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Feminism in “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The idea of feminism has grown over time, as in the past, women were meant to be seen and not heard. With the coming of the first, second, and third waves of feminism, women started to fight for their place in society. Therefore, this article seeks to review the evolution of feminism through the book “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The paper will expound on the protagonist in the story, the struggles and obstacles, and how they grew and changed due to confronting those obstacles.

The Protagonist and Summary of the book

A protagonist in a story seeks to depict the central theme that the author wanted to address through their work. In the book “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne is the main character and the wearer of the scarlet letter. The story follows Hester Prynne, who has a child with a man she is not married to and then fights to build a new life filled with independence, guilt, and nobleness. The book was written in 1850 during the first wave of feminism and focused on legal issues and women’s right to vote (Chaudhury et al. p.111). Also, in this period, women played a submissive role in a marriage where they were expected to serve their husbands and take care of their needs. They were also expected to be committed to one partner only; however, this was not a requirement for men. The idea of being a single mother was unheard of, and due to social stigma, most women resorted to killing their infants or giving them away to an able couple. However, through this book, one will see how Hester engages in a promiscuous relationship and later conceives a child. Despite being a single mother, she can fight and provide for her child, Pearl.

The obstacles and struggles Hester Prynne faced

In the novel “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne is a unique heroine as she defies all societal rules to create an independent being. However, this defiance attracts punishment as she lives in a society where women take on a submissive role. Adultery was Hester Prynne’s sin, where she slept with Arthur Dimmesdale despite being married to Roger Chillingworth (Hawthorne, ch.2). The Puritans regarded adultery very seriously, and was frequently punished with death. Hester faced public humiliation when she was forced to stand on a scaffold as carry the scarlet throughout her life. She is publicly condemned, and people make disparaging comments about her, demoralizing her and her child. The disparaging comments make it hard for her to raise her child in Boston.

One needs to be keen when choosing a life-long partner as they are the ones who help one to succeed in life. In the nineteenth century, women were subjected to slavery where they could not adopt an identity independent of their husbands (Barker, pp.106-126). Hester Prynne married Roger Chillingworth through an arranged marriage. Chillingworth shipped her to Boston with the promise that he would come later; however, he failed in his promise. He often disregarded his wife, but when he did patronize to spend time with her, he wanted her to nurture his soul with affection. Hester was later left lonely, and therefore she ran into the arms of Arthur Dimmesdale and had a child, Pearl, outside marriage. Mister Chillingworth was also a narcissistic partner who made it his mission to identify Pearl’s father. He sought the deliberate destruction of others and was considered a leech in other people’s lives. While Hester was in prison, Chillingworth was willing to provide medical assistance to her so that he could have his revenge on her (Hawthorne, ch.3). Hester suffered the torment at the hands of Chillingworth, therefore, making it hard for her to unite with her lover, Arthur.

During the nineteenth century, being a single mother was considered an abomination as no child was to be conceived out of wedlock. Pearl’s existence represented disorder as she was not born according to the Puritan norms. In the book, Pearl is described as a as a lovely blossom emerging from a wicked soil and an emblem of evil (Hawthorne, ch.6). Despite her conceived circumstances, her mother gave Perl that name as she believed that she was her greatest treasure. Hester tried her level best to parent Pearl in the right way; however, she faced criticism from the community around her as single mothers were uncommon. Pearl recognizes her uniqueness because she is her mother’s great ally. As a result, she is exposed to the town’s cruelty as well. Hester’s role as a single mother is also threatened when the townspeople, including the governor, suspect that pearl is a demon child (Hawthorne, ch.7). Due to this reason, the townspeople try to take Pearl away from her mother and be given her to a better family. Hester faces hardship as a single mother in this scenario as the community questions her parenting.

How they grew and changed as a result of confronting those obstacles

Most people rise from their challenges, becoming a better version of themselves. Through the book, Hester Prynne evolves into an independent charitable woman. As she was a single mother, Hester had no one she could depend on for financial support. She had to discover how to provide for herself and her daughter, Pearl. Hester used her talent in needlework to make clothing material that she sold to make money. This was evident when she visited the governor’s mansion to deliver gloves that she had made (Hawthorne, ch.7). This business venture influenced her independence and made her admirable to other women dependent on their husbands.

Hester can rise despite the occasional insults and stigmatization. Having cast off her stigma, Hester tosses the scarlet letter, which serves as a punishment for adultery, off her chest (Hawthorne, ch.17). She smiles and lets her hair down, regaining part of her old, passionate beauty. Letting down her hair may symbolize Hester was releasing the negative comments thrown at her and embracing a new life with Pearl and her lover Dimmesdale. Hester also understands that the scarlet letter on her chest is a symbol of society’s control over her. Instead of running away, she embraces that symbol of punishment into her life as a mark of where she has come from. Therefore the constant victimization molded her into a resilient person who would not stop until she achieved what she wanted.

The hardship and scolding words thrown at Hester turned her into a humble and charitable person. Hester achieved greater compassion because she suffered and could sympathize with how a reasonable person might still make mistakes. At the beginning of the book, Hester is depicted as a sinner as she commits adultery and is shunned by society (Hawthorne, ch.2). However, despite the cruel treatment, Hester finds it in her heart to do charitable works for the community that rejected her. Her charitable work was also reflected in her daughter, who, instead of giving food to the poor. Therefore, instead of being bitter toward the abusive townspeople, she developed empathy toward them.

As the story ended, Hester became a protofeminist maternal figure in the community. Her scarlet letter’s humiliation was no longer with her (Hawthorne, ch.17). She liberates herself from the traditional expectations of women as being docile and submissive. She seeks to raise a strong head child despite being a single mother and stands up for herself, like when she violently objected to the Governor who wanted to take away her child (Hawthorne, ch.7). Therefore, she proves that Hester Prynne was a fighter as she stood tall despite the mockery.

In conclusion, Hester Prynne, in the book “The Scarlet Letter,” revolutionizes the role of women, especially in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, women were meant to be seen and not heard and subjected to enslaved people by their husbands. Hester comes out as a robust and resilient woman who, despite her being an abomination to the community, seeks to stand up for those dear to her, such as her daughter Pearl. In the end, she is portrayed as a hero by other women, and they envy her ability to be independent of her narcissistic husband, Chillingworth.

Work Cited

Barker, Chris. “JS Mill On Nineteenth-Century Marriage And The Common Law.” Law, Culture And The Humanities, vol 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 106-126. SAGE Publications, Accessed 18 May 2022.

Chaudhury, Suprakash, et al. “Misogyny, Feminism, And Sexual Harassment.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal, vol 26, no. 2, 2017, p. 111. Medknow,

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1st ed., Ticknor and Fields, 1850.


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