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
. . . 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
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.