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Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:

Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)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 addition to examining the development of Hester as a character, a feminist analysis might also consider her role as a mother. In Hawthorne's day, a woman's highest calling was motherhood. She was expected to be the first teacher of her children, their first and most profound moral and spiritual guide. A woman declared an unfit mother was thus a failure in the defining role of her life, and Hawthorne projects this threat of failure back to Hester's day. Because Hester's role as a mother results from an immoral act, those around her have grave doubts about her suitability to raise a child. The fact that she does not follow the dominant child-rearing practices of her day that relied upon strict regulation and corporal punishment, instead allowing Pearl to exert her own will, increases concern. This makes Hester's anxiety over her custody of Pearl all the more pointed in her confrontation at the Governor's house.

To a feminist critic, this confrontation is most revealing. An episode that brings together the figures prominent in the first scaffold scene, the confrontation at the Governor's house has no audience. Unlike the stark and forbidding scaffold that exposes Hester to public view, the Governor's house has a 'cheery aspect,' illuminated by its ornate decoration. This appearance creates a pleasant impression inconsistent with what awaits Hester. She has learned that members of the community, including the Governor, wish to take Pearl from her so that Pearl will be reared according to Puritan expectations. In addition to the Governor, those present include the Reverend Wilson and the Reverend Dimmesdale. By arraying before Hester the authorities of this theocracy, Hawthorne reveals that the power of the Puritan state is exercised in the private as well as the public realm. He also visually demonstrates the link between gender and power.

During the scene that ensues, the men direct their questions not to Hester, as they had earlier, but to Pearl, attempting to discern whether she has learned some of the catechism or whether she is an 'elf-child.' When Pearl, despite Hester's best efforts with her, tells the questioners that she was not made by God but 'plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses' (213), Wilson feels they have all the evidence they need to take the child from Hester. This threatened loss of the one thing that provides her with a sense of purpose in life provokes an outburst from Hester in contrast to her silence on the scaffold. When Hester endured exposure on the scaffold, she asked for no help, drawing upon her own strength to sustain her. However, this assault upon her fitness as a mother forces her to acknowledge her weakness before the patriarchy. She calls upon Dimmesdale, as her former pastor, to help her make her case. He explains that God meant Pearl as a blessing and a retribution, so that Pearl serves as a complement to the scarlet letter. This makes Hester's custody acceptable to the Governor and Wilson.

The mother-daughter relationship is important to feminist critics because it provides opportunities to investigate alternatives to male-defined relationships. Pearl is the one figure upon whom Hester can lavish her affections, and she relies upon Pearl to give purpose to her life. Hester feels that her life has been marked by false steps; to lose Pearl would be the ultimate sign of her downfall. She often questions whether any part of herself has been transmitted to her daughter, especially when Pearl seems to ignore her. However, Pearl's at- tempts to fashion the letter A upon her own dress emphasize a connection through the body of mother and daughter. It also suggests that Pearl looks to her mother as a significant model of womanhood, even though Hester does not embody all of the feminine traits valued by their culture. The narrator's remarks at the end reveal that Hester's relationship with her daughter proved to be enduring and sustaining" (85-86).




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