The Scarlet Letter and Women's rights
"Endowed in certain respects with the sensibility of Margaret Fuller, the great campaigner for the rights of women, Hester Prynne is as much a woman of mid-nineteenth-century American culture as she is of seventeenth-century Puritan New England."
Is this an accurate assessment of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter?
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was an author, critic, editor and teacher who "possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time" . She contributed significantly to the American Renaissance in literature and to mid-nineteenth century reform movements. A brilliant and highly educated member of the Transcendentalist group, she challenged Ralph Waldo Emerson both intellectually and emotionally. Women who attended her "conversations" and many men of her time found Fuller's influence life-changing. Her major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century published in 1845, profoundly affected the women's rights movement which had its formal beginning at Seneca Falls, New York, three years later.
Hester Prynne is the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's romantic novel, The Scarlet Letter, which is set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. As a young woman, Hester married an elderly scholar, Roger Chillingworth, who sent her ahead to America to live but never followed. While waiting for him, she had an affair with a Puritan minister named Dimmesdale, after which she gave birth to Pearl. Found guilty of adultery (through the absence of her husband and the birth of Pearl), Hester is punished by being forced to wear a scarlet letter 'A' (which stands for Adultery) on her bosom for the rest of her life. This transforms Hester into "a living sermon against sin" . Hester is immediately ostracised from the stern community and endures years of shame, scorn and loneliness. Hester is passionate but also strong and equals both her husband and her lover in her intelligence and thoughtfulness. Her alienation puts her in the position to make acute observations about her community, particularly about its treatment of women.
So, is there a link between these two women? Hester is a fictional character, from a novel set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England who is shunned from her community as punishment for her adulterous crime/sin. Margaret Fuller was a highly educated writer and critic who played an important role in the American Renaissance in literature and to mid-nineteenth century reform movements. The similarities are not initially apparent, so it is necessary to take a closer look at these two women. The purpose of the central part of this essay is to determine how far Hester Prynne is as much a woman of mid-nineteenth century American culture as she is of seventeenth-century Puritan New England. How far ahead of her time were her actions?
In the statement which forms the sub-title of this essay, it is said that Hester Prynne, in certain respects, is endowed with the sensibility of Margaret Fuller. A definition of the word "sensibility" may be useful in our understanding of the question: "Sensibility: 1a) Openness to emotional impressions, susceptibility, sensitiveness (sensibility to kindness) b) An exceptional or excessive degree of this. 2a) Emotional capacities or feelings b) a person's moral, emotional, or aesthetic ideas or standards (NB It does not mean "possession of common sense, reasonableness.)" . We know that Hester possesses these qualities because they are displayed in her kind deeds, for example, we are told that
She is forced to suppress her own emotional needs because there was no room for this kind of expression in the strict community. Life was centred on a rigid Puritan society in which no one was able to divulge their innermost thoughts and secrets:
As stated above, Puritans were noted for a spirit of moral and religious earnestness that informed their whole way of life. In the New England Puritan colonies, law and religion were entangled without any clear distinction between the two. A "hard-featured dame" says of Hester Prynne:
Hawthorne believed that man, to establish and enjoy a normal relationship with his world, must live in harmony with his fellow beings and with nature. If man does not respect the bond of love crucial to coexistence and accept the view that all men are united in a brotherhood of imperfection, and if he does not adopt nature as an inspirational and stabilizing force in his life, he lives a sub-human existence - so self-centred as to be at odds with other people and with external nature. Hawthorne's religious enthusiasts (Puritans), conscious only of their spiritual goals, violate the bond with man and nature essential to living a normal life.
Every human being needs the opportunity to express their feelings, otherwise the emotions are bottled up until they become unstable. It is almost as if the possessed physician, Roger Chillingworth, has trapped a volatile chemical (the secret of Dimmesdale's adultery) inside a vial (Dimmesdale) and now waits for the inevitable explosion (the revelation). Reverend Dimmesdale's pent-up feelings of guilt and shame became hazardous to his health,
Unfortunately, Puritan society did not permit any kind of emotional expression, thus characters had to seek alternate means to relieve their personal anguishes and desires. Luckily, for at least four of the main characters, Hawthorne provides a sanctuary in the form of the mysterious forest. In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the pivotal characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. It provides an escape from the strict mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up and be themselves. It is only here that Hester and Dimmesdale can openly engage in conversation without being preoccupied with the constraints that Puritan society places on them. The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehaviour, and Hester takes advantage of this, when Arthur Dimmesdale appears. She openly talks with Dimmesdale about subjects which could never be mentioned in any place other than the forest. "What we did . . . " she reminds him, "had a consecration of its own. We felt it so!" . This statement shocks Dimmesdale, and he tells Hester to hush, until he realises that he is in an environment where he can openly convey his feelings. The forest also brings out the natural appearance and natural personality of people. When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, we see a new person. We see the real Hester, who has been hidden for years under a shield of shame. Her eyes grow radiant and a flush comes to her cheek. We recognise her as the Hester from Chapter One. The beautiful woman who is not afraid to reveal her dark, flowing locks and display her beauty. This dramatic transformation of Hester after she discards the constricting shackles of law and Puritanism and embraces the liberation provided by the natural world shows how harsh and crippling Puritan society could be to one's inner self.
On a more positive note, the suffering which Hester went through qualified her as spokesman of the frustrations and joys of human relationships: "She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess." . Working from the definition of a prophetess as simply one who is gifted with extraordinary moral insight, Hester's gospel was nothing more hopeful or pessimistic than the existential "endure". We do not have a record of her specific counsel to suffering women, yet it would seem that her role in the community of tormented souls was to inspire by her presence (and therefore, her survival) rather than her oratory an awareness that human experience has in it an element of suffering, and that conflicts between self and community, between personal will and moral law, are inevitable.
This sentiment of nature being in opposition to religion was echoed in the twentieth century by the revolutionary Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who was no friend to the religious impulse in human beings. Freud felt that the only way for society to progress was to recognise and acknowledge its libidinal and aggressive impulses. He believed that civilisation - the sum total of all our complicated structures of culture, law, religion and society - arose through the learned repression of individual instinctual urges, and that these individual desires are always at odds with the regulations, institutions and laws of society which force them to heel. In Freud's account the civilised 'moral' human being is obviously a repressive formation. People are, in reality, bubbling cauldrons of violent and sexual desires waiting to boil over. Civilisation is imagined as holding back, rather than moving forward. The Scarlet Letter appears to adhere to this theory - we are told that:
In addition to this, we learn, towards the end of the novel, that "women, more especially, - in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion, - or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,- came to Hester's cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy!" . So, Hester was not the only sinner of the village, yet she was the only person punished, and was made to feel alienated and abnormal. It was this alienation that put Hester in a unique position. She was able to look upon society from its precipice, and make acute observations about the community, particularly about its treatment of women.
Margaret Fuller is described in a similar way by Charles Capper, in An American Romantic Life:
In the space of a few years, she became America's female intellectual prophet, challenging the whole "masculine"-"feminine" dichotomy on which the official gender culture was based. The life of Margaret Fuller was the kind of life that Hester Prynne dreamed of living. Given her situation, however, she deemed the revolution of society, and the revolution of woman's place in that society "a hopeless task before her." .
Towards the end of the novel, she no longer believes that she is worthy to be that destined prophetess, since she has,
Hester denies that she can be a prophetess, reasoning that she is burdened by her tarnished reputation and suffering. This is ironic because it is the misery that she has endured and her estranged position in the community that have enabled her to examine society from a different perspective, and make insightful observations, such as:
Perhaps Hester deserves the title of prophetess more than she thinks. Who knows what she could have achieved for the rights of women and social reformation had she lived in the nineteenth century, and, like Margaret Fuller "spent most of her waking hours reading, thinking, and writing"? . Obviously we will never know because there are far too many 'ifs', yet I believe that in the right circumstances, Hester Prynne could have been a revolutionary. The tragedy of The Scarlet Letter is Hester's repression by the Puritanical "intolerant brood" . Without these suffocating constraints, her intellect could have blossomed. Just as women who attended Margaret Fuller's "conversations" found her influence life-changing, the women of Hester Prynne's community came to her home for advice and comfort in times of hardship and frustration at society. With a little imagination, it is not difficult to see Hester transformed several hundred years into our own present, conducting something like a seminar in women's liberation. Hester has learned how society deprives women, and her advice for those who seek it is going to involve woman's self-preservation and methods by which a repressive society can be circumvented by true, if unlawful, lovers.
At the end of the novel, when given the chance to discard the scarlet letter which has brought her so much misery over the years, she chooses to resume wearing it. This seems like a very puzzling action, until we realise that the scarlet letter "has ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness" , and instead, has become a symbol of hope, endurance and "reverence"  for the people of the New England community.
Another parallel between these two women is the way they placed their own best judgement before any religious doctrine. It has been said of Margaret Fuller:
Hester Prynne shows this defiant characteristic when Governor Bellingham tells her that it would be in Pearl's best interests if she were to be taken away from her mother, "clad soberly" and "disciplined strictly". She protests passionately, declaring: "Ye shall not take her! I will die first!" . Up until this point, Hester has accepted the punishment chosen for her, but to take Pearl away would be crossing the line, and Hester stands up for herself and her belief that Pearl would be better off with her mother, and indeed, that she, Hester would be better off with Pearl ("Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book." 
I believe that Hester Prynne is as much a woman of mid-nineteenth century American culture as she is of seventeenth-century Puritan New England. If she had not been repressed by the stringent society in which she lived, then the world could truly have been her oyster. Of course, the question of what she could have accomplished had she lived in a different era is an impossible one, but there are signs throughout the novel that Hester's ideas for social reform are far ahead of her own time. We empathise with the tragedy of her situation, but at the same time, it would be possible to say that Hester is the prophetess she aspired to be, and it is she who is speaking words of her unworthiness, not Hawthorne. The motif that suffering converted into insight can indeed ennoble and make one wiser is recurrent in Hawthorne's works. Despite their different backgrounds, Hester Prynne and Margaret Fuller seem to have had similar characters. Both suffered alienation during their lifetimes, and both realised injustices in society as a result of this isolation. The main difference between them was that Margaret Fuller had the opportunity to express her ideas, i.e. she had a voice in her society, whereas Hester, a woman stained by sin, had no chance of becoming a prophetess in the eyes of her village.
1 History of Woman Suffrage, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1881
2 The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oxford World's Classics, 1990
3 The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition, 1996
4 The Scarlet Letter, p.263
5 Puritanism in Early America, edited by George M. Waller, p.6
6 The Scarlet Letter, p.53
7 Ibid. p.144-5
8 Ibid. p.195
9 Ibid. p.165
10 Ibid. p.86
11 Ibid. p.263
12 Charles Capper, in An American Romantic Life. p.ix.
13 The Scarlet Letter, p.165.
14 Ibid. p.263
15 Ibid. p.263
16 An American Romantic Life, p. xi
17 The Scarlet Letter, p.94
18 Ibid. p.263
19 Ibid. p.263
20 Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, 1889
21 The Scarlet Letter, p.113
22 Ibid. p.117
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. History of Woman Suffrage, 1881
Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter, Oxford World's Classics, 1990
The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition, 1996
George M. Waller, (Ed). Puritanism in Early America
Charles Capper. An American Romantic Life
Julia Ward Howe. Margaret Fuller. 1889
© April 2003, Emma Jones