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Gender in the Scarlet Letter

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Katie Ohman

on 27 October 2014

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Transcript of Gender in the Scarlet Letter



Hawthorne characterizes Pearl in a way that idolizes the characteristic of sympathy in a woman.
Pearl's Purpose in Social Commentary
Pearl's Conflicting Character
“Not seldom, she would laugh anew, and louder than before, like a thing incapable and uintelligent of human sorrow” (Hawthorne 101).
“In the little chaos of Pearl’s character, there might be seen emerging- and could have been, from the very start- the steadfast principles of an unflinching courage, -an uncontrollable will,- a sturdy pride, which might be disciplined into self-respect,-and a bitter scorn of many things, which, when examined, might be found to have the taint of falsehood in them” (Hawthorne 144)
It is because of Pearls impish character, that only with sympathy does Hester learn to love her. In the beginning, "Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynee often dropped her work upon her knees, and cried out..."(Hawthorne 103).
However, the growth of Hester's sympathy is shown when she pleads for the custody of her child and speaks to DImmesdale saying, "Thou knowest,- for thou hast sympathies which these men lack!- thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother's rights, and how much the stronger they are, when a mother has but her child and a scarlet letter"(Hawthorne 116). This shows the growth of Hester's sympathies because she asks Dimmesdale to sympathize with her.
Susan S. WIlliams puts it like this:
"The love that Hester shows to her daughter, Pearl, is also indicative of Hester's growing sympathy"
(Williams 22).
Pearl is pivitol in Hester regaining her ability to sympathize. Sympathy is a trait which Hawthorne defines a woman by. This seems contradictory to femminst tones of the novel, however, sympathy requires both knowledge and passion. These two traits (both which Hester aquires), coincide with the Romantic, and femminist thinking of Hawthornes era.
The importance Hawthorne places on tenderness:
"If she survive, the tenderness will be crushed out of her, or- and the outward semblance is the same- crushed deeply into her heart that it can never show itself more. The latter is perhaps the truest theory. She who has once been woman, and ceased to be so, might at any moment become a woman again"(Hawthorne 151).
Hawthorne also comments on the quality of sympathy in a woman by showing how the introduction of it changed Pearl's from a capricious child into a woman of a wordly society.
As a child, "She wanted- what some people want throughout life- a grief that should deeply touch her, and thus humanize and make her capable of sympathy"(Hawthorne 166).
As Dimmesdale dies on the scaffold, "A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it"(215).
The ultimate vouch for Hawthorne's "womanly tenderness" is how it revolutionizes Pearl's life. Even though she was not compassionate towards her mother in seven years. It took the weakness and guilt of a man for Pearl to be sympathetic, the ultimate claim for Hawthorne's bias towards the strength of women. It is the reason Hawthorne glorifies sympathy in women, because it is to men that sympathy is given.
Hawthorne's Overall View
Hawthorne’s view of Hester as the strongest character in the novel is revealed through her independent lifestyle and her self-respect, regardless of all of the hindrances she has had to overcome externally and internally.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has portrayed Hester as an admirable figure, who has transcended the limits placed upon women in the 19th century. Sally Buckner describes how Hester "grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman," proving that good comes from a bad situation.
This contrasts with his view of the male characters in the novel that are depicted as weak. By Hawthorne portraying the females in the novel as stronger than men, he is defying stereotypes of men and women in society not only in the Puritan time period but also in modern times. Though Dimmesdale is ridden with guilt and his struggle with his relationship with God, he still does not come forward publicly to share the blame with Hester.
He views Hester as a victim of society’s wrath, and he shows how although she is outcast by the town, she takes her public humiliation by the reins and takes control of her life. Although she is remorseful of what she has done, Hester holds her head high and does not let the townspeople’s judgments affect her.
He demonstrates his views on the roles of women through Hester’s ultimate success and content with her life. Hawthorne’s attitude of men as inferior is contradictory with most people’s view of society. His reveal of Hester as a feminist icon serves to show his views towards women in Puritan society, and how men with high ranks such as a minister can be weaker and inferior to women.
When she is at the scaffold, Hawthorne says that Hester’s “beauty shone out” (Hawthorne 40) and “made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (Hawthorne 40). He portrays her as a beautiful victim of her passion and as a woman who as a consequence of her actions bravely embraces her shameful punishment.
As the novel goes on, Dimmesdale continues to fade as his sin consumes him and “with every successive Sabbath, his cheek [is] paler and thinner, and his voice more tremulous than before” (101). In contrast with Hester who seems to become stronger and less defined by her sin, Dimmesdale deteriorates considerably, naming men inferior. Dimmesdale's inability to confess in public reinforces his cowardliness and pride and contributes more to Hester's strife.
He gets to a point where everyone in the town is begging him to "make trial of the physician's frankly offered skill" (81). Hawthorne emphasizes that they believe he needs the help and protection of the physician.The town’s admiration for him is ironic because he is clearly overtaken by sin. Despite the power he has because of his position in society as a religious
role model, Dimmesdale proves to be pitiful and
powerless in actuality.

Hawthorne comments on the role of men and defies stereotypes and expectations through Dimmesdale’s character. Even in the beginning of the book when appealing to Hester to confess the identity of Pearl’s father, there is still an atmosphere of “nervous sensibility” and “self-restraint” beneath his “eloquence” and “religious fervor” (Hawthorne 57). Already, Hawthorne characterizes men as weak and vulnerable.

The Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition sums up Dimmesdale's character saying he has a having a “lack of sufficient moral courage to confess” and being “rubble and wreckage resulting from the Puritan conscience.”

Hawthorne contradicts the expectations of males in Puritan society and defies stereotypes when he defines Arthur Dimmesdale as weak, hypocritical, and problematic. The blatant contrast to Hester proves that Hawthorne thinks highly of women in society, whereas he believes men to be foolish and powerless.

The opinions of men Hawthorne expressess through Dimmesdale are reinforced by Roger Chillingworth's character. Chilllingworth proves to be weak as well when he dies shortly after Dimmesdale. Just as Dimmesdale was overtaken by sin, Chillingworth was overcome with the desire to get revenge and both led to the character's downfall.
Hawthorne establishes his views on gender through his characterization of and attitude towards society.

Puritan Society & How
the Townspeople View Hester

Hawthorne succeeds in emphasizing the flaws of the Puritan society in terms of gender through his attitude and underlying commentary in The Scarlet Letter.
Works Cited
Buckner, Sally. "The Scarlet Letter." Masterplots, Fourth Edition(2010): 1-4. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. N.p.: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Print.

McPherson, Hugo. "CRITICAL READINGS: The Scarlet Letter." Critical Insights: Nathaniel Hawthorne. 77-95. n.p.: Salem Press, 2010. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

"The Scarlet Letter." Cyclopedia Of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition (1998): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

Williams, Susan S. Introduction. The Scarlet Letter. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, 2007. 5-27. Print.

"Arthur Dimmesdale in the Scarlet Letter." Mr. Mahoney F Block English. N.p., 23
Feb. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

"Inner Puritans." The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking. Matthew Hutson, 10 Aug. 2012.
Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

"Hester." Reading Blog. Myranda Mahone, 2 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

"The Scarlet Letter." The Arts Fuse. N.p., June 2007. Web. 10 Sept. 2013

By nature, the Puritans lived strict lives, and Hawthorne highlights this through his portrayal of the townspeople and their views of Hester.
Since women aren’t as highly regarded as men during the Puritan’s time period, the petty ones pick at the flaws in other women, or in this situation, Hester, to place themselves in a higher position. Hawthorne comments on the irony of the women degrading a fellow female through the women in the crowd who refer to Hester as “the naughty baggage” that “ has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (Hawthorne 45).

Adversely, Hawthorne let the responsibility of keeping both Dimmesdale’s and Chillingworth’s secrets regarding their identities lie on Hester in an effort to empower her through her agreements with both men to “keep thy [Chillingworth’s] secret, as I [Hester] have his [Dimmesdale]” (Hawthorne 65).
Hawthorne emphasises the different treatment of men and women by displaying the various explanations that people had for the presence of the “A” on Dimmesdale’s chest. Some believed that “Roger Chillingworth… had caused it to appear, through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs”, while others “denied that there was any mark whatever on” him (Hawthorne 211). A few claimed that Dimmesdale chose to die “in the arms of that fallen woman” to reiterate the common Puritan belief that most of them would end up with the “Black Man” in hell as well as eternal punishment.
The fact that nearly everybody was so quick to make up excuses for Dimmesdale directly contrasts with how the townspeople scorned Hester for the same exact sin. Through the dialogue and situations that he creates, Hawthorne succeeds in revealing how women were inferior to men, and made to “suffer in [a] Calvinist society” (McPherson 9).

Kelsey Cloud
Katie Ohman
Rebekah Koehn
Nancy Nguyen
Period 1
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