Hester Prynne’S Unconventionality And Defying Of Society

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The Scarlet Letter is perceived as an old book with old values, but that could not be further from the truth. It contains forward-thinking ideas that challenge the setting of the novel (a Puritan colony). The main character of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is single mother Hester Prynne. Readers tend to scratch the surface of Hester Prynne’s character by following the sequence of events, instead of diving deep into her character and evaluating her place in society. Hester is a woman ahead of her time, defying rigid gender roles and accepted religious beliefs, and becoming a model for generations to come.

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The Scarlet Letter details the life of Hester Prynne, beginning in her twenties through the end of her life. She arrives in the Americas and lives in a Puritan settlement, which has strict religious laws. Hester is imprisoned for adultery after it becomes apparent she is pregnant. When she is released from prison, her daughter, Pearl, has been born. Hester receives the sentence of wearing an embroidered “A” on her clothing at all times, which stands for adultery. She will not reveal the name of the father, despite the people’s many attempts and religious threats from the clergy. Pearl’s father is the primary minister of the colony, Arthur Dimmesdale. Throughout the book, her fellow settlers look down on her but gradually begin to accept her, seeing that she had taken her punishment with responsibility and grace. While Hester feels freed since her sin is made known, Arthur feels sinful and ashamed, since he keeps his sin a secret and lets Hester take the fall.

As the book closes, Hester moves to Europe with Pearl, but eventually moves back to the same Puritan colony to be at home. In “Hester Prynne as Secular Saint,” Preston Browning claims that, “[between] the figures of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, Hawthorne portrays two radically different ways of interpreting human existence, two divergent modes of response to life, and perhaps even two distinct understandings of the Christian faith” (Browning 95-96). Furthermore, he explains that Hester provides hope to others through her fall on the social ladder. She suffers alongside other people, making her an inspiration. Her faith diverges from popular beliefs and is based on absolute redemption at the point of salvation, closely resembling the view of modern protestant churches. “Hester Prynne as Secular Saint” is a sociological criticism; it places Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter in the larger social context of religion by contrasting the beliefs of two characters.

Browning uses The Picaresque Saint to define “secular saint” as someone who shares in suffering with the rest of the human race, composing the “only convincing mode of sainthood in the modern world” (96). Another factor of secular sainthood is if the one sharing in suffering does not deserve it. This is reflected in the Scarlet Letter when Hester will not reveal who Pearl’s father is, therefore absorbing all of the punishment for adultery. Because of this, Hester is punished for adultery and Dimmesdale is spared. This inspires a sense of justice in readers and makes them think that Hester is undeserving of the condemnation of the magistrates. She is looked down upon while another walks free, making her an appealing character. Her refusal to convict Dimmesdale shows her compassion and furthers the reader’s campaign to make her a secular saint. To avoid contradicting his thesis, Browning assures that Hester’s “secular” sainthood does not contradict her faith.

The Christian faith teaches that sin is inherent in all, and Hester’s sin does not make her less of a Christian. The secular sainthood is not embraced and promoted by her, but bestowed upon her by readers. To support the thesis, Dimmesdale is seen as struggling with his faith when he does not come forward and repent. He fears his soul will be lost to the “Black Man” (the devil), while Hester gradually grows through the book and moves on from her sin. Dimmesdale’s theology state that faith can be lost. Hester thinks it is forever, that repenting to the Lord covers her sin. For Browning’s closing argument, he presents the idea that Hester and Dimmesdale ultimately had a choice between 2 things: God and life. Dimmesdale chooses God, but Hester chooses life.

However, this does not mean that she refutes God. “To affirm the world and human existence with all its evil, sin and suffering is at the same time to affirm God; for trust in God, at its deepest level, means trust in existence” (102). Hester’s choice of life does not mean she neglected her God. Browning’s claims are proficiently effective, as they are proficiently supported. Some, like a choice between life and God, are poorly defined, so the reader is left to freely interpret. On the other hand, Browning provides a thesis for his argument and a clear definition of a secular saint, with which a reader can easily follow along and see the support for his claims. Through “Hester Prynne as Secular Saint,” readers learn about Hester’s modern belief about redemption, and how she is looked up to as a graceful sufferer. “Hester and the New Feminine Vision” by Monica Elbert claims that Hester transcends established gender roles and achieves small victories over the patriarchy. It also explains how other characters in The Scarlet Letter are confined to the patriarchy and play into the scheme, even women. The point it aspires to make is that Hester was ahead of her time; she knows her worth and gave herself the power taken away from her by the patriarchal system of the Puritans. Elbert claims that Hester ultimately becomes the letter “A” that she wears at all times, that it fuses with her identity and that the people around her only see the “A”. Hester takes the fact that people only see her this way, and flips the meaning of the embroidered letter into something good.

The “A” goes from representing adulterer to able. She wins the battle with the patriarchy by taking her punishment given to her by the leaders of her village and making it a blessing. Another victory she wins over the patriarchal Puritan society is her trial of motherhood. Pearl is almost taken away from Hester because she is thought to be an unfit mother. She makes a case for herself with the help of Dimmesdale, and gets to keep Pearl despite the intentions of the church leaders and governor. Another aspect of the patriarchy is seen in the women of the town. Elbert claims that power can be self-given, like in Hesters case, and that (in Hester’s colony) a women’s power is taken away by the patriarchal hierarchy (192-193). The women in the colony have been stripped of their power and attempt to bestow it on themselves by being cruel to Hester. Elbert claims that Hester made her own religion, which is poorly supported.

While she talks about Hester’s defiance of patriarchal authority, she also speaks of Hester staying strong in her faith. Hester did not make her own religion, but simply recognized when she was being mistreated. Elbert’s criticism is a gender criticism, focusing on how gender affected the power of individuals and societal hierarchy, and how Hester’s gender changed her level of worth perceived by others. “Hester Prynne and the New Feminine Vision” appeals to a female audience. Elbert’s work explains that Hester defies legalistic gender roles and has become a model to females. Religious norms and gender restrictions did not stop Hester Prynne. In fact, her defiance granted her the power to be a role model. I agree that Hester defied the patriarchal society time and again, and that her beliefs within Christianity distinguished her and made her character forgiving. Browning and Elbert clearly supported these arguments with stories from The Scarlet Letter. Browning’s article, “Hester Prynne as Secular Saint,” is valid as it has a clearly stated and supported thesis, and defines “Secular Saint,” which is what he is proving Hester Prynne is. Elbert’s article, “Hester and the New Feminine Vision,” is valid, although vague. It does not have a defined thesis and one of its arguments is not well supported, but Elbert’s train of thought can be followed easily and understood. What most resonates with me is Elbert’s concept of self-given power. Everyone has worth, and even no one recognizing that worth will stop it from existing.

Works Cited

  1. Browning Jr. , Preston M. “Hester Prynne as Secular Saint. ” Rpt. in Hester Prynne. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia. Chelsea House Publishers: 2004, 95-104. Elbert, Monica M. “Hester Prynne and the New Feminine Vision. ” Rpt. in Hester Prynne. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia. Chelsea House Publishers: 2004, 181-202
31 October 2020

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