Friday, March 9, 2012

Wondrous Heart of a Woman

Pondering Hester Prynne While at my Needle

Before I read The Scarlet Letter, I made assumptions about it. First, I assumed that it was a novel designed to draw the reader into a position of sympathy for adultery. Second, I thought that if a woman was condemned to wear a letter "A" sewn to the bodice of her gown and made to live as an outcast for the rest of her life, it would make no sense for her to stay around town.

As for my first assumption -- well, I needn't have worried. Regardless of whatever liberties screenwriters may have taken in depicting this American classic for the masses, there is not a hint of impropriety to be found in Hawthorne's words. It was also a relief to note that Hester Prynne was not quite the blatant adulteress that I expected her to be -- her husband was presumed dead when her indiscretion occurred.

And for my second assumption -- the question keeps coming up among my blog-friends, "Why did Hester stay?" Jeannette, at A Classic Case of Madness, wrote a thought-provoking post on it. You can read it here. I think it is a very good question. If you can't answer that question, The Scarlet Letter would be pointless. The plot would dissolve the instant she walked away.

Of course, she didn't walk away. She stayed.

I came to The Scarlet Letter expecting a novel about shame or "ignominy" as Hawthorne liked to call it; what I got was a novel about fortitude. Hester Prynne was the kind of woman who could have taken lemons and made lemonade. She took that letter "A" which was supposed to stand for "adultery" and over time, turned it into "A" for "able."

In chapter three, "The Recognition," we find a scene rife with conflict. The tension is coming from every direction: the sanctimonious townspeople, stern officials, the "figure on the outskirts of town," the crying baby, the "unadulterated sunshine," the ambivalent minister, and Hester's own conscience. 

Suddenly Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale is the one questioning Hester about the identity of the baby's father. (The reader already knows -- he is the father!) It's a tangled web. I was wondering, What in the world is this man going to say? Yet Hawthorne pulls the scene off brilliantly.

I'm not going to disclose all of the dialogue that ensues. It's the one scene in the book that brought me to tears. (Perhaps it was also all that tension mounting; I was bound to cry at some point.) He ends his interrogation of Hester with this:

Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!

After pondering the novel for a few days, what I keep coming back to is this: "She will not speak!"  Perhaps she would not speak for the same reason that she would not leave: love

Yes I know that in our culture we've got love and lust all mixed up, saying "love" when we really mean "lust." And yes, some lust did occur in this tale about twelve months before the novel begins. But the fact is: I read a novel about adultery and it didn't make me feel dirty. Somewhere along the way -- perhaps in the prison cell where one would expect the seeds of bitterness to grow -- at some point she began to love him. Understand I mean agape love and not eros. Agape expects nothing in return:

My child must seek a Heavenly father, for she will not know an earthly one!

She expected nothing from Arthur, yet she chose to remain near him.
I remember something my aunt once said to me when I was in my teens: "When you become physically intimate with someone, you create a bond --  a rope-- that's very difficult to break; when you have a child with someone, the rope becomes an iron chain." It's interesting that Hawthorne used this same metaphor:

The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.
-spoiler alert-

Hester does eventually leave. But not until after Arthur has died. Several times in the novel she asserts that she has remained true to him.  

And as for her scarlet letter -- she wore it as proudly as a bride would have worn her wedding band.

Have you ever come to a novel with preconceived ideas which turned out to be false?

Do you have another opinion of Hester Prynne? Why do you think she stayed?


  1. Wow. This post is so beautiful, both for the heart and the eye. I might have to reread it several times.

  2. Oops, I posted my comment before I was done rambling, Oh, and this is Christina, by the way, I still haven't figured out how to change what I accidentally set up as a default. *sigh*

    Well, now I've totally forgotten what I was going to say, except that last line about wearing her A like a wedding band completely blew me away. Genius. Gorgeous Genius is what that was.

  3. Thank you so much Christina.

    As soon as I clicked "publish" I was flooded with doubt. I mean, I don't understand WHY she loved Arthur with
    his tremulous mouth and utter lack of courage. But that's what agape does - loves the unlovely.

    To each her own!

  4. Beautiful post and the idea of agape love is a great reason for staying. Much better than what I've been mulling around, which is that Hester thought that by staying she could earn her own way to heaven; that by penance she would be cleansed and found worthy (of Dimmesdale as well as of heaven). Remember Hester's last words to Dimmesdale in chapter 23? "Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!"

    I don't know. I'm still pondering. But I like your ideas better right now! :)


  5. Sorry to comment here, but there's no way to comment at your Classics Club list. I just wanted to say I'm excited you're joining us, and don't forget to link your list here:

    So other can check out your progress. Cheers, Adriana! :)

    (Also, this post is beautiful. I too see great strength in Hester. Her choice to stay is not a weakness, in my opinion. Not at all.)

  6. Jillian - thank you for all the effort you have put into creating "The Classics Club". You are such an encouragement to others.

    Blessings on your own quest!

  7. Like Christina, I read your post a few times--savoring it.

    I chucked at your "not feeling dirty" line.

    I think it's a good thing that Hester's love developed into agape because she certainly did not get anything in return from Dimmesdale. He never seems to think about what the seven years of public rejection has been like for her. Even at his death he asks God to forgive Chillingworth but to Hester he says, "Farewell."

    Farewell? No apology? No expression of love? A long paragraph saying that they sinned and that it is a good thing that God sent him torture so that he could die in "triumphant ignominy." Does he think his shameful death brings him salvation?

    Hester was faithful to Dimmesdale, but I think Dimmesdale only loved himself. Perhaps seven years of living with his sin changed him from the man he had been when he and Hester first met?

    I loved how you included the embroidery with this post. Lovely.

  8. I agree with you Christine -- Dimmesdale did not love Hester. He was dependent upon her strength though because he was a such a weak person.

    It really bugged me how he justified his silence -- as if God could not get by without his good works!

    Interesting - your point about his last words. I had not thought of that.

    Thanks for sharing:)

  9. I read the Scarlett Letter many years ago, but you have added new meaning to it for me through this post. Thanks for reading and sharing with such depth of insight. Gail

  10. Thank you so much Gail.
    I really enjoyed visiting your blog today.

  11. I read The Scarlett Letter a few years ago. I wish that I could have discussed it with you then. You have lent some depth to it that I missed back then. :)

  12. Hope you will join me for a future novel Christine!

  13. Thank you for linking me to this post, Adriana. It's a lovely one! I too read "The Scarlet Letter" sometime late last year, and loved and respected the character of Hester. I don't think I came into this novel with any preconceived notions. If anything I hadn't a clue what it was all about.

    I found Hester's strength admirable, though. ...okay, I was just going through my review of "The Scarlet Letter" and I hope you don't mind if I copy paste certain sections here, because they were written at the time the book was fresh in my mind.

    *spoiler alert for those who haven't read this book*

    -- One then wonders if Hawthorne is being judgmental of Hester’s adultery. But as one moves on one sees that all three principal characters (excluding Pearl) are being severely punished for their sins – Hester and her lover for the same reason, and Hester’s husband for his seeking revenge, and in such a devious manner at that! And yet, one sees redemption for both Hester and her lover as they both try to make up for their ‘crime’ – she in her penance, love, and charity for the poor, and he for the final step he takes in confessing to the whole town his part in the affair and his acknowledgement of Hester and his daughter. [...] it’s amazing to see how much Hester grows in her isolation. She becomes a spectator and she is better able to view things in a light otherwise not seen when within the narrowed confines of convention. Therefore, she is able to deal with her pain so much better, while still empathising with the agony her lover goes through. [...] I don’t think Hawthorne is for adultery. He obviously condemns it. But as is said in the Bible one is to hate the sin but love the sinner, and that’s what Hawthorne seems to be doing. He loves Hester. He is all for her. He stands by her, sometimes gently mocking the puritan townsfolk for their blinders. For their own hypocrisies that they cover through condemning others. For their tendency to point at the ‘speck’ in their brother’s eye than to deal with the ‘plank’ in their own. Hester realises all this from her outsider’s position, and she learns to love the townsfolk even more for these faults of theirs. She understands that they are all of them alike in their many sins, and pities them for their inability to see what she can see. --

    Oh, and that sampler looks lovely! I'm looking for something pretty and not too complicated (for me) to do for my cousin who's getting married in December...

    1. Lovely review Risa! Nicely done.

      I'm so glad we've connected! As for the wedding sampler -- I made that in my single days. I doubt I will ever be able to approach a project with that many stitches again!

      I can't help but notice your knowledge of Scripture. I've lately been paying close attention to the great debt that classic literature owes to the Bible. I've just begun to collect a list of Biblical themes, though the full influence in incalculable. I love your insights.

    2. Yes, I very often find, when reading the classics, that one can't help but be reminded of the Bible. It's amazing how much one's faith influences one's writing. Makes the lack of religion in today's works even mor noticeable I think...and it shows in a way of something major missing... :(


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