Do you think that Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was the first American heroine, or that her somewhat silent suffering isn’t truly heroic?Do you think that Hester Prynne in The Scarlet...

Do you think that Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was the first American heroine, or that her somewhat silent suffering isn’t truly heroic?

Do you think that Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was the first American heroine, or that her somewhat silent suffering isn’t truly heroic?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Scarlet Letter, I don't see Hester as a heroine, but as a deeply religious woman. Hester knows the laws of the Puritan culture of which she is a part. While being a part of a rigid religious society, Hester is still imperfect: she makes a mistake and is noble in that she does not divulge her lover's name at her trial or even afterward.

While some may see this as heroic (while her lover does not suffer the cencorship and shame Hester does), I believe that Hester accepts that her sin is her own. She cannot speak for another. Neither does identifying her lover change the gravity of her sin—somehow lessening her blame. Her lover must see to his own soul (which Dimmesdale certainly does), but this is not Hester's business. She has no interest in shifting the blame.

Hester's concern for Dimmesdale may also stop Hester from revealing his identity.

We see the strength of Hester's character as she bears the shame of her sin on a daily basis. I find myself amazed by her strength and resolve to remain in the community when she could easily have moved to another town. However, she is committed to accept her punishment. Over time, because of this, we not only see how valiant she is, but the other people in her town will eventually come to accept her, even though she never strips herself of her shame, even years after Dimmesdale has died and Pearl has moved away. The scarlet "A" is an emblem that Hester embraces—perhaps to remind her of her past and how easily sin can find its way into a righteous life. It humbles her.

None of these things seem to reflect a hero. My sense is that heroes speak out against injustice—injustice such as Hester's role in facing her adultery charges alone. Acceptance of her punishment is Christ-like—she faces her sentence when it would have been easier to walk away. Hester's "silent suffering" is also Christ-like—she inspires others not only with her humility and good works, but also with her willingness to assume responsibility for what she has done: no excuses.

missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, you have two arguments to uncover regarding Hester. You need to choose which one is more powerful and why.

On the one hand, Hester's suffering was heroic because she overcame the public humiliation and shame heaped on her and became a person of extrordinary strengths. She became a giver to the less fortunate who looked for ways to help meet their needs. By the end of the book, people call her a saint and claim that the A stands for Angel. Her ability to embroider even earned her the attention of the governor. These are selfless gifts. A hero gives back to their community in ways far beyond the community has ever given to them.  A hero is often selfless. Hester put others, particularly Pearl, in front of her own needs. Her insistence to remain silent had everything to do with protecting the reputation of a man who would have suffered significantly had she uttered his name. She lived a self-sacrificing life that used to be an American ideal. Each generation did what they could for the upcoming generation. This is one argument to consider.

On the other hand, Hester's silence meant justice was not served for the man who indeed committed sin with her. Well, justice according to the people, that is. He certainly experienced much doom and gloom and guilt. His guilt was likely more than a prison term woruld have offered. In our society, we tend to value the one who exposes crime. This she did not do. We do not value the weak either. We offer ways for the weak to be lifted up. In her weaknesses, she took no opportunities to let others lift her from her shame, imprisionment, or way of life. She just suffered instead of standing up for herself. If a hero can't stick up for themselves, who can they stick up for?

In my opinion, a heroic person will give of themselves. I would argue with the first argument in favor of Prynne being the first American heroine.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't see Hester as a heroine in any way. What she endures is done by choice and with one motivation--to continue her relationship with Arthur.

One false act of heroism is not revealing her baby's father; if she does, the two of them can never be together, so she does not tell.

Another thing that may look like heroism is enduring the harsh insults and punishment of her fellow Puritans. She is under no restrictions to live here, and she could certainly leave; however, she is once again afraid she will lose the man she loves.

It is not heroic to lie for her husband or to Arthur about Roger's true identity.

On the scaffold at the end, Arthur has repented of his sin, and all Hester really cares about is that her dream of their being together is over.

While some see Hester as a heroic woman who has been redeemed by wearing the scarlet letter, she clearly says the letter has not done its office. There is no repentance, and she feels no need to ask forgiveness for her sin/crime. (Right or wrong, the Puritans called adultery sin, punished it as a crime, and she knew this when she and Arthur were together.) She stubbornly persists in her desire to be with Arthur, and it is clear she would commit the same sin/crime again if she had the opportunity.

Hester is strong, I'll give her that; however, I don't find her to be heroic. Instead, I find her strong-willed and stubborn, a single-minded and even selfish woman. There is nothing wrong with that, but to me she does not display any heroic qualities.

timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hester was the "new" woman, a woman who struck more terror into the established order that almost any of the other revolutions of 1848.  The Seneca Falls convention of 1848 was arguably the first blow for woman's rights, beginning the movement that led to the Woman's right to vote in the early 20th Century and much of the evolution of the role of women up until today.  I think it's important to note that TSL was written in 1850, two years after the Seneca Falls convention.  1848 was a year of Revolutions in Europe, but perhaps a more important one happened here and Hawthorne took note of it.

Hester is incredibly strong woman, able to bearher own suffering and that of her partner, a model of independence that said a woman could make it on her own, without losing her dignity, without being crushed by the burden of history.

I would suggest that you read the last chapter of the novel for some very interesting ideas about Hester's nobility.  Here's a brief except to get you started:


Women, more especially,--in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion,--or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,--came to Hester's cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might.


Her "as best she might" heralded the new world to come.


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The Scarlet Letter

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