In the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in what ways is Hester Prynne honest?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hester is a very flawed character. As such, we find in her character's storyline instances of both honesty and dishonesty. Hester's instances of dishonesty were pretty big—hiding the name of the father of her child and hiding Chillingworth's identity from Dimmesdale for years. Nonetheless, Hester can also be extremely honest throughout The Scarlet Letter. 

Someone who is honest is also commonly believed to be trustworthy, transparent, genuine in intentions, and sincere. Hester was all of these things — once she suffered the consequences of wearing the scarlet letter. Still, according to Hester, that scarlet letter is her primary motivation to be a better person. Thus, Hester shows her honesty by the way she expresses herself in front of magistrates and citizens, conducts herself in public, openly admits her fate, and accepts the consequences of her actions without complaining or making excuses.

Hence, Hester is honest in all of these instances because she is open, straightforward, sincere and, with time, she even became trustworthy—so trustworthy that the villagers even said the "A" Hester wore was not for "Adulterer," but for "Able." The "Able Hester" was also lovingly referred to, at one point, as "our Hester." These reactions from the people denote the transparency of Hester's character, and how her good deeds often made Hester more sympathetic to the public.

Hester is also honest with Dimmesdale, telling him exactly what she wants from him, and even finding ways to try and make her goals with Dimmesdale come true. Most importantly, Hester is honest with Chillingworth. Her estranged husband knows how Hester feels about him, not just from his own understanding of how different each of them is from the other, but also from Hester's own confessions to him regarding how she really feels. 

It is important to mention that Hester's penchant for honesty may not have begun until she found out she was pregnant. Hester had arrived in the village as a married woman who was to wait for her husband to arrive there. Therefore, whatever she did with Dimmesdale was done in secret. 

The novel does not state when Hester and Dimmesdale began their affair after her arrival from England, but it is safe to assume she became pregnant quite quickly; by the time Hester's husband, Roger Prynne, finally arrived at the village (after shipwrecking and living among the Native Americans for months) Hester's daughter was already three months old. 

Let's explore, however, specific examples from the novel showing how Hester is honest:

In chapter eight, titled "The Elf Child and the Minister," Hester finds out the magistrates think Hester is not a fit mother for Pearl. This is because, according to Puritan law, children born outside of marriage are not children of God; they have not been born under a "divine order." Hester was honest here because she openly told the magistrates, with courage, that having the badge of shame has taught her many things, including how to be a better person. This is actually the truth. Hester has learned a lot about the evil nature of people, their inner demons, and the skeletons they all hide ever since she began to wear the letter, to the sanctimonious delight of others: 

"This badge has taught me—it teaches me every day, and it is teaching me right now—lessons that will make my child wiser and better, though they can do me no good."

In chapter fourteen, "Hester and the Doctor," Hester also demonstrates courage and honesty when she answers the Chillingworth's question about what Hester sees when she looks in his eyes. Her answer was quite crude but very honest:

"I see something that would make me weep, if tears were bitter enough for the sadness,” she answered. “But let it pass."

She also discloses to Dimmesdale the reality of Chillingworth, even when she told Chillingworth she would never tell. This was her way of pushing Dimmesdale to move on from the hypocrisy that is his life and be honest with himself. 

Therefore, Hester has the capacity to be both honest and deceptive. She can even discern when others are not being honest with themselves. Even so, Hester continues to be flawed, but I believe her good deeds far outdo any indiscretion, including her affair with Dimmesdale that led to the birth of his child.

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The Scarlet Letter

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