Gender in Hawthorne
The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes place in a Puritan town where the townspeople value chastity, piety, and a strict moral code. However in the beginning of the book Hester, the main character, violates all of these three values held dear by the Puritans. Not only has she fallen because she has had a sexual relationship with someone; she also has a child to attest to her crime. The role of women in this novel is very typical for this time; women are supposed to be self sacrificing, silent suffering, virtuous, chaste, and reserved; even though Hester has fallen from grace she still possess these characteristic of a “typical” woman seen throughout the novel. Hawthorne is using typical gender roles to reinforce the ideal characteristics of women to its readers.
In the quote “Hester Prynne would speak out the guilt name; or else that the guilty one himself, in whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend the scaffold. Hester shook her head” (Hawthorne 63). This is a quote of a silent suffering, self sacrificing women that Hawthorne is trying to convey to his readers. One that is not willing to criminate anyone else for her crime, she must be willing to bear the burden alone; even if the burden is to raise a child alone and to be out casted by her community. In the novel she doesn’t even think about naming the man, that is the extent that women must be willing to go to, to be considered a woman in his eyes. Hester doesn’t try to challenge or to change the ways women are viewed in the book, but rather Hawthorne uses her to make the women conform to this identity in a new world where there was a chance gender roles could have been changed. Hester took the honorable and correct path to acknowledging her sins and is later rewarded. This is almost a recipe for women; if you suffer and are sacrificing, good things will come your way.
Another quote that shows the self sacrificing and silently suffering Hester is “Had Hester sinned alone?” (Hawthorne 83). There is this sense of a double standard for women, it’s obvious that Hester didn’t sin alone because it’s not possible and yet in her case they are willing to entertain the idea. Women since the beginning of time have been seen as the root of all evil, the community doesn’t’ want to think that any of their men have fallen but it’s plausible and even accepted that a women as fallen. Men are allowed and even expected to be promiscuous but a women has to be chaste, this is expressed in this quote. This quote not only shows the double standard that exists for women but it doesn’t do anything to negate that standard. In the end she is left to suffer alone and to be the object of scorn for the community until the very end of the novel when Dimmesdale owns up for his part in the creation of Pearl. This quote works the same way that the other quote does, it’s meant to be advice and taken literally for women and men of the time as standards for moral conduct.
The second quote that illustrates characteristics of women is seen in the quote, “By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion…her needlework was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby’s little cap…” (80). Not only must Hester be seen as self sacrificing and silently suffering, she also has to have a useful skill to earn her living by working for the people that scorn her. This quote further illustrates what Hester has to go through on a daily basis. She is still scorned by her community because of her downfall but on top of that she still has to make a living and that living is working for the people that look down upon her. Her lively hood relies entirely on her ability to embroider, which is a very feminine trait; a feminine trait that she just so happens to be very skilled at. This is also an example of instilling gender stereotypes on women during this time by Hawthorne. He is calling attention to the fact that embroidery is valued and praised by the community so that readers will understand that as being something to be desired in real life by both men and women. Hester brings beauty to an otherwise cold world that could be mirrored in the real lives by the first settlers.
This last quote also is imperative to understand gender roles and expected characteristics of women during this time.
“Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone a similar change. It might be partly owing to the studied austerity of her dress, and partly to the lack of demonstration in her manners. It was a sad transformation, too…there seemed to be no longer anything in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon; nothing in Hester’s form, though majestic and statue-like, that Passion would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in Hester’s bosom to make it ever again the pillow of Affection. Some attribute had departed from her, the permanence of which had been essential to keep her a woman. Such is frequently the fate, and such the stern development, of the feminine character and person, when the woman has encountered, and lived through, an experience of peculiar severity” (Hawthorne 160).
This quote practically describes all that women should be. According to this quote and to Hawthorne, a woman should be well mannered, majestic, and beautiful to be considered a woman. However this quote seems to be contradicting the fact that earlier he said that women should be silent suffering, and self sacrificing. In this quote Hawthorne addresses the fact that suffering has made her beauty deteriorate and that her suffering has also made her lose her feminine charms. Hester only regains this feminine charm when she sees Dimmesdale in the forest and they both have come up with a plan to run away and to be together. This contributes to the notions that women have to be dependent on a man to survive in life. Her life isn’t complete or full because even though she has a daughter and makes a reasonable living, she doesn’t have a husband to keep her from losing her looks and to govern over her and give her life direction. Hawthorne is taking this opportunity to reinforce the idea that there is no life outside of the home for women unless they want to run the risk of turning into an old maid before their time.
To conclude, Hawthorne using the opportunity to use Hester to demonstrate the characteristics of a desirable women and to reaffirm the gender stereotypes in a time when they could have been rewritten. To Hawthorne a woman should be self sacrificing, silent suffering, virtuous, chaste, and reserved, well mannered, majestic, and beautiful. These characteristics are shown through Hester throughout the novel through her actions and her interactions with the community in which she lives in.
- Here is a painting that was inspired by The scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: http://art.thewalters.org/detail/25737/the-scarlet-letter/
- Here is an article for further reading about Hawthorn and his daughter that inspired the gender roles and behavior of Pearl in the novel: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0030-8129%28198805%29103%3A3%3C285%3ANHUHAT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-D
- Here is a website for further reading about Hawthorne: