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Hester in The Scarlet Letter

Nina Baym, in her essay "Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist" in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, explores Hester's role as a mother and the way it empowers her and redefines her in the novel.

Although criticism of The Scarlet Letter for a long time took Dimmesdale as the central character, it has more recently reacknowledged what was well understood in Hawthorne's own time, that Hester is protagonist and center. The narrator allies himself with her and, despite occasional adverse judgments, devotes himself to her cause. His cause as narrator is to obliterate her obliteration, to force the reader to accept Hester's reading of her letter as a badge of honor instead of a mark of negation. The narrator forces us, just as Hester forces her Puritan townsmates, to see her as a good woman on her own terms. In contrast to the two distorted male personalities who counterpoise her-the one obsessed with revenge, the other with his own purity-Hester appears almost a miracle of wholeness and sanity. While these men struggle with their own egos and fantasies, she has real battles-to maintain her self-respect in a community that scorns her, to stay sane in solitude, to support herself and her child, to raise that child to normal adulthood despite so many obstacles. Curiously, though she has been cast out of society, Hester remains very much in the world, whereas Chillingworth and Dimmesdale at the very center of society, are totally immured in their self-absorption. In her inner integrity and her outer responsiveness, Hester is a model and a counterstatement.

Cautiously, Hawthorne advances the notion that if society is to be changed for the better, such change will be initiated by women. But because society has condemned Hester as a sinner, the good that she can do is greatly circumscribed. Her achievements in a social sense come about as by-products of her personal struggle to win a place in the society; and the fact that she wins her place at last indicates that society has been changed by her. Might there be in the future a reforming woman who had not been somehow stigmatized by society? Although in his later works Hawthorne was to answer this question negatively, in The Scarlet Letter the possibility, though faint, is there.

There is more to be said about Hester than space allows; let me confine myself to two points: first, the relative insignificance of her relation to Dimmesdale in comparison with her relation to Pearl-the supersession in her portrait of sexual love by maternal love. The downplaying of her passion for Dimmesdale means that--although she continues to love him, and remains in Boston largely on his account-her goodness and her essential nature are not defined by her relation to a man. Hawthorne does not cooperate in the masculine egotism that he excoriates in The Blithedale Romance by making Hester a mere event in the great sum of man. Hester is a self in her own right portrayed primarily in relation to the difficulties in her social situation, in relation to herself, and in relation to Pearl.

Through Pearl, Hester becomes an image of "Divine Maternity" (1:56). But though so signally a mother, she is not a "mother figure." By detaching her from the social milieu that defines and supports the concept of motherhood, Hawthorne is able to concentrate on the relation of Hester to her child without any social implications. In fact, society in this instance wishes to separate the mother and child. By giving her a recalcitrant daughter as child, Hawthorne has even more cleverly set his depiction of motherhood apart from Victorian ideology. What remains is an intense personal relation that expresses Hester's maternal nature in a remarkably role-free way.

But adult love, sexual love, has not been written out of the story by this emphasis, and this is the second point I would stress. At the end of the work Hester expresses the hope "that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of Mutual happiness." The "angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman" who would show "how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!" (SL:263). These are Hester's ideas rather than the narrator's, but he does not distance himself from her at this point. "Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess." Hester could have had this vain imagining only during the very brief period of her secret affair with Dimmesdale, for once she was stigmatized she could have no further hope of living a life such as she describes. But during their affair, she felt that what they did had a consecration of its own-it was this consecration, then, that she wished to put to the test of a lifetime.

Therefore, what Hester means by "sacred love" is really "sexual love," and she looks forward to the time when sex and love can be united by men in one emotion, a time when somehow women can heal the split in the male psyche. As Freud, writing later in the century, was to observe the male inability to feel passion and tenderness toward the same "object," so Hawthorne not many decades earlier found the male's revulsion and fear of sex leading him to separate from women and incapable therefore of love. Hester's letter represents not merely adulterous sex but all sex, and the image of divine maternity becomes even more telling than it seemed at first. Every child testifies to the sexual experience of its mother and is, in a society that finds sex shameful, a shameful object. For Hester to try to return to Dimmesdale by "undoing" her letter is to return to him incompletely, in a manner that denies sex, denies her child. It is no wonder that Pearl objects.

What one senses here--though how opaquely!--is Hawthorne's tentative engagement with the subject of men and their mothers, his suggestion that the relation between men and their mothers was the deepest and most central core of their lives. The great liberation of The Scarlet Letter comes not only from its celebration of a woman, but of a woman who is centrally a mother (73-53).

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