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Victoria AmadorAP LangJanuary 9, 2017Feminist Critique The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a story focused on Hester Prynne’s challenges as she lives with this sin that causes the Puritan society that surrounds her to shun her. In this society, subordination of women is common and is enforced by the Puritans in order to control female’s sexuality. The treatment that Hester receives is hypocritical as she is treated with disrespect for the same sin that a man is not shamed for. Instead of being put down by this misogyny, she tries her best to see her punishment as an advantage and see it in a positive light; making it a sign of her individuality as a female.From the very beginning of The Scarlet Letter, it is clear that Hester has sinned which greatly upsets the controlling Puritan society. However, she embraces her punishment; instead of the scarlet letter being used to keep her within the confines of society’s rules, Hester uses it distinguish herself and separate her from male control. In this time period, women are treated as inferior beings to men.
Hester however, contrasts Puritan standards as she is portrayed as a strong and independent woman. While all of the women are obedient and submissive, Hester lives without a male figure telling her what to do and therefore is capable of making her own decisions. Unlike the rest of the women, she is surrounded by, Hester provides for herself and Pearl in her job as a seamstress. Hester’s lack of a male figure proves how extremely unique she is in their community but also how she is very self-sufficient and does not need the support of a man to be successful. Despite the fact that Hester is entirely capable of supporting herself and Pearl, she is still looked down upon by her community. An example of this is when Pearl is being taken away from Hester. The reason for this is because male authorities in the town believe that Hester does not have the ability to care for Pearl properly and that she would be better-taken care of by anyone other than Hester (Hawthorne 91).
By saying this, Hester is patronized, insulted, and belittled by someone who does not even understand her situation. He discredits Hester’s ability to care for Pearl. Furthermore, it is also insulting to her intelligence if he truly believes that his one attempt at persuasion will be enough to let Pearl be taken away from her. Men during this time were strong believers in female inferiority women listening to them without question. However, these demeaning opinions of her ironically grant Hester the ability to govern her own life, free from the rigid constrictions of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Hester’s punishment causes her to be “standing alone in the world,—alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable,—she cast away the fragments of a broken chain” (Hawthorne 149).
Her rejection of this is what makes her one of the strongest characters in the book. Hester’s power stems from her existence as an independent woman in Puritan society; she has rejected the role of typical femininity by refusing to abide by the standards and be nothing more than a submissive wife. In doing this, she redefines femininity that undermines the role that the Puritans want her to be. These gender roles are present throughout the book until the very end, where things are reversed for a moment. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale asks Hester to help him get up on the scaffold, which implies that he needs her strength to help him confess his sin. This is one of Dimmesdale’s weakest moments as he reveals that he needs Hester’s help.
He recognizes that she has had to deal with the same backlash from the community. This moment is crucial because it shows the Puritans how men can be sinners as well and presents a slightly feminist perspective. Dimmesdale is a well-respected man in the Puritan society. By confessing his sin, he simultaneously is confronting the Puritan society for treating Hester so cruelly.Despite Dimmesdale’s apparent awareness of Hester’s strength, it is clear that the rest of this scene plays into the patriarchal society that the Puritans live in. While Dimmesdale’s sins were confessed in front of a large audience, the crowd while Hester was on the scaffold was a lot more ridiculing and insulting towards her. Though they confessed to the same sin, the reaction from the community is drastically different, just because of their gender. The people watching Dimmesdale confess were in shock but still were “overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep-life matter-which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise-was now to be laid open to them” (Hawthorne 227).
This is very different from Hester’s experience, where she was punished with the scarlet letter that “had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (Hawthorne 51). In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne clearly illustrates a time when the treatment of men and women was extremely different. Hester’s lack of conformity and constant efforts to break away from being subordinate does not have much of an impact on the Puritan society and she continues to be ridiculed. The people surrounding them are so engrossed in the patriarchal society. The Puritans do not recognize how hypocritical their beliefs are until they become exposed to the truth, and even then, they remain merciless towards women.
The recurring theme of women being inferior beings to men is present throughout the book, and remains even in the last moments when the Puritans are a lot more forgiving to Dimmesdale than they were to Hester for their sin.