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How Feminism Faces the Scaffold in The Scarlet Letter

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Woven into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of adultery, betrayal, and love in the Scarlet Letter is a narrative of female empowerment exemplified by Hester Prynne. The main character of Hawthorne’s novel, which was published on this day in 1850, may not be the obvious image of a heroic feminist, however, she successfully rebelled against the male dominated, Puritan social structure of the 17th century in which the book was set. Beyond the blazing scarlet “A” on Prynne’s chest, Hawthorne’s Romantic-era writing is rife with symbolism that celebrates the theme of individuality through Prynne’s own embracement of her femininity.

The Puritan, witchcraft-condemning society of the early New England colony in which Prynne lives is structured by religion and law. It’s a civilization that gives the single mother the death penalty for her adulterous, clandestine relationship with reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Where order rules all, Prynne stands out on more counts than one. Hawthorne emphasizes her shining beauty among the dreary women in the town. Even as she stands on the scaffold for sinners, Prynne remains dignified and gracious. Just as the physical unattractiveness of the townswomen parallels Hawthorne’s negative view of conformity, Prynne’s beauty and femininity illuminates the individuality admired by Romantic thought.

In the domestic space, Prynne finds strength in her role as a single mother. She takes the accepted social models of women’s work and earns respect through them. Prynne must support her family financially, so she turns her skill with needlework into her livelihood. Hawthorne even notes it might have been, “the passion of her life.” The handiwork she applies to the scarlet “A” on her chest shines as an embodiment of her feminine power, rather than a token of shame. Her talent is so widely recognized that the community even begins to respect her work. Corresponding to her redefinition of stereotypical women’s work, through the course of the book, Prynne alters the meaning of the scarlet letter: “Many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.”

The adultery Prynne commits, a sin of passion, results in her daughter Pearl becoming a symbol of this emotion. It’s something unknown by the rigid townspeople, and therefore, condemned by them. The punishment that follows Prynne and Dimmesdale’s affair tests her self-reliance and conviction, but her control over the penance demonstrates that individuals, and especially women, have the ability to redeem themselves. Even as she returns to the colony after starting a new life with Pearl in England, Prynne dons the scarlet letter with pride and is welcomed to the community as a figure of wisdom.

The lessons of Prynne’s trailblazing character have stood the test of time and solidified the story in pop culture. Even in the early 20th century, when women were still establishing their agency in modern society, there were over five film adaptations of The Scarlet Letter by 1920. The tale has been returned to throughout the years, with over a dozen movie renditions being made, plus others loosely inspired by the book. In 2010’s Easy A, Emma Stone portrays Olive Penderghast storming the halls of her high school in a corset with the token scarlet letter emblazoned on the bust. Beyond film, there are numerous retellings of Hawthorne’s work as operas and plays, in addition to many references to the novel in other books, music, TV, and movies. While The Scarlet Letter may not be a work of feminist literature, the protagonist’s strong will and appropriation of her own femininity have made her a historic leading lady.

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