How did Puritan society view Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter?

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In The Scarlet Letter, author Nathaniel Hawthorne shows elements of hypocrisy in the Puritan society within the small New England town where Hester Prynne lived. This Puritan society viewed Hester with scorn and disdain. In their minds, she had committed an unpardonable sin and then added to it by not revealing the name of her fellow sinner. Specifically, with no husband in view, she bears a child. Thus, Hester is branded as an adulteress and makes matters worse by refusing to name the child’s father.

Puritans held strict views about sexual relations and Hester had violated them. Hawthorne describes her judges as “rigid.” However, they might not have been as cruel to her, had she not been as beautiful as she was. There seems to be an element of jealousy at play, at least where the Puritan women are concerned. Hawthorne describes them in unflattering terms, as having “broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and … round and ruddy cheeks.” By comparison, Hester is described as “lady-like” and “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.”

The women take some joy in their feeling of superiority to Hester, the sinner. A “hard-featured dame of fifty” says, “we women, being … church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne.” The Puritans thus revel in her ignominy and public humiliation. Yet, the author ironically notes that “this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, [was] an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity.” This observation clues the reader that, on some level, Hawthorne questions the severity of her crime and the Puritan response to it.

Given their disdain of her, the Puritans shun her and the author describes Hester as “Lonely … without a friend on earth who dared to show himself.” Nevertheless, despite their scorn, they continue to avail themselves of her needlepoint services, in part because of her skill, but also because it satisfies their curiosity. It gives them the opportunity to view the sinner and show their contempt in-person. That they take pleasure in this is seen in the description that, in public, their faces show “mingled grin and frown.”

Hester is also a vehicle for Hawthorne to show the hypocrisy of elements of Puritan society. The local townspeople say:

that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.

Reverend Dimmesdale himself says of Hester’s refusal to reveal the name of her lover, “Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!” By the end of the novel, the reader understands the irony and hypocrisy of this.

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Hester's community of Puritans view her as a "hussy" and "'naughty baggage'" who has brought shame to the town. One goodwife in the crowd claims she heard that "'the Reverend Master Dimmesdale . . . takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.'" Once we meet Dimmesdale, however, we understand that he very likely would not have made such a comment about Hester. Another woman believes that "'they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead'" as punishment for her crime. Yet another townswoman thinks that Hester "'has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.'" Hawthorne paints them as a merciless, hard, and cruel people who hypocritically treat Hester with terrible judgment.

Then, when Hester appears on the scaffold, having walked out from the prison, people who had known her before were "startled . . . to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped." In other words, Hester's beauty had not been dimmed a bit. The Puritans do comment on her "'skill at her needle'" as a result of the gorgeous letter she's embroidered as a part of her punishment.

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The views of the villagers toward Hester Prynne change dramatically from the beginning toward the end of the novel.

In chapter 2, "The Market Place" the puritanical "goodwives" gather around to sneer at Hester angrily and speak their minds about Hester's punishment. In their opinion, wearing a scarlet letter "A" is not enough. They want physical and psychological pain. Hester has become a pariah through which the inner demons of the villagers are channeled.

If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!

Throughout the novel we find that, even when Hester moves to a point quite far from the village, although still located within it, children would make fun of her and Pearl; even at church she would have to hear herself, or her crime, mentioned publicly hence taking away any dignity left in her.

Later on in chapter 13,"Another View of Hester", the latter is found in a condition that contrasts dramatically from her state at the beginning; she has taken to hiding her once lustrous black hair all inside her bonnet; she has given up her femininity and also gave herself completely into caring for others. The view of Hester has greatly changed in the seven years after she was first sentenced to wear the letter.

It is our Hester,—the town's own Hester,—who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!

Hawthorne cleverly explains the change of mind of the villagers. When someone does something extremely wrong, people are quick to judge and hate on them because of their own "fears of themselves". Yet, people have short memories and, years after a fact, even the hardest of hearts is able to recognize when anyone, whether good or bad, has made something good out of their past bad deeds.

In fact, the villagers begin to see the scarlet letter in the same fashion, quoting the narrator, as

the cross on a nun's bosom

Even the "A", which once meant to publicly display Hester's sin of "adultery", changes in the eyes of the villagers who go as far as saying that the "A" actually means "able".

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