Is Hester Prynne a secular saint in "The Scarlet Letter"? Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Since the word secular means not of the religious sect, the Reverend Dimmesdale cannot be considered as the possible saint.  And, since the physician, Roger Chillingworth is likened to the black man of the forest because of his look and behavior, it is unlikely that he is the secular saint, either.

Therefore, there is only one main character remaining:  Hester Prynne.  Is she a saint, though?  With her charitable works and more humble attitude, her fellow townspeople do come to view the scarlet letter on her breast as signifying "Angel" and "Able," rather than as adulterer. They may perceive her differently because after time her mark and burden have given her sympathies "so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind" that there is a communion of this pain with others, although they not recognize this as such. In Chapter XIII, Hawthorne writes of Hester,

...a species of general regard had ultimately grown up in reference to Hester Prynne.  It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates.  Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.  In this matter of Hester Prynne, there was neither irritation nor irksomeness  She never battled with the public, but submitted, uncomplainingly, to its worst usage; she made no claim upon it, in requital for what she suffered, she did not weigh upon its sympathies.  Then, also, the blameless purity of her life during all these years in which she had been set apart to infamy, was reckoned in her favour.  With nothing now to lose, in the sight of mankind...it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had brought back the poor wanderer to its paths....she was quick to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty....In all seasons of calamity...she came as an inmate into the houshold...there glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray....Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich....She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy....

Virtuous, humble, charitable, lovin, and kind; Hester Prynne possesses the traits of a saint, indeed, but yet a saint who knows much of the world.  Truly, she can be considered a secular saint. 

Interestingly, however, although Hawthorne suggests that, contrary to Puritan teachings, there is redemption allowed to the sinner who admits to the sin and then commits good works, he makes the comment that the scarlet letter "has not done its office."  For, although Hester does good deeds and is much humbled, she does not regret her sin of passion as the Puritan leaders would have her do so; instead, she yet loves Dimmesdale as much as ever, if not more.

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