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How does Hester use her punishment to improve herself in The Scarlet Letter?

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brandih | eNotes Employee

Posted August 20, 2013 at 4:28 PM via web

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How does Hester use her punishment to improve herself in The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 20, 2013 at 6:55 PM (Answer #1)

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Ironically, it is the non-Puritan Hester, and not the Puritan minister Dimmesdale, who makes retribution for her sin of adultery. Hester, for whom the scarlet A is a mark of humiliation, willingly accepts this humiliation in lieu of drawing suspicion upon her partner in sin. Thus, Hester's salvation lies in "being true" as Hawthorne exhorts in one of the final chapters.

  • When she is interviewed at the Governor's Hall, Hester defiantly accepts her punishment as she dresses Pearl boldly in crimson. She pleads to be allowed to keep Pearl:

God gave me the child...in requital of all thing else....She is my happiness!--she is my torture, note the less!....Peal punishes me, too!  See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved,a nd so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin?

As a reminder of her sin, Pearl directs Hester's future behavior.

  • The scarlet letter becomes "...her passport into regions where other women dared not tread." She it is who cares for the ailing and aged; she it is who assists with the funeral arrangements for the dead, she it is who tends the wretched. After she spends considerable time nursing many in the community, the perception of Hester's A changes to become a symbol of her abilities: it is read as "Able" and "Angel" by members of the community and becomes "the symbol of her calling." To the "afflicted," the effect of Hester's scarlet letter for which she has done penance and performed many a good dead is that it has become a badge of her calling:

...the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril.

  • In Chapter XII, after tending the sick late at night, Hester and Pearl pass the minister, who stands upon the scaffold. With Pearl, Hester joins the Reverend Dimmesdale upon the scaffold, feeling there is a responsibility towards him that she must fulfill.
  • Another improvement to Hester as a result of wearing the scarlet letter is that Hester abandons passion for thought. In a sense, she becomes a modern woman, one who thinks for her self and considers existential problems. As such, too, she is able to reason with Dimmesdale in the forest in Chapter XVII and encourage him, providing him counsel about their future and about Chillingworth. For Dimmesdale, Hester becomes his "better angel!"
  • Certainly, Hester Prynne becomes a much stronger person as a result of her sin, its humiliation, and her repentance. And, unlike Arthur Dimmesdale, "false to God and man," Hester has remained true.

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