What is Hawthorne saying about Puritan women of the new world?The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a question that merits much discussion beyond the realm of this forum; however, there are certain points that can be touched upon here:

1. The Puritan women are described by Hawthorne as they await the appearance of Hester upon the scaffold.  The older ones are sturdier, harsh, and crueler than those who are younger.  They wish to brand Hester for having brought shame upon them all.  Hawthorne describes them,

Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame.

These Puritan woman have little compassion for Hester Prynne despite the fact that they may harbor secretly a sin such as hers.  For, when Hester traverses the path and looks at other maidens, they blush and hurry on their way.

2.  Another aspect that Hawthorne touches upon is the fickleness and hypocrisy of Puritanism that the women represent.  For instance, Hester is scorned as an adultress, yet the community is aware that Mistress Hibbins, the sister of the governor, is a witch who participates in the black masses in the forest primeval. In another instance of hypocrisy, the women commission Hester to sew fine things for them--everything but wedding dresses.  And, when Hester begins to tend the sick and dying, the women recognize the scarlet symbol upon her breast as meaning "able," for Hester is such a capable nurse.  Neverthess, Hester is yet shunned from the community and made to live on the outskirts of town.

3.   Just as there is ambiguity in the Puritan women's religious beliefs, Hawthorne employs this ambiguous aspect artistically in certain passages in which he intrudes.  For instance, in Chapter VIII, when Hester goes to the governor's mansion to plead for the retention of her child, Mistress Hibbins offers the departing Hester an oppoturnity to accompany her to the black mass.  Here, though, Hawthorne inserts, "...if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parable."  Then, in Chapter XII, in describing the scarlet A that Dimmesdale perceives in the sky on the night that he stands on the scaffold, Hawthorne writes,

We imput it...solely to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter...Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that point...or another's guilt may have seen another symbol in it.

Again, when relating how the forest animals befriended Pearl in Chapter XVIII, Hawthorne narrates,

A wolf, it is said,--but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable,--came up, and smelt of Pearl's robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand.

And, in Chapter XX Hawthorne qualifies the interview that Dimmesdale has with Mistress Hibbins by writing "if it were a real incident."  Thus, Hawthorne uses his female characters as agents of ambiguity so that the readers will interpret meaning on their own while knowing that the implications of his remarks will remain the in the mind of the reader.

3.  Of course, the character of Hester Prynne is  avant-garde for literary works of the time.  As the pivotal character of the novel, she and the symbol of her passion, represent much more modern women: assertive, strong, independent, and resilient.  In fact, some critics perceive Hester Prynne as the first strong female character in American literature.





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The Scarlet Letter

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