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The Scarlet Letter
Transcript of The Scarlet Letter
Hawthorne’s unconventional portrayal of gender roles in The Scarlet Letter can be understood through analysis of the male and female characters of the book, Hawthorne’s depiction of the Puritan society, and Hawthorne’s own life and time period.
Hawthorne's Life and Society
Hawthorne’s life and surrounding time period greatly influenced his writing of the Scarlet Letter, and therefore the gender roles depicted in it.
In post revolutionary America, "Social reforms aimed at prisons, mental institutions, child labor, and women's suffrage... were all factors at play" (Lucia, Lit Ex.). However, as the industry of America grew, men and woman’s roles separated as men took their places in the workforce and woman generally stayed home with the family. Men of the time were expected to be strong, capable, and in charge, while women were expected to be more quiet, docile, and weak. Feminists of the time such as Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller attempted to defend against this growing social norm.
In early Puritan life, women were generally known as inferior. The Puritan hierarchy argued that allowing women any equality would mean going against the word of God, which made men superior to women. Therefore, women were considered weak. They would cook, clean, and be loved by their husbands, but would never receive the right to vote or to, ultimately, have any power. However, through his writing and sympathy toward Hester and Pearl, Hawthorne shows his belief that all women are capable of power. For example, Hester shows her power when she refuses to give the name of her baby’s father, showing weakness in the men who accuse her. Hester is aware that after her sin, that she would be the symbol “at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women’s frailty and sinful passion” (Hawthorne 5). Through this statement, Hawthorne reveals a man's view of women, in that women are vulnerable and should be punished for their sins. Hawthorne later states that "the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument" (5), showing Hawthorne's sympathy toward a sinful yet strong woman living in an evil society.
Nathaniel Hawthorne uses historical references and allusions to early Puritans to criticize gender roles in The Scarlet Letter. From the beginning of the novel, Hawthorne alludes to Anne Hutchinson, a strong and outspoken woman in Puritan Massachusetts. In 1638, Hutchinson was banished for speaking outwardly about her view of the Puritan church. She disagreed with Puritan preaching, which angered the selfish governor, John Winthrop, who accused her of not being fit for society. Although she moved to Rhode Island later, Hutchinson never showed weakness and kept fighting for her beliefs. Similarly to Hester, Anne was accused of a wrongdoing that was her choice and not physically hurtful to anyone. Hawthorne uses Hutchinson to stand by the character of Hester in order to show his respect for strong women and to critique the Puritan society in terms of gender roles.
At the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the consequences that are soon to come for Hester Prynne due to her spiritual sin of adultery. Hawthorne states that "she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion" (Hawthorne 66). Along with this idea of social banishment, Hawthorne exemplifies Hester's admirable trait of bravery through her persistence against revealing the father of baby Pearl. Reverend Dimmesdale states, "Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!" (Hawthorne 59). She continues to exhibit her bravery by performing altruistic acts for the community instead of breaking down and hiding away forever. This leads to Hester earning the trust of those who once looked at her in disgust. The Puritans "refused to interpret the scarlet A by it's original significance. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength" (Hawthorne 134).
In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays men as being weak and inferior characters in comparison to women. Hawthorne achieves this by conveying men as having major flaws in their characters. One of these characters is Roger Chillingworth. Hawthorne characterizes him as always being in search of revenge for the man who had an affair with his wife. Although Chillingworth wasn't weak and had a very strong will, he tortured himself and, "never [had a] mortal suffer[ed] what this man has suffered" (Hawthorne 14). Chillingworth was unable to move on with his life, which contrasts the life of women that had gone through trials and moved on with their life. Another one of the major characters is Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Unlike Hester, Hawthorne portrayed him as being too weak and, "doesn't have the will" (Hawthorne 12) to confess his sin to society and endure the public criticism. Hawthorne puts emphasis on the comparison between Hester and Dimmesdale to shed light on his views that men are not necessarily as strong willed and may not have the inner strength as society portrays them to have. This is shown in Hester because she was able to admit her sin to society, and was criticized on a daily basis. Hawthorne also put so much emphasis on Dimmesdale because he is a minister, and is looked up to in the society. The men in this novel seem to show qualities which don't meet the standards that society gives them, or even the standards that the women seem to have. Hawthorne switches the gender role characteristics to contrast the common stereotype that men are stronger than women.
Hawthorne was closely associated with the growing feminist movement. Elizabeth Peabody was his wife’s sister, and he was considered friends with Margaret Fuller. Although these ties could explain the conflict his portrayed gender roles have with his time period, a deeper look into his life reveals them as an ongoing conflict and investigation within himself.
Hawthorne in His Time
Hawthorne’s father died when he was young, leaving his mother to survive on family money. Hawthorne therefore grew up dissatisfied with current gender roles and his place in society. This continued in his career as a writer. Hawthorne often doubted his role as a writer, struggling with the masculine standards of the time which favored traditional jobs over less stable jobs such as the female dominated sphere of fictional writing. Hawthorne even temporarily took a position at the Custom House in an attempt to rejoin the male world, showing how big this issue was for him. Because of the importance of unconventional gender roles in his thoughts and life, they naturally are reflected in his writing.
Hester’s strength proceeds from Hawthorne’s experience with strong, feminist women, and her separation from society and her passion for needlework from Hawthorne’s anxieties about his place in society because of his passion for writing.
Dimmesdale’s weakness and inability to resolve his guilt parallel Hawthorne’s self-perceived femininity and his continual doubt regarding his career as a writer.
For their worth, these parallels cannot show us Hawthorne’s views of gender, because they are a reflection of his struggle to define them for himself. We can use them however, to make sense of the fact that even though Hawthorne admires certain characteristics in his portrayed gender roles, such as Hester's strength, no gender role in the book is portrayed without faults. Hester’s pride and passion, Dimmesdale’s guilt, Chillingworth’s evil, and the Puritan leaders’ hypocrisy make us aware that Hawthorne is not really favoring one gender role over another, but deeply investigating them all.
Throughout the entirety of Hester's life wearing the scarlet A, she continued to provide the motherly nurturing necessary for her daughter without the support of a man. This fortitude is a true testament to how crucial Hawthorne believes a woman's independent strength is to her character. Hawthorne strategically develops the idea of Hester's courage throughout the novel in order to prove how strong women truly are. He believes that her crime was wrong, "but Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation" (Hawthorne 165), and therefore the benefits that came from her punishment are enough to redeem her of her sin. Hester begins as a negative example to Puritan women and ends up being a respected woman simply because of her charitable spirit and actions that proved to be greater than any mistake in her past.
Chillingworth & Dimmesdale
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By: Sofia Morales-Bello, Nina McDermott, Parker Siller, and Skyler Quine