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Scarrlett Letter -Hester- Essay, Research Paper

Analysis of Character and Conflict: Change?

“With nothing now to lose in the sight of mankind, and with no hope, and seemingly no wish, of gaining anything, it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had brought back the poor wanderer to its paths.” (153)

With his precise diction Nathaniel Hawthorne displays an interesting conflict based on a disagreement between the protagonist, Hester Prynne, and the strict Puritan society around her in his novel The Scarlet Letter. This disagreement is brought to the readers attention as Hester displays pride in a symbol, the letter A, which society has branded her with as a mark of shame. Hester’s isolation from the society results from her not accepting the fact that she has sinned. It is not until Hester places the mark of shame upon her own body and soul and accepts her sin that her conflict can be resolved. Through shame, despair, and solitude, Hester gains the inner strength needed to overcome the austere severity of a judgmental Puritan society.

“On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter ‘A.’” (60) This “A” represented the adultery Hester once committed, as did her child named Pearl. From the very beginning, Hawthorne indicates to his readers that Hester feels no guilt in being an adulteress. The ravishing embroidered fashion in which the “A” is presented to the reader shows the haughty and defiant attitude Hester possesses. Not only does Hester embellish the letter but she also dresses up her daughter in red cloth with gold thread. “It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!” (103) By doing this Hester is shaping an analogy between the mark of what should be her guilt and her object of greatest affection. Hester possesses a very resistant and dignified attitude. This attitude is shown from the beginning as she holds her head high, despite the looks of scorn. “Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will.”( )

The general society on the other hand, being Puritan, believed that Hester was an appalling woman and should hang for her sin. “‘This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die!’”(59) People just passing by would judge her as if in a court room as they observe the letter upon her chest. “…the children of the Puritans looked up from their play- or what passed for play with those sombre little urchins- and spoke gravely to one another: ‘Behold verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter, and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore and let us fling mud at them!” (103) Townspeople did not view Hester as a member of their community. Rather, they viewed her as an outcast. “Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses then the rest of human kind.”(87) Her strong feeling of pride and love is conflicted by society’s unforgiving, strict nature. Hester is not a good Puritan woman. Accordingly, she becomes isolated from the good Puritan society. Her house was located on the outskirts of town, bordering the forest. Hawthorne used the forest to symbolize freedom, love and wildness, three qualities, which often show themselves in Hester’s character.

“With nothing now to lose in the sight of mankind, and with no hope, and seemingly no wish, of gaining anything, it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had brought back the poor wanderer to its paths.” (153) Throughout the novel Hester feels guilty for not being ashamed of the letter on her chest. This guilt acts on her by causing Hester to dress meekly, and hide her hair under a hat. The sun rarely shines over her hair. “…her rich and luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine.” (158) As the remorse of the ignominy that she does not feel builds up inside her, she loses more and more qualities of her feminine side. Eventually, after nearly seven long years, her natural, “genuine regard for virtue” leads to Hester helping out more frequently with the community and accomplishing good deeds. “Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as a token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but her many good deeds since.” (157) Many people then began to see Hester Prynne as an individual rather than a letter, but the defiant young woman still was involved in a very complex conflict with society. Hawthorne strategically uses Hester’s strong will to help her confront her conflict. She fools herself into accepting her sin with the help of her child. While in the woods, free with the one she loves; Hester becomes overwhelmed with joy and unclasps the letter from her chest. By ridding herself of the sin she is overcome with a great feeling of relief and her youth returns. “Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope and happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour.” (192) Although she could stay in this moment of joy for as long as she pleased, she still possessed the “genuine regard for virtue”. Hester also possessed Pearl who would not go near Hester without the scarlet letter. The love Hester showed towards the happiness of Pearl, the personified letter, was much stronger than the love for self-happiness. The joy could remain but there would be no inner peace until the sin has been accepted and forgiven. Hester, on account of all the latter, picks the letter up and marks herself with her sin. “She had flung it into infinite space!- and here again was the scarlet misery, glittering on the old spot!” (200) Although the beauty and happiness is lost again, the first step to acceptance and forgiveness, and eventually an equal position in society has been made.

Hawthorne displays a vast amount of changes in Hester once she confronts her conflict. Although she still is meek, she retains more inner peace. Enough inner peace as to be able to help others overcome their own sorrows. “…as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.” (245) She becomes a more active and respected individual in society. Most of all Hester gained strength. A life long mark of shame is a great obstacle to overcome and in doing so, much can be learned about the power of the mind and the strength of an honest woman.

“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers- stern and wild ones- and they had made her strong…” (190)


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