hawthorne's time respectively. The question what men and women, husbands and wives were understood to be in the two periods is the framework for an analysis of the novel's gender constellations. The Scarlet Letter's plot is placed in the time frame of 1642 until 1649. The novel was published in 1850. This lapse in time lead to some ambiguation as the understanding of women's and men's roles in society were altered over the period of time.

2.1 Gender in Puritan Contexts

In the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony men and women were believed to belong in separate spheres. These spheres were understood to be God-given and therefore natural, static and unchangeable. Women were predominantly wives and mothers. In the domestic sphere they were “keeper of home and hearth (Murfin 2006, 247).” Once a woman was married, her legal rights were bound to her husband (Murfin 2006, 247). From this point onward legal decisions were privilege of the husband, while wives shared the same legal status as children. Thus, William Blackstone wrote in 1765: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage (Blackstone 2006, 248).”

Men were legally responsible and liable for their wives. In this role they became the protector of the wife and the provider for the family (Blackstone 2006, 248). Furthermore, the correction of the wife, in the same measure as children and servants, was the husband's duty (Blackstone 2006, 248). Women were believed to have stronger, less controllable sexual desires (Herbert 2004, 70). Therefore, Benstock argues it became a Puritan effort to regulate female sexuality within religious, legal and economic structures (Benstock 2006, 398). Thus, the legal authority of naming, owning and ordering is a male domain rightfully derived from God (Benstock 2006, 398).

The treatment of infidelity and adultery in Puritan times also plays a central role to the story. Infidelity was considered to be the worse crime if committed by a wife. The reason lies in the prospective result. While men would 'merely' inflict shame on themselves and their family, women could become pregnant and bring an illegitimate child into the family (Cobbett 2006, 246). The child would become a financial burden on the husband and later derive the legitimate children of part of their potential inheritance (Cobbett 2006, 246). Adultery was at the time considered a capital crime. The usual punishment was death (Murfin 2006, 241).

Where did Hawthorne then get the idea of the embroidered letter? In the New Plymouth Colony adulterers were according to the code of law whipped and required to wear the letters A D on their clothing's arm or back (Murfin 2006, 241). It is telling that Hawthorne replaced the letter to the front creating a strong emphasis on the heart and therefore a connection to feeling and emotionality. Something that in Hawthorne's own time was supposed to be governed by rationality.

2.2 Shifting Gender Understandings in Hawthorne's Time

As The Scarlet Letter was first published in 1850, Hawthorne's time can be roughly described as mid-19th century. The idea of different, separate spheres is still the basis of the understanding of gender during the author's lifetime. The domestic sphere it was believed gave the woman the best opportunity to unfold her full potential (Herbert 2004, 68). The man at the same time entered the world of work and capitalist competition to find self-fulfilment (Herbert 2004, 68).

The notion of competition in the workplace already hints at the changing economic structures that strongly influenced social life. As the industrialisation shapes a more capitalist system, the man now has to leave the house to work. Therefore, family and workplace become more disconnected. As the children are not required as supporting workforce around the house, they turn into a financial liability (Herbert 2004, 70). To have a large number of children thus became less desirable. This development, in turn, changed the sexual relations within marriage. Where before procreation was encouraged, it now became attractive to stay abstinent. This state of suppressed desires was affiliated with the term purity (Herbert 2004, 70).

This rapidly transforming environment produced the need for a revision and new definition of gender roles. In this period of change the first women's movement arose. Individual tendencies became a collective quest which sought to establish equal legal rights and an equal social status for women. The points under critical consideration were the right to vote, a right to work and choose a profession as well as the right for a college education (Belasco 2008, 629). Also women criticized the legal dependence of wives on their husbands, especially the deprivation of earnings (Belasco 2008, 629).

A leading figure in the field was Margaret Fuller, a close friend of Hawthorne's. She published Woman of the Nineteenth Century in 1845. It became one of the most prominent books published in the USA to take on the questions of society's restriction of the role of women. In her work she challenges the conventional idea of spheres (Fuller 1845, 733). She attempts to break gender roles for both, men and women in arguing that all people inhabit one common sphere (Easton 2004, 81). However, the idea of different natural, biological characteristics of the sexes was still the basis of all assumptions (Easton 2004, 81). Three years later the first women's rights convention takes place in Seneca Falls. Their accomplishment is the Declaration of Sentiments (1848), modelled on the Declaration of Independence. The central concern is the establishment of equal legal rights for men and women (Belasco and Johnson 2008, 629). These movements can be said to have a further destabilizing influence on the social understanding of gender as it is increasingly opened up for debate instead of being stable and static.

3 Gender Roles in The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter attempts to draw an accurate picture of Puritanism in the 17th century. Hawthorne for this purpose establishes an unmoving patriarchal power structure in the community. Legal decisions as judging and punishing criminal activity as much as law making and determining the social order lie in the hands of a male elite. Women do not share legal recognition or responsibility. This legal inequality produces a social inequality as well. While the plot shows men in their public roles as honourable types such as the governor or the reverend, the female characters do not stand in a good light. Hester Prynne is the town outlaw, her daughter Pearl is the inhibition of her mother's sin and mistress Hibbins is gossiped to be a witch. The overall social structure places a small number of men in an elite and women in a lower class. This general structure reflexive of Puritan society does not change throughout the book. It is however questioned by different characters, their interactions and their relationship towards each other.

The gender roles can be clearly traced in the two central characters Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Their affair is the reason for Hester's punishment and public condemnation by the town elders which leads to her being shunned by the community. While Hester has to live through public humiliation, Arthur Dimmesdale negotiates his guilt in private. In sequences in the novel that show the two characters in interaction an ambiguation of gender roles becomes especially clear. Hester refuses to publicly announce the name of her lover. The secret knowledge gives her power over Arthur (Person 2007, 72). Hester is able to use this power to force Arthur to speak out for her when the town elders want to take her daughter Pearl (Person 2007, 72). In this moment she becomes passionate and empowered while Arthur submits to her will.

Later in the novel when the two meet in the forest and Hester reveals the true identity of Roger Chillingworth, the power relationship is reversed again. This, however, is not based on a female power play but rather on Arthur's resignation into Hester's will. While Arthur takes on female attributes such as strong emotionality and feebleness, Hester exhibits masculine attributes such as determination, strength and rationality. This role reversal questions strict gender stereotypes and the natural arrangement of social strata in Puritan times as well as the 19th century.

Overall the novel can be said to show a role reversal in stages. In the beginning Hester is the outlaw who is publicly judged for her sin by Arthur who literally stands above her. In their next interaction – when Hester is pleading to keep her daughter – Hester uses their secret to pressure him. Thus, she subverts the regular power relationship of man and woman. Officially however, Dimmesdale still is the one in charge. He has to advocate for her in order to convince the town council. When they stand together on the scaffold at night, they both stand at eye level. Nevertheless, Arthur Dimmesdale is still in charge. He orders Hester to stand with him and although he admits his guilt to Hester and God, he rejects the notion of a public confession. Their next secret meeting in the forest shows the role reversal. Arthur is physically and emotionally unable to uphold himself. Hester has to stand up for him. She takes charge of the situation. Eventually Arthur admits being Hester's lover to the town and thereupon dies. Hester's position is not affected by the confession. While Arthur Dimmesdale's ultimate fate is death, Hester later acquires social acceptance and takes on the role of emotional counsellor for other women. Her social re-acceptance can be understood as a sign of upward mobility. This might reflect the new tendencies and hopes that women had in the mid-19th century for legal and social equality.

3.1 Female Gender and Hester Prynne

Overall the narrative voice sympathizes with Hester Prynne. Thus, she presumably is the protagonist of the story. Furthermore, this position potentially arouses a sympathetic attitude of the reader towards Hester (Person 2007, 69). Making the 'fallen' woman the centre of a story probably breaks the convention of the 19th century. This must also be one of the reasons why this novel was read with Arthur Dimmesdale as the protagonist by generations of scholars. The assumption of sympathy forms the basis for the idea that the story takes a critical look at the status of women in Puritan society.

There are two central aspects connected to Hester's femininity – the letter A on her dress and her beauty. Both are frequently intertwined. The link is established early on in her introduction. Hester's beauty is described as extraordinary (71 f.) and is directly connected to her sin in utterings such as: “How her beauty shone out and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped (72).” This particular passage exemplifies the ambiguity presented in Hester's character. On the one hand, her beauty is connected to her wrongdoing; on the other hand, it is perceived as a halo making a direct connection to divine creatures and their goodness. A few lines earlier the letter is first described: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A (71).” Just like the female beauty, the extravagance of the letter is emphasized. It becomes a celebration of beauty rather than a sign of shame. The shame is not endowed in the letter but is ascribed by the town council that judges her. As the letter marks Hester's sin, her beauty can be understood to be connected to the wrongdoing as well. Therefore, female beauty is more generally connected to sexual transgression.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Historically motivated gender ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"
University of Rostock  (Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Early American Literature, US History and Its Aftermath
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, Gender, Hester Prynne, Gener roles, Arthur Dimmesdale, Puritans
Quote paper
Bettina Siebert (Author), 2017, Historically motivated gender ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/459922


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