[The essay that follows draws from the electronic version of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, and all page numbers are from that edition, the link to which is provided below.]
It is difficult to imagine that Nathaniel Hawthorne was not influenced by his lineage in his depiction of the extremes of Puritan society presented in The Scarlett Letter. A descendant of John Hathorne, the presiding judge at the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Hawthorne’s depiction of Puritanism in The Scarlett Letter, and his descriptions of Hester Prynne, the beautiful young woman at the center of his story, strongly suggest that he intended his protagonist to represent a break from the traditions of the past. In the protracted “preface” to his novel, “The Custom-House Introductory,” Hawthorne’s narrator describes a now-aged Hester as “a very old, but not decrepit woman, of a stately and solemn aspect,” who took it upon herself to travel the country performing good deeds and proffering “advice in all matters, especially those of the heart.” [p. 51] The most telling, early indications that Hawthorne intended Hester Prynne to serve as a metaphorical break from the past, and as a potential harbinger of morality to come, are offered in the main novel’s second chapter (pages 78-81) in which Hester makes her first appearance, having been condemned to a life of social ostracism by virtue of her illicit affair with a yet-to-be-identified lover. Hawthorne opens this scene with a series of condemnations of Hester proffered by the town’s matronly symbols of moral piety. Standing before the prison door through which the condemned will imminently appear, these self-righteous and mostly middle aged and older women have congregated to protest the leniency shown Hester:
‘The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch—that is a truth,’ added a third autumnal matron. ‘At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she—the naughty baggage— little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like. Heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever"
‘Ah, but,’ interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, ‘let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart. ‘
‘What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead?’ cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. ‘This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die;"
Note in these comments the physical unattractiveness of Hester’s most vocal accusers. It is the younger woman her argues for the more lenient treatment handed down by the town’s paragons of virtue, but Hawthorne has this more liberal sentiment immediately countered by “the ugliest” of the older, more venomous women, who believes Hester should be put to death for her sin. Then, contrast this depiction of the quintessential ‘ugly mob’ with Hawthorne’s descriptions of Hester, both of her physical appearance and, more significantly, of her demeanor:
“Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward, until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air as if by her own free will.” [Emphasis added]
“When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.”
“The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison.”
For Hawthorne, Hester represents the feminine ideal. Both beautiful and courageous, she will wear her scarlett letter as a veritable badge of honor. She may be shamed in the view of this puritanical population, but she will not be looked down upon by those who would act as judge, jury and executioner and who feign to act in the name of a God their distance from whom they cannot fathom. That Hester will continue to wear the “A” long after the sin of passion has been forgotten is testament to Hawthorne’s apparent acceptance or belief that his protagonist’s quasi-feminist mystique presages the dawn of a new era. In that, Hester represents “the birth of a new era.” Hawthorne descended from the Puritans, and accepted the moral values that lied at heart of Puritan beliefs. His depiction of the excesses of those values, however, represent a definitive break from the extremes of that puritanical past.