Can Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter be read as a protofeminist novel?
Indeed, the argument can be made that The Scarlet Letter lays some of the groundwork for feminist literature.
- Hester Prynne stands apart from the Puritan community as a non-member; furthermore, she is marked as an adultress and, thus ostracized from the society of many. As a result, Hester must achieve her own identity apart from others.
- When Hester is called to the governor's mansion in order to be questioned on her competence as a mother, she defiantly defends herself before the Reverend Mr. Wilson,
"God gave me the child!....He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness!--she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too!...she is the scarlet letter...and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin!"
Hester's insistence that Pearl remain with her as both a reminder of her sin and, especially, as the medium for her retribution is a rather novel concept for the Puritan minister. Fortunately, when Hester calls upon the Reverend Dimmesdale to persuade the older minister, he does, asserting,
"There is truth in what she says.... and in the feeling which inspires her!"
- Certainly, an independent spirit resides in Hester, who refuses to be relegated to the shadows of the community; for, she tends the sick and dying, performing those duties which others often will not. After a time, however, the Puritans begin to perceive Hester more as a benefactress, declaring the scarlet letter A upon her breast as meaning "Able" and even "Angel," thus assigning Hester a distinctive role in the community: "The letter was the symbol of her calling."
- Yet, Hester is much changed. In Chapter XIII, Hester has moved from "passion and feeling to thought."That is, she has changed from the passionate woman of before and contemplates the meaning of existence, and ponders hers as one of despair: "The scarlet letter had not done its office," Hawthorne writes.
She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her. As a first step, the whole of system is to be torn down and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit which has to become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position.
Here, Hester's thinking is definitely protofeminist.