In The Scarlet Letter, why did Hester keep her baby's father a secret?

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In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, the prevailing double standard held that women were more responsible for adultery than men. Women who engaged in extra-marital sex were widely condemned as brazen temptresses, shamelessly transgressing the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. As for men, they could suffer damage to their reputations, but they weren't...

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In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, the prevailing double standard held that women were more responsible for adultery than men. Women who engaged in extra-marital sex were widely condemned as brazen temptresses, shamelessly transgressing the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. As for men, they could suffer damage to their reputations, but they weren't treated with anything like the same degree of severity as adulterous women. So, by not revealing the identity of Pearl's father, Hester is trying to protect Dimmesdale's standing in the local community. Although he wouldn't be publicly branded or banished from the town, Dimmesdale would nonetheless be greatly diminished in the eyes of his congregation were his adultery to be exposed. As a man of God, he's expected to maintain the very highest standards of propriety, and fathering a child out of wedlock represents an attack on those standards.

In any case, it's possible that Hester wants Dimmesdale to have the bravery to reveal the truth himself. She knows it would take a huge amount of courage for Dimmesdale to stand up before his congregation and openly admit to his sins. To some extent, Hester has internalized the prevailing sexist double standard in that she sees men and women as needing to be held accountable for their sins in different ways. And as Dimmesdale's a minister as well as a man, perhaps Hester considers it would be more appropriate for him to confess his sins openly instead of having to respond to a public accusation.

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The simplest answer to this question is that Hester wishes to protect Dimmesdale from the authorities, who would strip him of his position and carry out a severe punishment, probably not limited to putting him in the stocks as Hawthorne describes the Puritans doing to "heretics" elsewhere in his fiction. However, there is a deeper reason for her silence, which relates to the principal theme of the novel, as I see it.

The Scarlet Letter is a novel about hypocrisy, but it is also a veiled criticism of both organized religion and the male-dominated society. Hester is victimized, but Dimmesdale at least initially gets away with his "sin" without being punished by the authorities. In keeping his identity a secret Hester is expressing her defiance of the whole system and her implicit belief that she and Dimmesdale are free to act in accordance with their love for each other and thus to create, as it were, their own set of values. Her attitude is shown as well in the elaborate style of the "A" she has been made to sew on her dress. It is as if the symbol of adultery is, to her, a symbol of pride and not shame. Her refusal to name Dimmesdale as the father is also clear evidence that she does not accept the judgment of the townspeople against her.

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During the era in which The Scarlet Letter is set, adultery was considered a major sin and crime. Hester, as a woman, is more susceptible to punishment than the man involved would have been. In her pride, and her knowledge that the father is a person of high status in the community, she takes all the stigma on herself.

Hester is also compelled to silence by the knowledge that her lover, Dimmesdale, is one of the people persecuting her:

"I will not speak!" answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognised. "And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!"
(Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, eNotes eText)

Whether from public pressure (as it is his responsibility to see to justice and moral issues) or from his own shame (he has committed a grave sin and now is refusing to incriminate himself), Dimmesdale is now a lesser man in her eyes than when they committed adultery. Rather than be thought of as a liar, slinging accusations to defer her own fate, Hester remains silent, choosing to live her life as best she can. The result is that Dimmesdale suffers great shame and guilt and eventually confesses of his own free will.

 

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