Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter explores themes of religion, community, punishment and loyalty. Hester Prynne is the story’s protagonist- her character is central to the story. Hester is the mysterious woman released from jail at the beginning of the story. She is the mother of Pearl and she is the wearer of the ‘Scarlet Letter’. Hester is a multi-dimensional character; she goes through significant changes within the story.
When Hester was released from jail she ‘underwent an agony from every foot-step of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.’ Despite feeling this keen sense of public humiliation, Hester maintained ‘a serene deportment.’
Hester maintained her composure. She did not waiver when she was faced with the unforgiving crowd in her community. This establishes her as a strong and independent person; she only had herself to depend on and she had to be strong for the sake of her daughter Pearl.
For all her strength, there was a point in her public shaming that Hester felt she might either jump down and escape ‘or else go mad at once.’ Her ordeal was intense and even the dignified and robust Prynne felt moments of weakness under public scrutiny. She also felt ‘the innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan tribunal.’ The Puritans made sure that Hester was chastised by society for having had an affair and for having given birth to the fruits of the affair- Pearl. This makes up part of the conflict in the story.
Hawthorne writes that ‘She was patient,- a martyr, indeed…’ Hester was a martyr because she refused to reveal the identity of her lover. Hester bore out her punishment with dignity, despite the inner turmoil and loneliness she experienced. Later, when it becomes public knowledge about the truth of the affair, she feels vindicated: ‘The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief!’
Hawthorne summarizes his protagonist’s innermost feelings: ‘She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom!’ It is at that time that Hester literally lets her hair down. She feels unburdened- her shame is removed.
Hester goes from living in shame with a deep sense of quiet dignity, to gently accepting the punishment laid out for her by the Puritan community. Finally she triumphs and revels in her own ‘maiden hope’ and a new found sense of freedom. Hawthorne presents Hester as a living, breathing character- capable of growth and development as the story grows and develops.
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Early Nineteenth Century 1800-186. Paul Lauter, general editor. Published 2006.