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.
. . . When Hester is released from prison she takes up her abode in a lonely cabin by the seaside, where she maintains herself and child by needlework. Her poetic imagination and inventive genius find outlet in her employment, and her embroidery becomes the fashion. Her child is a perfect incarnation of the spirit of beauty-a wild, fitful, impulsive little sprite, who is even in babyhood attracted by the blazing insignia on her mother's sombre dress. This becomes a bitter portion of Hester's punishment, and every fit of passion in little Pearl the author attributes to the circumstances of her birth-paints the child's fitful spirit as a mark of Divine displeasure, on account of the law broken by her parents. Whenever mother and child appear they are greeted by the Puritans, old and young, with cold and silent contempt, or hootings and epithets of infamy. If they appeared in church, all shrank from them, and the language of every one was, "Come not near me! I am holier than thou!" In no crowd did Hester stand in fear of being jostled. She was the moral leper whom no one dared to touch-the blazing emblem of the virtuous indignation of an entire community. Yet Hester went quietly on her way. Was any sick, or suffering in great distress, Hester was there to administer to every want. Even scorn and insults from those she aided did not drive her from their side while aid was wanted, but that time past she never recognized them more. Did gratitude prompt them to notice her kindly in public, she laid her finger to her scarlet letter-the emblem of her shame, and passed on in silence. So the years sped, and after a while she acquired the title of "our Hester," and many said the A upon her breast meant Able, she was so strong to assist and comfort. In the mean time poor Dimmesdale underwent most terrible penance from the serpent-cunning of his old tormentor-the lashings of conscience and the enthusiastic admiration of his parishioners. He becomes a monomaniac and one night at midnight and during a storm, he goes and mounts the pillory, there alone and unseen to undergo the ordeal Hester had passed. Here Hester and Pearl find him as they return from a death-bed. They go up and sit with him there, and the old doctor comes to witness the scene. This showed Hester the abject state to which her weak lover was reduced, and she resolves to free him from the fangs of the old serpent, the doctor So she meets him in the forest and reveals the identity of the doctor and former husband--advises, urges him to fly to Europe, and offers to accompany him. A plan is fixed upon, and he falls into a state of fiendish excitement, which to us appears somewhat preposterous. He is strangely impelled to blaspheme and swear, indulge in brutal jests, and mock at every thing he believes to be sacred! In this frame of mind he composes a sermon to be preached on the occasion of the installation of a new governor. This sermon is a miracle and electrifies collected thousands. In the crowd without stands Hester, at the foot of the pillory, within sound of his voice, and surrounded by the circle of infamy which kept all from approaching within some yards. Here she learns their plan of flight has been discovered and frustrated by the old doctor, and stood in her despair when her lover came out of the church, tottering and pale, surrounded by admiring, almost worshipping thousands. When he sees Hester he approaches and asks her to aid him in ascending the scaffold. They and Pearl go up, and there to the electrified crowd he proclaims his guilt, and dies. The old doctor had now nothing to live for, and soon died, leaving Pearl heiress to a large fortune. Pearl's nature appears changed from the time other father's death, and she becomes gentle, affectionate-comprehensible. She and her mother disappear for some years, and then Hester returns to the cabin alone. It is supposed from signs that Pearl is the wife of some nobleman in a foreign land, but Hester voluntarily returns, takes up her old badge of shame, lives and dies in the cabin by the sea side, and finally sleeps beside her lover.
When one has read the book the query is, "what did the author mean! What moral lesson did he want to inculcate? What philosophy did he mean to teach?"
If he meant to teach the sinfulness of Hester's sin-the great and divine obligation and sanctity of a legal marriage contract, and the monstrous depravity of a union sanctioned only by affection, his book is the most sublime failure of the age. Hester Prynne stands morally, as Saul did physically amongst his contemporaries, the head and shoulders taller than the tallest. She is the most glorious creation of fiction that has ever crossed our path. We never dreamed of any thing so sublime as the moral force and grandeur other character. Scott's Jeanie Deans sinks into insignificance beside her. Jane Eyer is a chip floating with the current of popular opinion, while Hester rows her boat up from the brink of the Niagara, and lands at Buffalo as calm and self-possessed as ordinary people from a ride on the "raging canal.' The Divines and Elders and Governors and Magistrates and honorably married dames of her day look like pasteboard puppets beside breathing men and women, when they come in contact with "their Hester." What one instinctively blames her for is, that she did not save her poor imbecile lover from the persecutions of the old sinner who was putting him to death by slow tortures. She should have protected Dimmesdale as well as kept his secret. It was not like herself to desert him, and leave him in the embrace of such a wily old serpent.
. . . If Hawthorne really wants to teach the lesson, ostensibly written on the pages of his book, he had better try again. For our part if we knew there was such another woman as Hester Prynne in Boston now, we should travel all the way there to pay our respects, while the honorable characters of the book are such poor affairs it would scarce be worth while throwing a mud-ball at the best of them.