Hawthorne describes The Scarlet Letter as a tale of "frailty" and "sorrow." Do you agree with him and why?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Hawthorne's description of "human frailty" and "sorrow" applies more to the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale than to Hester Prynne. He dies having never come to terms with his sin and having only found the courage to admit it publicly mere moments before his pathetic death. Even on the night of Governor Winthrop's death, when Pearl, Dimmesdale's little girl, asked him if he would stand with them on scaffold during the day, he refuses her. He is weak. He tortures himself for years rather than confess, telling everyone how awful he is, what a terrible sinner, influencing them to think that he's so much more saintly. If anyone is frail here, it is he.

Hester, on the other hand, is anything but frail. She endures, for seven long years. She could've moved away or gone home. Instead, she chooses to remain because she wants to be near the man she loves. She raises her wild daughter alone, and then must surely experience a great deal of joy watching her grow into a woman in Europe after Dimmesdale's death. Hester doesn't have to come back to Boston, but she does. She chooses to once again embrace her punishment, the scarlet letter, because it is the closest she can be to the man she loved. She doesn't die in shame, but rather as a symbol of helpfulness and selflessness, using her final years to help others. She reassures and comforts those women, who especially need it, saying, 

at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. 

She may feel sorrow, and she may still feel shame for her sin, but Hester is strong and forward-thinking.  

clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Because of the historical accuracy of this novel as well as its place among great classic literature, the reader knows even before the end of the book that this story will have a tragic ending. And Hawthorne's warning is absolutely true. Despite the fact that readers today celebrate Hester Prynne and her accomplishments, when she died, she died in shame.

The original quote reads "human frailty," and the fact is, Hester Prynne is frail. Despite the fact that she continues to live in the colony and daily bears her shame both physically and mentally, and then the fact that she is able to raise her daughter in the midst of this, she herself would probably admit defeat. She never lets go of the feelings of guilt. She never gets to experience a pure and open form of love with Dimmesdale. She never really even gets to experience complete transparency as a mother. She is human. And she is frail. And because of these things, her story is a tragedy.

It is easy to forget this, or overlook it, I think, because for centuries, audiences have read about Hester Prynne and elevated her upon that scaffold as a revolutionary woman, a victim of a time and place in history, when clearly she was meant for more and deserved better. But in context, Hester never experienced victory. She never truly felt absolution. And while we can celebrate her now, centuries later, Hawthorne is right to remind us that we can only do this because of Hester's human frailty and sorrowful story.

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The Scarlet Letter

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