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Subverting the Subversive: Hawthorne’s Containment of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

by Melissa McFarland Pennell
University of Massachusetts Lowell

Dr. Melissa Pennell, Chair, Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA
Dr. Melissa Pennell, Chair, Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA (photography by Lou Procopio)

The discussion of Hawthorne’s treatment of and sympathy for female characters continues to energize critical arguments about his work. A quick search of the MLA bibliography yields 128 entries under “Hawthorne and Women” (not all treat fictional subjects) and another 111 on female characters in the tales and romances. Why such interest in these characters and Hawthorne’s relationships to them? Was Hawthorne a progressive social critic who saw the patriarchal culture of his own day as one that oppressed women and men? Is it, as Richard Millington suggests in a talk delivered for the Hawthorne in Salem website that:

“As he creates female characters who are not simply containers for positive values but exemplars of a full and subversive alternative life—Zenobia, Miriam, pre-eminently Hester—Hawthorne, via his implicit repudiation of male flight from such women, indicts the thinness and rigidity of a society that seems at once to induce and endorse such poisonous evasiveness” ?

Or is Hawthorne himself complicit in that evasiveness as he tantalizes the reader with the possibilities inherent within these more fully realized female characters only to contain or eliminate their subversiveness by the end of each romance?

Hawthorne biography does not resolve this conundrum for us. As a number of biographers have shown, Hawthorne had warm and mutually affectionate relationships with women in his life, including his mother, sisters, and other female relatives. Melinda Ponder and John Idol explain that Hawthorne “began his lifelong pattern of writing for women as his first and most important readers when he was thirteen years old” (3), a pattern that continued through his married life. But Hawthorne also had strained and contentious relationships with women in his life, including his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Peabody, and, most famously, Margaret Fuller. Even the self-idealized marriage between Nathaniel and Sophia had its cracks and fissures, for as T. Walter Herbert has revealed in Dearest Beloved, Hawthorne’s “domestic sphere . . . was teeming with covert sexual politics. . . alive with inward debates about the axioms of it own constitution” (5). Herbert goes on to trace how the domestic realm of the Hawthornes “embraced a tradition that set the nurturing qualities of women at odds with the claim to political equality” (9), influencing Hawthorne’s narratives as well as his personal life.

Does Hawthorne’s sympathy toward women in his own life influence the shape of characters in his fiction? Nina Baym asserts in “Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist” that the female characters in many of the tales and the romances “represent desirable and valuable qualities lacking in the male protagonist[s]” (60) of Hawthorne’s fiction, qualities that are inherent in woman’s gender and sexual identity. She further argues that in his depictions of male rejection, mistreatment, or destruction of these female characters, Hawthorne presents an indictment of the concepts of manhood and masculinity of his day. Does Hawthorne in fact achieve what Richard Millington calls “the heroic possibility at once evoked and mourned or yearned for through the bleak careers of his heroic women, . . . of a more freely chosen, more adequately imagined, more powerfully ethical life”? Millington suggests that this possibility is

“clearest in The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester not only keeps alive and at last momentarily expresses a glorious erotic life, but in doing so exemplifies what it might mean to locate a life at once subversive of and engaged with one’s community.”

Does Hawthorne allow Hester to maintain that subversive life, or is she by the end of the romance contained by the code of “true womanhood” that governed the women of Hawthorne’s own day?

The unfolding of Hester Prynne’s story begins in “The Market-Place,” with her public humiliation and condemnation by the community. Hester emerges from her prison cell holding her child, the product of adultery, and wearing the scarlet letter A upon her breast. She mounts the scaffold, where she undergoes a form of torture, more psychological than physical, but as Michel Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish,

Torture forms part of a ritual. It is an element in the liturgy of punishment and meets two demands: It must mark the body of its victim: it is intended, either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy. . . . And, from the point of view of the law that imposes it, public torture . . . must be spectacular, it must be seen by almost all as [the law’s] triumph (34).

Separated from those around her, Hester appears an isolated figure singled out for public censure. The widespread approval of this censure is evident in the responses of the women in the crowd, who, with one exception, feel that the punishment wrought upon Hester has not been harsh enough, that “they should have put the brand of hot iron upon Hester Prynne’s forehead” (SL:162).

Unable to deny her own participation in adultery, Hester is forced to accept a punishment that will perpetually remind her and those around her of her act. The scarlet letter, while not a brand upon her flesh, still marks her as a criminal. But the law is not finished with her. Foucault explains that “the only way this procedure might use all its unequivocal authority, and become a real victory over the accused, . . . was for the criminal to accept responsibility for his own crime” through the act of confession, “an act by which the accused accepted the charge and recognized its truth” (38). As Hester stands before the crowd, she is encouraged to name the father of her child, reminded by her questioners that he too should bear punishment for this sin. Hester refuses to confess his name, and by doing so, resists the pressure upon her to label her actions criminal, to accept this “public truth” as her private truth. In this opening event, Hawthorne engenders the subversive Hester, whose acts of resistance thwart “the ceremonies by which power is manifested” (Foucault 47), both legal and patriarchal.

In this same scene, however, Hawthorne briefly introduces another, opposing Hester, for standing on the scaffold holding Pearl, Hester is likened to an “image of Divine Maternity” or the “sacred image of sinless motherhood” (SL: 166). Monika Elbert in “Hester’s Maternity: Stigma or Weapon” sees in Hester’s mothering a continuation of her subversion of “patriarchal Puritan codes” (193), especially through her decision to embrace single motherhood that allows her to define herself and her role outside the bounds of male expectations. Elbert raises a number of convincing points in her reading of Hester’s maternal role, but I see a tension between the subversive Hester and the maternal Hester that I feel reflects Hawthorne’s ambivalence toward the possibilities of a woman defying what he believes are her natural attributes as a mother. In the “cult of true womanhood” of Hawthorne’s day according to Nancy Cott, while “portrayed as women’s self-fulfillment, motherhood manifested itself in self-denial (91); at crucial moments in the narrative, Hawthorne makes Hester choose between her subversive and her maternal self, and the maternal, self-denying Hester predominates.

In the early years of her isolation, Hester is singled out for verbal abuse and scorn by the clergy, the townspeople, even the children. From the beginning of her solitude, she feels the sting of punishment inflicted upon her, so that “her imagination was somewhat affected” and she fancied that the letter “had endowed her with a new sense” that “gave her sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts” (SL:192). As she spends more time in reflection and introspection, Hester develops independent ways of thinking, assuming a freedom of thought that confirms her rejection of public law and morality. Associated by the narrator with Anne Hutchinson, another figure of rebellion, Hester questions woman’s lot in life. She rejects the social systems that govern woman’s place and believes that her exile gives her the opportunity to ignore them. Out of this thinking comes her strength, so that Hester believes herself more capable of meeting the challenges that confront her.

But Hester cannot escape the scrutiny of the community, especially as it judges her performance as a mother. Because Hester’s condition as a mother results from a “criminal” act, members of the community have grave doubts about her suitability to raise a child. The fact that she does not follow the dominant child-rearing practices of her day, instead allowing Pearl to exert her own will, increases their concern (although Hester’s practices reflect the emerging expectations for mothering in the mid-nineteenth century). When summoned to the Governor’s house to answer inquiries, Hester confronts the figures who dominated the opening scaffold scene, but here Hester’s silence bears little consequence, for the men direct their questions to Pearl. Despite Hester’s best efforts with her, Pearl’s unorthodox answers give her questioners all the evidence they need to take the child from Hester. This threatened seizure of her child, removing the one element that marks her life as having something natural about it, provokes an outburst from Hester in contrast to her silence on the scaffold. This assault upon her fitness as a mother forces her to acknowledge her weakness before the enforcers of the law and the ineffectiveness of her own voice. She calls upon Dimmesdale, as her former pastor, to help her make her case exclaiming, “Speak thou for me! . . .[T]hou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much stronger they are, when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter!” (214). In this moment, the subversive Hester retreats, as the maternal Hester asserts primacy and even claims the badge of her isolation to underscore her need for her child’s company and the purpose it affords her.

This conflict between the subversive Hester and the maternal recurs in the forest scene, which details the second private meeting between Hester and Dimmesdale. A complex scene in which Dimmesdale and Hester recount their sufferings and sorrows, the encounter initially calls forth the subversive Hester. Again refusing to see their love as a crime, Hester pleads that “what [they] did had a consecration of its own.” Her continuing love for Dimmesdale gives him hope and he invokes Hester’s strength to help him, in what many critics have identified as his own plea for mothering. Hester describes avenues of escape through the wilderness or by the sea, as she envisions ways to circumvent the power of the Puritan authorities or their law. When Dimmesdale quakes at the possibility of venturing into the world, Hester reassures him, “Thou shalt not go alone!” (289), suggesting that her strength will sustain them both. Having made this profession, Hester removes the scarlet letter, freeing herself from its painful weight. She also removes her cap, freeing her luxuriant hair and revealing the vitality that still exists at her core, a vitality that signifies the intertwining of the subversive and the sexual. This gestures encompasses the “momentarily expresse[d] . . . glorious erotic life” that Millington notes. But this expression is momentary, for Pearl’s entry into the scene reasserts the demands of motherhood for Hester. Pearl forces Hester to resume the scarlet letter and replace the cap before she will approach, declaring the primacy of Hester’s familiar appearance and identity as “mother” over Hester’s subversive/erotic life.

The cataclysmic final scaffold scene reinforces this assertion of Hester’s maternity over her subversive self. As Monika Elbert notes, Hester becomes “the Mater Dolorosa” (Elbert 192) as she “partly raise[s] [Dimmesdale], and supports his head against her bosom” (SL:338) when he collapses after making his confession before the multitude in his self-orchestrated spectacle. When Hester pleads with Dimmesdale, “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” (SL:339), his silencing “Hush!” effectively curbs her subversive inclinations. In the aftermath of this scene, the conclusion describes Hester’s return to New England where there is “more real life” for her, though she now lives alone. Resuming the scarlet letter of her own accord, Hester becomes a counselor to troubled women, what Elbert identifies as a “communal mother” (182). Her counsel advocates that change for women will come when the world is ready for it, and she has now rejected the role of “prophetess” of a new truth that she had once envisioned for herself. Hester now accepts “the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow” (SL:344), rejecting the subversive self that had once defined her. Instead Hester, or at least the narrator, believes that “The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” (SL:344-45). In this statement, Hawthorne suggests that both Hester and the narrator, and might we even say Hawthorne himself, await, not the prophetess of a new age, but the arrival of the angel in the house.

Melissa McFarland Pennell
University of Massachusetts Lowell

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. “Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist” in American Novelists

     Revisited, ed. Fritz Fleischmann. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. 58-77.

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

Elbert, Monika. “Bourgeois Sexuality and the Gothic Plot in Wharton and Hawthorne.”

     Hawthorne and Women, ed. John L. Idol, Jr. and Melinda M. Ponder. Amherst: U

     Massachusetts Pr, 1999. 258-70.

Elbert, Monika. “Hester’s Maternity: Stigma or Weapon?” ESQ 36 (1990):175-207.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York : Pantheon, 1977.

Herbert, T. Walter. Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class

. Berkeley: U California Press, 1993.

Idol, John L. , Jr. and Melinda Ponder “Introduction.” Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and

     Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition
. Amherst: U Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Millington, Richard. “The Meaning of Hawthorne’s Women.” Scholar’s Forum. Hawthorne

     in Salem (http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10482).

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12184/

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