Is The Scarlet Letter a Feminist Novel?
Throughout history, men and women have had drastically different roles in society. The patriarchal societies, lead by men, expected women to fulfill certain roles, unable to fulfill and empower themselves. Feminism challenged the existing social conventions and fought for more diversity of roles and freedom for women in these world societies. The Scarlet Letter, in the characterization of its female lead, establishes itself as a feminist novel, whether or not its author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was aware of it.
Hester Prynne, the female lead of this novel, is punished by her community for committing adultery with an unknown man (later revealed to be the town church minister, Arthur Dimmesdale). She is obligated to wear the scarlet letter “A” to remind the townsfolk of her sin. As the society where she lives is influenced by Puritanism, it swears by Christian ideals: “The societies that they created were theocracies, ruled by strict religious principles. Second, because they had a firm belief in original sin, they accepted the idea that people were basically wicked and could only be saved through grace. This belief in the wickedness of people led the Puritans to enact strict laws and punishments” (Hawthorne 10). Hester is oppressed by this community and becomes an outcast. Regardless, she raises her child, Pearl, alone, earning for their living by her skillful needlework.
Even though Hester is stigmatized by society, she doesn’t give in to despair. Nonetheless, she seems to be more empowered by her punishment: “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread” (Hawthorne 189). Hester commits acts of altruism for others in her community without asking anything in return. She holds immense integrity, not willing to reveal the identity of the father of her daughter. This reveals that she is a strong-spirited and determined woman who is willing to raise her daughter alone, even during such harsh circumstances.
Refusing to reveal the name of Pearl’s father shows that Hester has a rebellious spirit. She doesn’t want the patriarchal authority to control her actions, which is the main act of rebellion in this case. This too shows her fearlessness, and further establishes her as a fighter, for her legacy, and for her character. In a way, her characterization shows masculine features rarely seen in female characters of that time.
In contrast, her lover Dimmesdale shows feminine features as being a God-fearing church minister. After committing adultery with Hester, he becomes increasingly more anxious, as he is afraid to reveal the truth to the community. He is afraid that the public truth will jeopardize his position in which he comfortably stays, but this anxiety and fear eats him inside during the novel. The fear of exposing his weakness to the public and admitting his actions consumes him on a psychological and physical level.
By putting the characters of Hester and Arthur in contrast, we can see the reversal of traditional gender tropes that have formed as a social construct since ancient times: “Throughout most of Western history, women were confined to the domestic sphere, while public life was reserved for men” (Brunell and Burkett). Hester is shown as a strong-willed, independent woman who is able to face hardship on her own, provide for her daughter alone, and stay emotionally stable even though she is despised by her community. Surprisingly, in the 19th century, when this novel was first published, these were considered as masculine personality traits. Arthur, on the other hand, has more feminine features, getting swallowed by his emotions and fear of getting exposed, which holds him back from attaining more self-confidence in his actions.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne created a woman character that was wholly different than the female characters of his time. Hester demonstrates less stereotypical features of a woman of that time (blind obedience, anxiety, unable to do complex things without a male hand, etc.), making The Scarlet Letter an interesting work compared to other writers of his time. Whereas most other novelists wrote seduction novels in which male leads conquered women, Hawthorne, on the other hand, delved deeper into the psychology of Hester, humanizing her, making her an equal being to a male. This demonstrates traits of feminism in his work, whether intentional or not.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. EMC, 1998.
Brunell, Laura, and Elinor Burkett. “Feminism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/feminism.
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