, Research Paper
Defending Hester Prynne Then and Now
When deciding between prosecuting or defending the character of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, it would be well to keep in mind the words of Alexander Pope: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The sin of adultery in itself is not the question here, but the degree of punishment for that sin is. As Hawthorne intended his readers to do, this paper chooses to defend Hester Prynne.
The Puritanical society of Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century was severe and gloomy. Though these people acknowledged on the surface that all mankind was born in sin, they relied more heavily upon the belief that living righteously earned their salvation. They did not disqualify the notion of grace, but they believed that true salvation was proven only by strict adherence to Biblical laws. As mankind is prone to make mistakes and sin, these high standards were a heavy and impossible burden. Hypocrisy was common, but these people blinded themselves to it and their own humanity. What showed or what was obvious was what was judged. A black heart could clothe itself in good deeds and remain undetected. However, kinder souls who were oblivious to rules could blunder helplessly into traps. Suspicion and condemnation masked guilt and jealousy. It was common for truly good people to be scorned as heretics or even burned to the stake as witches.
Hester Prynne was publicly humiliated for her adultery in front of her small-town community. As though this weren’t enough of a punishment, she was made to wear a sign, an embroidered A, upon her chest for the rest of her life. The laws of her society severely punished crimes of human passion to deter future offenses as well as to reassure and comfort those who outwardly conformed to the unbending structure of those laws.
It is important to note that Hester was emotionally stable and strong-willed. Throughout her ordeal, her strength was seen as smugness and defiance. A weaker person may have withered and even committed suicide.
Today, the old Puritanical standards are deemed absurd and ridiculous. Divorce, adultery, and even gay relationships are a normal, acceptable part of society. The world has seemed to shift to an opposite pole. People excuse, alibi, and even defend all sorts of behaviors that were once held to be shameful or despicable. However, the birth and raising of an illegitimate child is still a difficult and self-punishing task even in this permissive society. Hester Prynne was often hurt by her daughter’s words and actions in a way that served to refresh the wounds of ostracism and humility for her sin. A single mother today suffers too. She is haunted by the desertion of the father, the emotional and economic burden of providing properly for the child, and the spoken and unspoken questions from the child as well as the neighbor. In other words, women of any conscience provide more than enough punishment for themselves over their sin.
If there is no real harm to others, moral crimes and convictions should remain within the private realm between God and the offending individual. In conclusion, note the authority of the Scriptures concerning this very subject. In John 8:5-11 of the King James Version, Christ was confronted by the Jewish leaders about the fate of a woman caught in the act of adultery:
“Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? ?he [Jesus] lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her?And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”