How does Hawthorne feel about Hester Prynne in the book The Scarlet Letter?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hawthorne seems, largely, to sympathize with Hester Prynne. He is incredibly critical of the Puritans, calling the women ugly and characterizing them as "self-constituted judges" that mercilessly call for Hester's death or branding. The men wear "sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats." He is clearly not a fan of the Puritans. Hester, on the other hand, is described quite differently. In describing her scarlet letter, the narrator says,

It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

While the Puritans are characterized as looking ugly and sad, Hester is described with words that connote vitality and life. Words like "artistically," "fertility," "gorgeous," "luxuriance," and "fancy" all set her apart from the crowd. Further, while her community seems repressed and regulated, Hester's description conveys a certain freedom, despite her punishments.  

Moreover, the narrator says, 

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity . . .  

Again, words like "beautiful," "picturesque," and "divine" seem designed to elicit our sympathy for Hester, a technique Hawthorne would likely not employ were he not sympathetic to Hester himself. This picture of her conveys not just her beauty, but it also connects her to God as a divine image.

writergal06 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Throughout the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne is very ambiguous about his perception of Hester's adultery. In some ways, he does seem to show her actions in a negative light. He shows Hester as being an outcast from society, and dooms her to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life.

However, the majority of the novel points to a positive perception of Hester. Hawthorne seems to want her to be sympathized with (seen in the beginning of the novel when Hawthorne describes the hypocrisy with which she is judged). He paints her as a strong, independent woman, resembling the Romantic hero of the time in many ways.

The ending of the novel shows most clearly Hawthorne's view of Hester Prynne. While on the surface, choosing to return to Boston and where the Scarlet Letter for the rest of her life seems like a final punishment, in reality Hawthorne is celebrating her decision to remain true to who she is as an individual. The moral of the story, "Be true, be true, be true," can only be applied to Hester, because she is the only one (with the exception of Pearl) who consistently represented herself in an honest way, even embracing the flaws that come from being human. Hester is Hawthorne's heroine in the novel, and is meant to be viewed as a beckon of individuality and honesty in a society of hypocrisy.

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The Scarlet Letter

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