Example Essay on The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is about two characters named Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale who both struggle to overcome societal obstacles after committing the crime of adultery. Dimmesdale struggles with the guilt of his unconfessed sin, while in contrast, Hester embraces her punishment but over time loses her unique character. After Hester is forced to publically wear an “A” on her chest as a form of punishment, she conforms to society’s harsh standards and loses her individuality. Hester’s loss of individuality confirms Hawthorne’s belief that strict societal standards are detrimental to personal growth, making it difficult to adhere to the motto that one should stay true to oneself.
When Hester is first introduced, she has an unflappable sense of individuality and has not conformed to society's standards. Hester Prynne is a confident and secure young women who is not afraid of what others in her town think about her looks, her actions, or her personal decisions. Hester and her love interest, Arthur Dimmesdale, have both sinned in their relationship by committing adultery which is forbidden in their strict, Puritan town. However, only Hester confesses and thus only Hester must pay for their joint crime. Hester is forced to suffer the humiliation of wearing a embroidered “A” (the “A” stands for adultery) on all of her clothes so the whole town is constantly reminded of her sin. Hester is first introduced as she walks out of prison, after giving birth to her daughter Pearl, the child she had as a result of the notorious adultery with Dimmesdale.
True to herself, Hester refuses the apparent kindness of a prison guard as,“she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character” (Hawthorne 45). Hester had enough independence and dignity to “as if by her own free will” (Hawthorne 45), walk out into the town without assistance. Even though Hester suffers inwardly through her punishment, in front of the towns-people, she desperately wants to appear dignified and to hold herself to the standards that she gives herself -- not the standards that others impose on her. In spite of her ordeal her personal growth still develops, and she is capable of being strong on her own for her daughter and herself by not succumbing to society’s harsh criticism of the letter “A”. She stays true to herself and thus her personal growth is developing. Hester makes it clear that she is not afraid to be herself. As a talented seamstress, Hester uses her sewing skills to her advantage by altering the perception of her punishment.
She makes the “A,” which is a negative symbol, into a beautiful adornment on her clothing. When Hester walks out of the prison, the letter “A” is, “so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and including her in a sphere by herself”(Hawthorne 46). Her letter “A,” positioned prominently on her chest, makes her stand out in a ordinary, monotone town. Hester embraces her punishment and uses it to enhance her own resolute character. She is not afraid to own up to her mistakes, and stoic enough to stand tall through difficult consequences, instead of running away in shame. Outwardly, and for the benefit of Pearl, Hester initially refuses to change her behavior to conform . Thus for a while, Hester’s individuality may have even prospered when she doesn't care or give into the strict societal standards that the town has placed on her.
However, as time goes by Hester feels the pressures of the strict society mount and her her individuality does start to erode. After years of wearing the “A,” and after years of the town’s negativity (even by young children), the strict standards do affect her and her dignity and Hester loses herself to public perception and a desire for public acceptance. During on particular event, children, who have overheard negative remarks made about Hester from their own parents, attempt to attack and throw mud on her in Pearl’s presence. In the fact of constant, continual disapproval, this event appears to weaken her pride and her resolve to stand apart.
Hester, a symbol of feminine frailty and lust for the church, lets the punishment define her and how she lives her life. It’s as if, “Through them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women’s frailty and sinful passion” (Hawthorne 66). She has changed from being a powerful women, to being timid and afraid of the people in the town. Hester has lost her individuality and society has gained power over her. She now cares how her actions will affect the town and her image.
At this juncture, Hester stops growing as an individual and follows what society requires her to do. It is also at this point that she noticeably loses her beauty. Unfortunately, the strain has caused her to “sink beneath” (Hawthorne 66), the societal standards that now clearly do affect her. Her image declines as she takes all of the strict standards to heart. She has stopped being a unique individual. Strict societal standards are detrimental to one's personal growth, as shown by Hester becoming a follower.
As Hester, Pearl, and the towns-people grow older, a full-circle shift ultimately occurs. Hester begins to regain her individuality on her own terms and once again balks at conforming to society's standards. At this point in time, society became a bit more accepting of Hester and her long ago sin. The town finally realized that the standards in place for Hester are too strict and are detrimental. Becoming more respectful to her, the town acknowledges the strength it took for Hester to never fully accept the guilt of her sin. Seeming to understand the price that Hester paid, “They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a women’s strength” (Hawthorne 134). As the town’s strict standards and scorn to her decreased, Hester’s personal growth increased.
Another factor that helped Hester regain her individuality and self-awareness was the result of Hester eventually leaving town for some time. Pearl had grown up and had moved away. Dimmesdale sadly died after suffering the never-ending guilt of never publicly confessing his sin (the vice of never being truthful has eaten him up from the inside). When Hester returns later in her life, she is greatly changed. The women who had succumbed to society was completely gone and the “new” self-confident, strong-willed Hester reappeared. When she returned, “She had returned, therefore, and resumed,--- of her own free will” (Hawthorne 214).” Hester lives where she wants on the outskirts of town and does what she wants without needing societal approval. Hester even does charity for the town and all the stigma about her sin has vanished. Hester’s renewed sense of individuality, presumably regained while living away from her once closed minded town, along with the town’s own willingness to be more accepting, represents a complete shift. The change in society’s standard again provides evidence that strict standards can limit one’s individuality.
The difficulty of staying true to oneself when society’s standards are rigid and controlling is a theme highlighted by Hawthorne. When Hester is first introduced as she is coming out of prison, she had a full sense of individuality. As years went by, she succumbed to her harsh environment and she lost her unique self. When Hester left and then returned, and when the town finally become more accepting, Hester was able to regain all of her confidence and originality. Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester evidences that when a person does not care about what a judgmental society thinks of them, individual growth is possible.