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Hester Prynne is the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and we meet her under some very unusual and trying (for her, at least) circumstances. We see her for the first time as she emerges from the prison and has to walk the gauntlet of a condemning crowd as she wears a scarlet letter on her breast and carries a child in her arms. Her destination is the scaffold, where she will have to stand for the rest of the morning.
From the beginning, then, we know that Hester is a strong woman. While many others would have cowered or cringed, Hester walks tall and proud, wearing her shame like armor through which the nasty comments and hateful looks cannot penetrate.
The narrator of this tale describes her this way:
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, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.
When she finally arrives at the scaffold, Hester is unable to hide her shame, an essential aspect of Puritan punishment, and then she has to endure one more public shame before she is allowed to return to her prison cell and complete her sentence.
From a balcony above the scaffold, appropriately placed for condemnation from on high, two ministers begin their work on Hester. John Wilson insists that Hester must reveal to everyone the name of her lover, her partner in crime. He is unrelenting but so is she, and she refuses to speak the man's name. Then Wilson tells Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's pastor, the minister who should know her best, to convince Hester to speak.
Dimmesdale gives an emotional plea for Hester to reveal the man's identity for her own sake but mostly for the man's, as perhaps he does not have the strength to admit his own sin. When she says "Never!" the crowd cannot believe it, for Dimmesdale's words had moved all of them so strongly. Dimmesdale then says, "Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!"
What this episode reveals about Hester's character, then, is that she loves fiercely, stands firm on her own principles, is not swayed by mere words, and--more than anything else--is strong. She must be physically strong to stand on the platform with a child in her arms for hours; she must be emotionally strong to endure the waves of condemnation which have been washing over her; and she must be spiritually strong to keep a secret despite such pressure, especially from spiritual leaders in this religious-based environment.
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