Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
Monika M. Elbert
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter recounts the events that occur during a time span of seven years that follows an adulterous encounter between two of the novel’s three protagonists. This act took place before the novel begins and details of it are never disclosed to the reader. The novel’s focus remains fixed on the events that occur after the symbol of this sin, the scarlet letter “A,” is placed upon the breast of Hester Prynne. While Hester boldly and steadfastly confronts a new life as a scorned woman and single mother, the father of her child, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, is tortured by guilt and Hester’s cuckolded husband, Roger Chillingworth, is driven by revenge. The behaviors of these three individuals in response to this one sinful act reveal the true character of each protagonist, and Hester is the only one who is able to overcome the situation that eventually consumes and defeats both of the male protagonists. The Scarlet Letter illustrates that one can best identify a person not by the trouble he/she encounters, but rather by the behaviors a person demonstrates in response to a problematic situation.
Hester, the novel’s heroine, is clearly a strong woman at the start of the novel, but she becomes even more empowered as the plot develops. Her quiet strength, intense passion, and her ability to remain devoted to her personal beliefs and values cause her to neither conform to society, as Hepzibah does in The House of Seven Gables, or attempt to reform society, like Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, but instead allow her to adapt to society as wearer of the scarlet letter. Hester’s actions and demeanor cause others to eventually view her as a figure of strength, endurance, and reform, one who transforms a stigma of sinfulness and weakness into an emblem of dignity and admiration.
The religious title and garb of Arthur Dimmesdale prohibits others from viewing him as a sinner like Hester, and Roger Chillingworth who presents himself to be a scholarly doctor, is never suspected to be a man seeking revenge upon this holy reverend as he assists him with his medical ailments. The outward appearances of these men mask their inner selves, just as the Puritanical dress and actions of the audience in this work hides their impurities. The Scarlet Letter points out that the judgments society makes based on appearances alone are often inaccurate and false.
The act of adultery that seemed so important at the start of the novel is deemed insignificant by the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter. The symbol of this one act, the scarlet “A,” becomes an empowering force for Hester while it is a force which overpowers both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth and ultimately leads to their demise. Hester demonstrates the ability to control the circumstances surrounding her, thereby prohibiting them from gaining full control over her life.
As the novel concludes, Hester is no longer defined as an adulteress, but rather a mother whose inner strength and maternal values save her from becoming stigmatized as society’s sinner; she accepts her punishment, fulfills her sentence, yet remains an individual within society. Hester adapts her lifestyle to establish her place in society without forfeiting her individuality and represents one who has achieved balance between her values, her responsibilities, and her position within her community. At the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter, Hester ironically portrays the ideal moral figure, one who observes, feels, ponders, and adapts enough to survive in a hostile world, one who silently alters society’s views through her deeds and actions, and bequeaths these skills of survival and adaptation onto the generation that follows. Hester Prynne is the one protagonist who is able to move on with life beyond the scarlet letter.
DeMarco, Shauna Ciarco, "Life Beyond The Scarlet Letter" (2010). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 813.