Hawthorne in Salem Search Hawthorne in Salem

Facebook Page


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.

. . . Reviewing The subject' importance to The Scarlet Letter, the reader notes that the subject of the introductory, "The Custom-House," is the narrator's conflict between his wage-earning work as a bureaucrat and his struggle as a writer attempting to recapture lost inspiration. His story is played out against that of other Custom House inhabitants who neglect their work-from the old Inspector whose fitting vocation had been that of a soldier to the lesser functionaries who spend their working hours at home in bed or snoozing in their chairs. Only when the narrator loses his work and his wages can he then resume his vocation as writer. Similarly, the theme of work pervades the story of Hester which follows. The three major characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, represent each of the vocations of which Hawthorne so often wrote: artist, minister, and scientist. Chapter headings in the novel which identify characters by their work, accentuate the theme of work: "Hester at Her Needle," "The Elf-child and the Minister," "The Leech," "The Leech and His Patient," "The Minister's Vigil," "Hester and the Physician," "The Pastor and His Parishioner," and "The Minister in a Maze." Hester's work, which includes that of seamstress and sister of mercy, both saves her and fosters her self-delusion, joins and separates her from the community.

Coincidentally, 1850 was the year when Louisa May first read The Scarlet Letter and when she first "went out to service" to make her living outside her family domicile, the beginning of several years of hard domestic service which formed the subject matter other novel Work.

The similarities between Hawthorne's seventeenth-century seamstress and Alcott's nineteenth-century seamstress (based on her mother's experiences and hers) are remarkable. Both Hester and Christie enter the scene without supportive families, Hester's being across the ocean in England and Christie's being dead. Both women work in Boston; both are seamstresses; both are pushed to the point of suicide by their trials; both are betrayed by men; both are sisters of charity to the sick, poor, and dying; both raise their daughters without the help of husband or lover and devote themselves to troubled women in the end.

Similarly, many of Alcott's women protagonists in what she called her lurid fictions are identified by occupation, and Work is a narrative of the labors of its heroine, labors which include housekeeper, governess, nurse and companion, seamstress, and actress. As Hester finds some solace in her work, so does Christie.

In Hester, Hawthorne also gave Alcott the model for Christie as a strong, independent female survivor. Both heroines declare their independence, grow in endurance through their independent labors, survive work in hostile environments, and defy the expectations of the patriarchy, represented by Governor Bellingham and Reverend John Wilson in The Scarlet Letter and by Christie's disagreeable old uncle in Work.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12158/

About US Privacy Policy Copyright Credits Site Map Site Help