The Scarlet Letter Reading Assignment
How it works
I agree with the assertion that Hester Prynne is a feminist, whether Hawthorne intended for her to be or not. In the beginning of the novel, when Hester is forced to stand on the scaffold to face public humiliation, many demand her to reveal the identity of the child’s father. Instead, Hester refuses to answer stating “‘I will not speak!’ answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice,” (Hawthorne, 58). She stands her ground and denies the answer to many male authorities including Governor Bellingham. She also challenges Governor Bellingham again when she refuses to leave Pearl’s side. This would be an unusual, and possibly disrespectful, act especially in the Puritan times when women were seen as lesser to men. Hester also proves she is capable of being independent by raising Pearl on her own as well as performing charity work for society. The scene where Hester questions women in society, “Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existing worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? … Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems fair and suitable position.” (Hawthorne, 137) brings forth a question about feminism, as well as Hester realizing the unequal and unhappy lives women suffer through. While talking to Dimmesdale in the forest, Hester tears off the scarlet letter, her cap, and lets down her hair. Hester rejects society’s views and frees herself from their control, shaming, and guilt. Nature seems to agree because “All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest…” (Hawthorne, 168). Hester’s actions of defending herself and loved ones and living her life makes her a strong, powerful woman who can set an example for other women.
Dramatic irony is used in the story to create suspense and further the plot and interactions between characters. When Dimmesdale and Chillingworth start living together, neither knows the others’ true identity and relevance to Hester Prynne, however the readers know. Chillingworth is unaware of the fact that Dimmesdale is the man he seeks revenge from, and this creates suspense because it makes the audience wonder when and what will happen when Chillingworth discovers the truth. When Chillingworth discovers Dimmesdale’s true identity, he starts enacting his revenge by playing mind games with Dimmesdale and having Dimmesdale only aware of a “dim perception of some evil influence watching over him,” and even “took himself to task for his bad sympathies in reference to Roger Chillingworth” (Hawthorne, 117). Suspense is also created through the story with the secrets of Hester and Dimmesdale. The town is unaware of Pearl’s father along with their minister’s sin, but the audience is informed of this. The dramatic irony makes readers anticipate for the moment when the truth is revealed to the public. The townspeople not knowing the truth about Dimmesdale’s sin also cause Dimmesdale guilt that he suffers throughout the story. Dramatic irony is used to create suspense in the audience, further the plot, and develop characters.
How it works
From the first moment Hester emerges from jail to the last scene of the novel, Hester’s attitude changes from defiant and guilty to accepting. Hester’s attitude towards the scarlet letter and Pearl changes to accepting as well. Hester is conscious about society and their views on her and Pearl. She was almost embarrassed about the scarlet letter and “oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain, from covering her symbol with her hand.” (Hawthorne 72). Sometimes, the fearful thought of “whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.” (Hawthorne, 137) would pop into Hester’s mind. Hester’s attitude starts to change when she was threatened to have Pearl taken away from her. Bellingham tells Hester that Pearl is a badge of shame, however Hester rebuts with saying “this badge hath taught me… lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better” (Hawthorne, 92). Not only does Hester accept Pearl, but she also admits to her guilt and is trying to learn from it with Pearl. Later on, there are rumors going around stating that Hester’s scarlet letter may be removed. Chillingworth spoke of this to Hester and Hester’s reply, “‘Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport.'” (Hawthorne, 139) shows she is accepting of the scarlet letter. At first Hester saw the scarlet letter as a symbol reminding of her shame and guilt, but she continues to grow and admits to her guilt, thus experiencing more freedom.
The overall tone in the novel is disapproving and gloomy, but also sympathetic. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne comments negatively about the Puritans’ beliefs and actions stating “Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for… with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.” (Hawthorne 43). Hawthorne is criticizing the way Puritans handled punishment, almost jumping straight to the conclusion of death and building a prison almost instantly upon arriving. Hawthorne mentions the harsh ways the Bible wanted children to be disciplined and how even Puritan children followed only the one belief while playing such as “disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to church…” (Hawthorne 77-78). Hawthorne’s tone is also gloomy and melancholy which can be noticed through the way he describes characters and locations. His choice of a gloomy atmosphere also creates sympathy in the readers toward the characters. “The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.” (Hawthorne 67) uses powerful words and phrases like “bound” and “galling to her inmost soul” to describe how Hester felt after release, thus creating a dark atmosphere that allows for the audience to sympathize Hester’s trapped and lost feelings. Hawthorne also describes Hester’s sad transformation and the “fearful doubt strove to possess her soul” of whether to murder Pearl. Hester’s dark thoughts are ones that make the audience feel sorry for her. The scenery is also described with somber words such as the “great black forest… who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom- became the playmate of the lonely infant,” (Hawthorn ) and the “old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle.” (Hawthorne ). The descriptive words chosen sets up a mournful and dreary stage for the tone of the book. Pearl is also described as the “lonely infant” which makes the reader sympathize how she has had no one except Hester and viewed by society as sin and evil.