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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.

Along with obsession, the depiction of the "fallen woman"-so sympathetically rendered in the character of Hawthorne's Hester Prynne-is also a common theme in Gilman's fiction and one that she treats with great compassion. Certainly Gilman could relate to Hawthorne's sensitive portrayal of Hester, a single mother condemned and ostracized by her community. Gilman was similarly persecuted when she relinquished custody of her nine-year-old daughter to her ex-husband, Walter Stetson, after accepting a job in a place that would be unsuitable for a child (Living 162). Publicly condemned for her actions and "violently slapped"20 by a longtime acquaintance who objected to her lifestyle, Gilman, like Hester, was similarly branded-as an "unnatural mother." Also like Hester, however, Gilman relied on inner strength to survive the ordeal.

There is, in fact, a strong parallel between Hester's views about the "whole race of womanhood," and the philosophy that Gilman evolved. In chapter 13, "Another View of Hester," Hawthorne's progressive ideas about the ability of women to realize their potential and to transform the world are reflected in Hester's quiet musings, which she perceives as "such a hopeless task before her" (TSL 113). She considers the process through which an egalitarian world might be created:

As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated. A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise of thought. (TSL 113, ch. 13)

Indeed, as Gilman argued, women can overcome these problems only by action. Of course, she also saw the tearing down and rebuilding of society as the means by which egalitarian relationships between men and women might be established. But while Hester can intellectualize the process, she cannot act. Gilman, however, called upon women to take an active role in effecting progressive change, and she chastised those who remained complacent:

Women ought to feel a glorious new pride in their sex, now that it is shown to be the main trunk of the tree of life. They ought to feel an unbounded hope and power in their ability to remake the race and to help manage it on better terms than ever before. And they ought also to burn with shame, deep scorching shame, at the pitiful limitations with which so many of them are still contented.

They have no longer the excuse of ignorance. They have no longer the excuse of helplessness. Our intelligent, educated American women who are not informed of their real duty in life-and doing it-have no real excuse (Idol and Ponder, Hawthorne and Women, 255-56).




Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12159/


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