It has been often said that what we value can be determined by sacrifice. How does this statement apply to a character from The Scarlet Letter? How does this sacrifice illuminate the character's...

It has been often said that what we value can be determined by sacrifice. How does this statement apply to a character from The Scarlet Letter? How does this sacrifice illuminate the character's values?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hester Prynne is an excellent example of a character who makes personal sacrifices for the good of others. Hester's primary sacrifice is that of her own reputation for the sake of protecting her former lover, Reverend Dimmesdale. It is Hester's sacrifices for Dimmesdale and for their daughter, Pearl, that make her character admirable and heroic despite her status as a marked outcast. Hawthorne is also able to paint Hester as an admirable character through contrasting her with the male protagonist and with the town at large. 

Although she is married to Roger Chillingworth, Hester has an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale after Chillingworth is presumed lost at sea. Their relationship results in their daughter, Pearl. Hester bears this child as an unmarried woman and, as a result, she is marked with the "A" for adultery. She must stand on a scaffold with her child before the entire town, subject to their ridicule and condemnation. Meanwhile, the man who was her partner in the adultery and the father of her child remains unnamed and protected from social scorn. Dimmesdale is able to maintain his reputation in the town: he is the reverend, and he is respected by the townspeople for his devotion to the church. In the reader's mind, however, Dimmesdale is a coward who allows Hester to be punished for a sin that they committed together. We do later learn that Dimmesdale has punished himself and that he is being tortured by Chillingworth, but he does not face the backlash of the town's residents as Hester must.

Even Hawthorne's first description of Hester suggests that the reader should sympathize with her instead of with the town or with the reverend. Hawthorne uses phrases like "a figure of perfect elegance," "characterized by a certain state and dignity," with her "beauty. . . ma[king] a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was developed" (53). She is described as otherworldly; she stands out amongst her peers and not just because of the red "A" on her chest. Hawthorne even describes her as like "the image of Divine Maternity," which is a shocking comparison given the strict puritanism of this community (56).  On the other hand, the town and its ruling men are described in negative terms, "A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray" before a door "studded with iron spikes" (47). This is quite a contrast when compared to the colorful tones exuded by Hester as she stands on the scaffold with her baby.

Hester allows herself to be the town's scapegoat to save the reputation of her lover and to protect her daughter to the extent that she can. After a while, Hester even seems to embrace her position, preferring to be set apart from the town and embroidering elaborate "A" patches to wear on her chest. Ultimately, it is a good thing to stand apart from this kind of society, which punishes one party for the sin of two and treats a woman who is, at heart, a good person and productive member of the community (once she is valued for her sewing) with cruelty and condescension. The town's treatment of Hester only makes her more sympathetic to the reader.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Undoubtedly it is the novel's heroine, Hester Prynne, who has sacrificed deliberately and also forfeited something in a way that highlights her values. 

We could always go the easy route and criticize Hester for her flaws. We could criticize her involvement with a "man of the cloth" (a religious man). We could chastise her for ending up carrying his child. She could be thought of as a bad wife for not "suffering enough" the supposed death of her husband. 

Yet, we should also remember that Hester was very young when she was "given" to Roger Prynne (Chillingworth), and that she admits openly that she has never loved him. 

Whether Hester lost herself once she set foot on the settlement to the charms of Dimmesdale, or whether the latter used her vulnerability and status as a possible widow for his own wants, is something that is up for speculation. What Hester does as a result of her acts denotes the following enacted values.

  • a) She is someone willing to protect those whom she does love- she sacrificed her reputation by not disclosing Dimmesdale's. She is loyal and she is chivalrous
  • b) She is courageous enough to move forward in life despite of setbacks. 
  • c) She has the gumption of acting with dignity in the face of indignity
  • d) She does not think of anyone as better as or worse than anyone else, which is more than can be said about the rest of the villagers. She is humble and her pride is not a symbol of haughtiness but a sign of defiance in the face of the hypocritical society that points at her. 

This summarizes Hester as a person: 

..she was supported by an unnatural tension of the nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph.


...she might call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many quiet years..

What this shows is that Hester possesses the qualities of a silent warrior, but she also suffers. The sacrifices that she endures to protect her daughter and the reputation of a man who, literally, wronged her say that the values pointed before are very real to her, and this is why she abides by them at all times. 

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The Scarlet Letter

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