Thursday, March 7, 2013

How to Overcome a Social Stigma Like Hester Prynne

Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity. 

~ Erving Goffmansociologist

I first published this post last March after I finished reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Since then it has been picked up by searches more times than any other post on this blog. Originally it included the words, "shame punishment." Those two words have received the most hits. Other searches have contained the words, "social stigma overcome" and "deal with social stigma how to."
Condemned adulteress forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" as a badge  of shame., with this unattended walk from her prison door, began the daily custom; and she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or sink beneath it. ~Nathaniel HawthorneThe Scarlet Letter

What does the character of Hester Prynne have to show us about overcoming a social stigma? 

1.Walk tall.
Never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like...than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.
2. Take the heat.

Hester stood on her pedestal,
...with the hot, mid-day sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival, staring at [her] features...
3. Let unkind words roll off. 

The elder clergyman gave a long discourse on sin, pointing directly at Hester as the object of his lesson:
Hester Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with glazed eyes, and an air of weary indifference. She had borne, that morning, all that nature could endure... the voice of the preacher thundered remorselessly, but unavailingly, upon her ears.
And though often verbally assaulted,
she never responded to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson that rose irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsided into the depths of her bosom. She was patient...
4. Keep a low profile.

She established herself with her infant child on the outskirts of town in a cottage,

  . . . not in close vicinity to any other habitation.

5. Stay busy. 

Skilled in needlework, Hester worked diligently to provide for her infant and for herself:

...she had ready and fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle.

6. Help others.
Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not infrequently insulted the hand that fed them.
7. Be patient.
Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility. In this matter of Hester Prynne, there was neither irritation nor irksomeness. She never battled with the public, but submitted uncomplainingly to its worst usage...
Such helpfulness was found in her,-- so much power to do and power to sympathize,-- that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.

What became of Hester Prynne in the end?

Individuals ... had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since. 'Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?' they would say to strangers. 'It is our Hester,-- the town's own Hester, who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!'

What about you? Have you ever felt stigmatized?

What words of encouragement do you have for a person who is living under the burden of a social stigma?


  1. I may just have to stick this list on my bathroom mirror. Social Stigma or no, this seems like worthy advice.

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne is not my favorite author, but I did find his development of Hester Prynne inspiring. Thanks Christina!

  3. Great list. Way to apply a really tough lesson.

  4. I'd like to be worthy of wearing Hester's letter. The lessons you draw from Hawthorne's work is a wonderful guide for us all, Adriana.

    1. Hawthorne created a great role model for us. HP is one of my favorite characters. She didn't let her circumstance sink her -- She swam! Then she showed others how to swim too.

  5. Fascinating post with such good insights. How ironic that a person people might start out pitying and/or ostracizing would become someone worth emulating.

    1. Such a hopeful thought isn't it? Time heals and renews. I love this line I heard in a sermon once:

      "Your present condition is not your final condition."

    2. This is a great posting. I'm currently having difficulties with two seemingly jealous co-workers, and this lesson is a great encouragement and reminder of how to continue. Thank you!

    3. I'm SO glad this post spoke to your need! I first published it about a year ago and Blogger just decided to repost it out of the blue today. We bloggers call it a "ghost post" when that happens. I thought about taking it down and then I just said, "Oh well, maybe it will be useful for someone today." So I guess it was meant for you, D! :D Blessings!

  6. Hi Adriana, This is one of your posts that I saved for when I had time to comment, although I'm not sure even now if I'm going to be able to say well what I'd like to say. So, yeah, being a Christian who suffers from depression has a stigma attached to it. There are many who are understanding, but I never know when I'm going to come across someone who makes me feel like a second-class Christian. I started my blog in the hope that other sufferers would read what I've written and be encouraged. Here's what I've said in my post entitled A Missionary: "The message that I want to bring is one of affirmation and hope. Depression does not mean that God has abandoned you; it does not mean that you are not a very good Christian. God can sustain you during depression as He can with any other illness; He is a great source of comfort and of healing. Many times Christians with depression are too ashamed to admit it to other believers, for fear of being ostracized. I want those 12 million women (and all the men as well) to know that instead of feeling that they can’t come to God when they are depressed (because they think that He’ll be angry with them), they can bring all of their feelings, good, bad and indifferent, to God and His grace is big enough to handle those feelings."
    Thanks for giving me a chance to share. If you'd like to see the rest of that post, it's at
    I'm reading your posts about your silent retreat. Keep writing! Love in Christ, Maureen

    1. Dear Maureen, Thank you very much for your comment and the link to your post. Wow. You are indeed a missionary! I'm really moved by your courage and humility. I can say along with you: "If I hadn’t known depression, I would not be able to comfort those with depression." Being judged and stigmatized (when you are already down!) is really painful. Thank you for your message of affirmation and hope. ♥


Comments make my day! I read each one and try to respond within 24 hrs. If you choose to comment anonymously, please leave your first name, pen name, or nickname in the comment box along with your comment. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!