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As an ideaology that supports equal political, economic, and social rights for women, Feminism was certainly not in existence in the setting of Hawthorne's narrative, nor was it supported in 1850 when The Scarlet Letter was published. Nevertheless, Hawthorne's conception of progression for women's place in society is certainly evident in the thinking of his main character, Hester Prynne, who evinces cultural feminism, which
attempts to heighten respect for what is traditionally considered women's work while focusing on building women's culture.
No submissive woman like those of the Puritan community, Hester has followed her sexual desires despite the stringent Puritan standards and freely taken the consequences for her actions. Despite the condemnation and censure of the community, Hester's independence prevails as she sews an elaborate A upon her dress, and as she refuses to allow herself to be totally marginalized by society. Instead, she sews ornate gloves and other items for the leaders of the community; then, with her heart so sympathetic to misery, she tends the sick and dying. As a result, her tenderness and sympathy win her the admiration of many who come to view her letter as symbolizing "Able" or "Angel."
Certainly, there have been changes in Hester's appearance as she has lost much of her beauty, but they come because her feeling has changed to thought, and Hester comes to resemble independent women of the future. In Chapter XIII, Hawthorne writes,
Standing alone in the world,--alone, as to any dependence on society, ...she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind....She assumed a freedom of speculation....In her lonesome cottage...thoughts visited her such as dared to enter no other dwelling....
Certainly, in her "lonesome cottage," Hester ponders the feminine question in her society, concluding that
[A]s a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, ...is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, ...woman cannot take advantage of these ...reforms until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change.
These are, indeed, progressive feminist thoughts for a woman of mid-seventeenth-century New England. Confronted by her restrictive society, Hester despairs at times as there is no comfort for her. "The scarlet letter had not done its office" on one of such independence as Hester Prynne.
Evidence of feminism in The Scarlet Letter appears in Chapter 13, Another View of Hester, and The Conclusion. Hester herself embodies all the qualities of 19th century feminism. Some Hawthorne critics argue persuasively that Hawthorne based her character on a real-life feminist of his own time, a woman named Margaret Fuller.
An important point to keep in mind is that Hawthorne had mixed feelings about Margaret Fuller, feminism, and transcendentalism. Hester is a feminist, but Hawthorne is not. In Hester's predicament, he meant to show the limitations of Fuller's and other feminist's views. He felt they were too aggressive. He believed in the cause of women's rights, but he felt that women's rights--like slaves' rights--should be granted only over time for the sake of social stability.
Hawthorne's views are certainly not in agreement with the progressive, liberal views of the feminists of our time.
An excellent discussion of this topic can be found in The Cambridge Companion to Hawthorne, by Leland Person.
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