Hester Prynne’s Individualism in “The Scarlet Letter”
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity.1
Hester Prynne, the woman described above and one of the main characters of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” is the typical romantic individualist. Individualism is a major topic in romanticism. In the eras before, the individual was always inferior to and less important than society and the heroes tried to save society. But in romanticism the individual is equal to or even more important than society. The heroes are also rebellious, they defy society instead of saving it. So the typical romantic individualist rejects the authority of God and of the state and affirms the sole authority of nature. Hester fits into that category, because by committing adultery she broke the laws of God and man and sought natural passions and true love. This paper, which is to show the quality of Hester’s individualism is divided into three parts, each dealing with one aspect of her life. The first part concerns her relationship with other people in the community, her “outer life”. Her relationship to Pearl is the theme of the second part and the third one deals with Hester’s “inner life”, her life with regard to the spiritual world and her own imagination.
The Puritan society of Hester’s time is a patriarchal one, i.e. independent women like her are extremely uncommon. The worldly and religious authorities are closely linked, e.g. the heads of church and state stand together on the balcony, watching Hester on the scaffold: “[...] the Governor, and several of his counselors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town.”2 So any crime against the laws of God is also a crime against the law of the community and vice versa. Hester’s contact to other people in that community breaks down nearly completely when she commits the sin of adultery, but as she is more sinned against than sinning, her individualism grows. To explain that further, I will first talk about the men in her life and then about society as a whole.
Roger Chillingworth’s sin was the fact that he forced Hester into a “false and unnatural relation”3 before she was mature enough. She did not love him, but was frank with him and told him: “I felt no love nor feigned any.”4 So Chillingworth blocked the important romantic concept of true love which is determined in heaven. After this marriage Chillingworth left her alone and his next sin is his “unwillingness to forgive”5 and “his lack of charity after her disgrace”6. Hester does not break down because of that, but her strength and her individual character grow. “She marveled how she could ever have been wrought upon to marry him!”7 and confesses: “Be it sin or not, I hate the man!”8. Hester’s fault in this relationship is not her individual decision to give in to her passion and love for Dimmesdale, but “her crime most to be repented of is the original sexual incompatibility between husband and wife.”9 Hester judges her marriage to Chillingworth to be a more serious crime than her adultery, because it is a crime against her individualism: “Her adultery was a crime against church and state, her submission to Chillingworth an outrage against herself.”10
Hester’s development from integration into society to being an individualist and outcast is fully completed when she breaks up the public relationship, the marriage, to take up a private one, the true love with Reverend Dimmesdale. But even he sinned against her, leaving her to bear the punishment alone, like Chillingworth. He represents one of the major critiques of Puritanism: he is a hypocritical sinner who does not repent. Through him she gains additional strength, as he wants her to make decisions for both of them: “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me!”11 Hester criticizes Dimmesdale’s weakness and lack of personal identity and wants him to form his own opinions and disagree with the authority he is a part of. “And what hast thou to do with all these iron men, and their opinions?”12
1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Penguin, 1986) p.50
2 Hawthorne 53.
3 Hawthorne 69.
4 Hawthorne 68.
5 Monica M. Elbert, Encoding the Letter “ A ” (Frankfurt am Main: Haag+Herchen, 1990) p. 227.
6 Daniel Abel, The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne ’ s Fiction (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988) p.182.
7 Carol Bensick, “His Folly, Her Weakness” New Essays on The Scarlet Letter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 139
8 Hawthorne 153.
9 Bensick 140.
10 Bensick 140.
11 Hawthorne 171.
12 Hawthorne 172