Hester's Ambivalence in The Scarlet Letter

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Hester's Ambivalence in The Scarlet Letter

 

 

        Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne's book The Scarlet Letter, Hester's

attitudes toward her adultery are ambivalent.  This ambivalence is shown by

breaking the book into three different parts.  In each part her attitudes

change significantly.

 

 

        Hester starts by seeing her act as a sin that she is sorry for

committing.  She changes and no longer feels sorry for the sin.  Finally,

Hester sees the act as not sinful, but she regrets committing it.

 

 

        In the first part, covering the first six chapters, Hester thinks

of her action as a sin.  In chapter four she tells her husband that it was

her fault for committing adultery when she says, "I have greatly wronged

thee" (79).  In chapter six Hawthorne writes that  Hester knows "her deed

had been evil" (92).  This evil deed, in Hester's eyes, causes Pearl to act

sinful, so Hester feels overwhelming guilt.  At this point Hester feels

that her actions were evil and were her fault, therefore she is sorry for

committing adultery.

 

 

        In chapter five Hester's attitudes are the same but Hawthorne shows

that these attitudes are not stable and are susceptible to change.  Hester

moves to a cottage on the outskirts of Boston, but because her sentence

does not restrict her to the limits of the Puritan settlement, Hester could

return to Europe to start over.  She decides to stay because she makes

herself believe that the town "has been the scene of her guilt, and here

should be the scene of her earthly punishment" (84).  This belief gives the

impression that she views her action as a sin and feels a need to further

punish herself.  But this belief only covers her actual feelings. To the

contrary, as Hawthorne describes,  her real reason for staying is that

"There dwelt, there trod the feet of one with whom she deemed herself

connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them

together before the bar of final judgment, and make their that marriage

altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution" (84).  This comment

means that the real reason for her staying is that Reverend Dimmsdale, the

father of her child, lives there and she hopes to someday marry him.

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        Hester believes that her adultery was a sin, but the book makes it

clear that she enjoyed it.  Consequently, Hester to sees herself and

everything she enjoys, such as sewing, as sinful.  She continues sewing,

though, which seems to symbolize that she would commit adultery again.

Hester also shows some anger about her punishment. She believes that there

are others who have committed adultery but have not been caught because

they were in different situations than Hester.  Hester's changing attitudes

reveal that while she sees her act as a sin, she believes her punishment

was unjustified, even though she pretends to be punishing herself even more.

 

 

        In the second part of the book  Hester's views change: she is no

longer sorry for what she has done.  Hester's mood changes "from passion

and feeling to thought" (158).  Instead of seeing her act as impulsive, as

an act of passion, Hester now inwardly decides that the act was not such an

evil sin, and she is not sorry for committing it.  She shows that she

thinks the act she and Dimmsdale committed was not evil when she tells him,

" What we did had a consecration of its own"(186).  The Scarlet Letter was

supposed to remind Hester and the townspeople of her sin and make her sorry

about her act, but as Hawthorne writes, "The scarlet letter had not done

its office" (160).  Hester goes beyond her punishment and helps the poor,

making the townspeople feel that the scarlet letter stands for "able"

rather than "adultery" (156).  This causes the townspeople to start to

think the "A" stands for angel instead of adultery.  Hester's progression

from passion to thought leads her to conclude that the adultery was not

evil but beautiful, therefore there was no reason for her to feel guilty

any more.

 

 

        The third part of Hester's development is found in the last chapter.

Hester is an old woman who is now looked upon as an advisor.  At this point

in her life she does not see her adultery as a sin, but for the sake of

womanhood she is regretful that she did it.  She knows that someone will

"establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of

mutual happiness" (245).  Hawthorne describes that Hester had earlier

thought of being the "prophetess" of this changing relationship.  Yet now

Hester "recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and

mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down

with shame, or even burdened with lifelong sin" (245).  This shows her

recognition of her impurity and that she would have liked to have been pure

so that she could have changed womanhood.

 

 

        Throughout the book, Hester's attitudes are hard to read. She

outwardly portrays Puritan feelings and attitudes, but is merely hiding

what she is actually feeling.  She moves from showing only Puritan

attitudes, seeing her act as a sin, to showing her inner thoughts, not

seeing her act as a sin.  She does, however, regret the adultery at the end

because it damaged her and she feels she could have brought more to the

world if she had not committed the act.  Hester went through many struggles

to finally show her inward feelings and deny the Puritan beliefs.

 

 

 


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