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Critical Commentary Related to Female Characters in The Scarlet Letter"

"Hester at her needle"
"Hester at her needle" (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)

Criticism Related to Hester Prynne

  • In The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Moore comments upon Hawthorne's sympathy toward and admiration of women, as shown in his treatment of Hester Prynne.

  • In her lecture "Hawthorne and 'the sphere of ordinary womanhood,'" Melinda Ponder considers the relationships with women from Hawthorne's personal life that influenced his treatment of female characters in fiction.

  • In "Hawthorne and 'the sphere of ordinary womanhood,'" Ponder also looks at the experiences of Hawthorne's mother and how they influenced his shaping of Hester's character.
  • In her lecture "Work and Money in Hawthorne's Fiction," Claudia Johnson remarks on Hester's role as an artist and the guilt both she and Hawthorne feel from taking pleasure in their artistic creations.

  • In his lecture "The Meanings of Hawthorne's Women," Richard Millington suggests that Hawthorne's "heroic women," such as Hester Prynne, explore the possibility of an ethical life through both engagement with the community and challenges to its values.

  • In the essay "Discord in Concord: National Politics and Literary Neighbors" in Hawthorne and Women, Claudia Durst Johnson draws connections between Hester Prynne and Christie Devon, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott's novel Work.

  • In the essay "'Such a Hopeless Task Before Her: Some Observations on the Fiction of Hawthorne and Gilman" in Hawthorne and Women, Denise D. Knight links the author and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Hawthorne's Hester Prynne.

  • In the essay " Bourgeois Sexuality and the Gothic Plot in Wharton and Hawthorne" in Hawthorne and Women, Monika Elbert links Hester Prynne to Gothic elements in The Scarlet Letter and explores how Hawthorne desexes Hester by making her "shadowlike" and ghostly.

  • In an 1850 review of The Scarlet Letter in The Saturday Visiter (reprinted in Hawthorne and Women), Jane Swisshelm praises the character of Hester Prynne, highlighting her strength and her moral stature.

  • In another 1850 review of The Scarlet Letter that appeared in the Massachusetts Quarterly Review (reprinted in The Recognition of Nathaniel Hawthorne), George Bailey Loring also praises Hester's strength and her superiority to those around her.

  • In Hawthorne: A Critical Study, Hyatt Waggoner explores the connections between Hester and the natural landscape.

  • Nina Baym, in her essay "Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist" in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, explores Hester's role as a mother and the way it empowers her and redefines her in the novel.

Criticism Related to Pearl

Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)
  • In "A Literary Analysis of The Scarlet Letter" (pp. 4-6, 8), Johnson explores how Pearl and her reactions to the scarlet letter clarify the meaning of the symbol. "Creativity, passion, and joy" as well as nature, truth and honesty are elements that embody the letter A as shown by Pearl's behavior, curiosity, and personality. Unlike Pearl, the elders of the community see the letter as "red and devilish."

  • In "A Literary Analysis of The Scarlet Letter" (pp. 17-19), Johnson indicates that Pearl recognizes Chillingworth's connection with Satan and that Pearl (despite her Satanical reputation) is not physical deformed like Chillingworth but beautiful. Johnson insists Pearl is not a daughter of Satan.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter and the Puritans," "Crime and Punishment," and "Issues in the 1980's and the 1990's" (pp. 36-37, 76-77, 200-202), Johnson reveals how the powerful political and religious figures try to control where Hester and Pearl live and who should have custody of the child.

    • Johnson discusses in "Crime and Punishment" how Pearl is in defiance of the Puritanical laws which deny "mirth," "independent thinking," and "sexuality."

    • In "Issues in the 1980's and 1990's," Johnson indicates that contrary to what powerful Puritanical authorities believe that Pearl "saves Hester from abandoning herself to the darkest elements of human nature."

    • Also in "Issues in the 1980's and 1990's," Johnson also cites several recent custody cases that show how today's courts still decide on who is the most fit custodian of a child.

  • In "Anne Hutchinson and Hester Prynne" (p. 93) Johnson connects "how both women are accused of delivering children fathered by the devil."

  • In "The Scarlet Letter and the Puritans" (pp.39-40) Johnson describes how Hester and Pearl are always outside civilization on the edge of the wilderness and how this causes Pearl to be wild and "uncontrollable."
Excerpts from chapters from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa McFarland Pennell (courtesy of Greenwood Press)
  • In "Hawthorne's Career and Contributions" (p. 21) Pennell describes how critics have connected Hester and Pearl to Sethe and Denver in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, with significant differences. All four live as outcasts, and both children are "a source of pain and comfort" to their mothers.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 74) Pennell contrasts Hester's drab outfits with Pearl's blood red clothes, suggesting that Pearl "is a living version of the letter." Like Johnson, Pennell demonstrates how the "A" has multiple interpretations.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (pp. 77-78) Pennell paints a portrait of Pearl, "the most complex character of the romance." She highlights Pearl's name, her supposed connection to Satan, her spontaneity and mischievousness, and her isolation and truthfulness, both disconnecting her from the Puritan values and community.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 82) Pennell explains how thematically Nature plays a complex role in The Scarlet Letter; specifically, Pennell shows nature both as comfort to lonely Pearl and a reflection or mirror of Pearl's untamed, "heathen" spirit.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 83) Pennell, like Johnson (above) explores Pearl's symbolic relationship to and fascination with the letter A, whether it is scarlet or a natural green.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (pp. 85-86)) Pennell explores feminist criticism of the The Scarlet Letter as it relates to the propriety of Hester's custody of Pearl, which is challenged in the scene at the governor's mansion. Pennell reveals an enduring relationship between Hester and Pearl. Hester can openly love her daughter and find purpose in her life through raising her daughter. Pearl finds a strong role model in her mother.

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 72-73) Pennell shows how Hawthorne casts Pearl in the role of forcing Hester and Dimmesdale to face the reality of their situation as they taste freedom in the forest scene. In the second scaffold scene Pearl confronts Dimmesdale, saying, "Thou wast not true." In the final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale publicly acknowledges Hester and Pearl while confiding that their sufferings "served God's purpose."

  • In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 80) Pennell demonstrates how Dimmesdale relates to Pearl as a minister not a father.
Excerpts from Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition edited by John L. Idol, Jr. and Melinda M. Ponder (courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press)
  • Jane Swisshelm, in her review of The Scarlet Letter published in The Saturday Visiter in 1850 (pp. 289-291), describes Pearl as "a wild, fitful, impulsive little sprite" (289) who is obsessively attracted to Hester's scarlet letter and cruelly shunned by the contemptuous Puritans.

  • Swisshelm summarizes the final scaffold scene and Pearl's future in a former land (289-290).

  • Finally, Swisshelm mocks Hawthorne's suggestion that Pearl was sent to punish her sinning mother. She suggests Hester deserves all respect while "it would scarce be worth while throwing a mud-ball at the best of [the other characters]" (290-291).

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