Role Of Hawthorne

’s Women Essay, Research Paper

The Role of Hawthorne s Women

Authors of the nineteenth century have long ignored the fact that women

had equal roles in the founding of this country. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the first writers to feature women as prominent figures in his literary works. He got the idea to use women characters from Sir Walter Scott, who changed the role of women characters forever when he wrote the novel, The Heart of Midlothian. In this work, no stereotypical roles were assigned to his female characters such as Magdalene, Eve, madonna, the wife of Bath, drudge, or vampire. In Hawthorne s works, The Scarlet Letter, Rappaccinni s Daughter, and The Birth-mark, each female character is portrayed as unique and unconventional. Hawthorne expanded the characters of women through his use of five recurring themes: the nature of women, the power of passion, the discovery of evil, the problem of guilt, alienation, pride, and initiation.

According to some, Hawthorne is able to capture the beauty and intensity of the female character because of his upbringing. Hawthorne grew up with two sisters and a widowed mother. He married Sophia Peabody, an intellectual and emotional peer, and together they raised two outspoken daughters. To Hawthorne, women were companions, not threats, which would explain why he thought the choice of a female main character was simply a natural necessity. Almost no women characters existed in American literature before Hawthorne, and interestingly, Roy Male seems to be the only Hawthorne scholar to note the scarcity of women as major characters in early American literature. Male writes:

In this predominately masculine enterprise [writing], the role of

women has always been anomalous. The notorious ineptitude of

the heroine in Western films serves as a constant reminder that in a

world of movement in space, a woman was simply an encumbrance.

Her alternatives were to remain behind in the ancestral covered wagon

and the squatter s hut. Without destiny and flamboyant marksman-

ship of Hurricane in the dime novels. Before The Scarlet Letter no

American writer understood the values of time, tragedy, or woman-

hood well enough to create a woman in fiction.

In Hawthorne s most widely recognized novel, The Scarlet Letter, he uses two of his recurring themes accompanied by an additional theme, which was used in this work only. The Scarlet Letter uses the themes of alienation, the nature of women, and show how the main character deals with the punishment given to her. In this novel, which takes place in the 1650s, the prominent character is Hester Prynne, who is accused of adultery and forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest for the rest of her time here on earth as punishment. Puritans of seventeenth century Massachusetts so seriously condemned adultery, which was prohibited by the Seventh Commandment, that it was often times punished by death. The character of Hester was seen as lady-like too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than a delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication. (Letter, 50). Hester was a very courageous woman, who would not divulge the identity of the father of her child. She felt that her child must seek a heavenly Father; [because Pearl] shall never know an earthly one! Upon hearing this conversation, Pearl s father, Reverend Dimmesdale said the Hester possessed wondrous strength and generosity of a woman s heart [because] she [would] not speak. (Hawthorne 64).

The punishment of wearing a scarlet letter is a historical fact, which inspired Hawthorne to write this novel. The scarlet A that Hester wore was a constant display of her sin that anyone could see. It burned upon Hester s breast cast a fiery glow upon her, which isolated her from mankind. As the story developed, the townspeople no longer saw Hester as a person. The scarlet letter becomes the dominant figure, and everything is tinged with sinister glare of the red A . Hester s frailty is developed as a natural and necessary result of the Scriptural law of marriage, which held her hopelessly to her vows and made her heart an easy victim to the adulterer. Hester did not deliberately calculate to commit the deadly sin of adultery nor did she deliberately plan to injure anyone she encountered. Hester fully acknowledged her sin while boldly displaying it to both herself and her townspeople. Hester proudly displayed that she had nothing to hide by elaborately embroidering her symbol of shame, dressing her daughter Pearl in scarlet, and wearing the scarlet A long after she could have removed it. Her salvation lies in the truth.

Hester learns from her sin and grows strong as a result of her acceptance of her punishment. For Hester, the scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers stern and wild ones and they had made her strong. At the end of the novel, Hester emerged from her experiences as a respected woman capable of helping others, and she has the happiness that comes from being at peace with oneself, one s fellow men, and with one s God.

Hester s pride sustained her from the opening scene until she dies still wearing the scarlet A. Her pride was coupled with her passion, which was demonstrated through her relations with her townspeople and her emotional attachment with her daughter Pearl, who served as another constant reminder of her sin.

After being viewed publicly, Hester chose to find herself a new home. The cottage was isolated and on the outskirts of town. It was hidden and shut out from the sphere of human charities. It was so depressing that it was appropriate that it was concealed from society. In fact, it is the place that isolated her from society that served to help conceal Hester from society s condemnation. It is within the safety of the cottage walls, that Hester tries to cultivate Pearl s mind without the strict traditions of their society. The cottage allows Hester to become a law to herself and Pearl and not be bound by man. The darksome cottage offers protection from society s criticism (Hawthorne 84).

Hester Prynne impressed her feelings of guilt on her daughter, Pearl, whom she sees as a reminder of her sin, especially since as an infant Pearl is constantly aware of the scarlet letter A on her mother s chest. While still in her crib, Pearl reached up and grabbed the letter causing Hester Prynne [to] clutch the fatal token so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl s baby-hand” (Hawthorne 66). Hester feels guilty whenever she sees Pearl, which is feeling that she should not reflect upon her innocent child. Pearl had nothing to do with Hester s sin; she is only a consequence of her mother and unknown father s sin. Hester was constantly questioning Pearl s existence and purpose by asking God, what is this being which I have brought into this world! or by asking Pearl, Child what art thou? In doing this, Hester forced her child to become detached from society. Pearl is described as the scarlet letter endowed with life (Hawthorne70). Due to Hester s constant guilty view of her daughter, she is unable to see the innocence in her own child. Hester often perceived Pearl as a demon whose sole purpose is to make her suffer. Hawthorne remarks that Hester tries to deny that this imp is her child, Though art not my child! Thou no Pearl of mine (67). Pearl, who has been raised around sin, becomes little more than a reflection of her environment. Hester s own sin leads her to believe that Pearl is an instrument of the devil; when in reality, she is simply a curious child who wants to be loved by her mother. Hester tried to shelter Pearl from society, which she considered poisonous to both herself and her child. Hawthorne also chose to use poison as a theme in another one of his works, Rappaccini s Daughter.

The main character in Rappaccini s Daughter, Beatrice, was nourished upon poisonous plants by her father until she becomes poisonous herself. It is interesting to draw the parallel of poison between Pearl and Beatrice. However, Beatrice was not born in guilt, but she was brought up amid guilty association. Beatrice was nourished upon poisonous plants until she herself becomes poisonous. Pearl inherits poison because of her parents guilt. However Beatrice was not born in guilt; she was raised amid a guilty association.

In the short story, Rappaccinni s Daughter, Hawthorne wrote about the concerns and consequences of men wanting to control women. He wanted to show how some men want to control everything that women do and every aspect of their being. The main character, Beatrice, is the first of Hawthorne s fully developed women dark, exotic, and ambiguous in her poisonous combination of sexual attractiveness and angelic purity (Ellis 3). He shrewdly portrays Beatrice as an Eve still trapped and controlled by three individuals. In the Bible, God, Adam, and the serpent controlled Eve. However, in Rappaccinni s Daughter, it is Giovanni, Baglioni, and her Beatrice s own father. Each man represents a role typical of a man who finds women threatening and might try to destroy her. Giovanni, her lover and potential husband, desires her sexuality, yet fears its power to dominate and destroy him. For Giovanni, sexual commitment to Beatrice means death in the sense of being dominated by a woman, which would rob him of his independence. Beatrice never made an attempt to bind him to her. She professes to want only to love [him], and be in [him] a little time and so to let [him] pass away, leaving [his] image in [her] heart (Hawthorne 4). Baglioni, her professional rival, felt insecure about his university position and tried to by diverting her energies to what he felt was a woman s proper domain, marriage. Beatrice s father wants her to be beautiful enough to win a husband, dependent enough to do his bidding, and obedient enough to be molded into his standards. None of these men could have been portrayed the same feelings and fears with the same intensity as Beatrice did.

In The Birth-mark , Hawthorne demonstrates the power of passion and what one is willing to do to get it. In the story Georgiana s character illustrates the way culture defines the role of women, women must be beautiful and as close to perfect as possible. Georgiana s husband Aylmer ignores his feelings for his wife s well being and happiness by obsessing over her birthmark. Aylmer wanted the birthmark removed because her could not deal with the fact that Georgiana came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature, that this slightest possible defect which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty- shocks me as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection,

Georgiana is the ideal representation of a submissive wife. The desperation to please her husband caused Georgiana to agree to the removal of her birthmark even though she knew not what may be the cost to both of us, to rid [her] of this fatal birth-mark. (2227) To her anything would be better that trying to forget that convulsive shudder of her husband whenever he looked at her rose-colored birthmark. Georgiana wanted to be able to look at her husband without having to place her hand over her cheek, to hide the terrible mark from her husband s eyes (2229).

Even after Georgiana drank the potion that would cause the crimson hand to fade away, Aylmer still gazed often at the fatal Hand, and not without a shudder. As he watched, the mark faded, and he became overjoyed as he told his peerless bride, it [was] successful! You are perfect! Sadly Aylmer had rejected the best that earth had to offer and Georgiana died as a result of the experiment and her husband s obsession.

Aylmer s relationship with his wife was merely skin-deep, and love and beauty should be more than superficial. Aylmer was ignorant and cruel to think that anyone could actually be perfect because beauty and love are more than just skin-deep. The moral of The Birth-mark is that a person should be loved for the person they are on the inside and not for the person they are on the outside. Aylmer attacked Georgiana s self-esteem and her self-consciousness with his inability to accept her the way she was.

In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne broadened the spectrum of female characters in American literature. He showed that the nature of women was pivotal in their role of society. Hester Prynne s guilt of her sin led to her alienation from society. Hester discovered what she believed was evil in her child that was sent by God to punish her for her sins. In Rappaccini s Daughter, Beatrice s character is very contradictory. She is poisonous and destroys the people that are the closest to her. But she also wants to please them. She was brought up with guilt and this guilt became a part of her existence. Finally in The Birth-mark Hawthorne displays the power of passion and the dramatic decisions one will make fir it. Aylmer was willing to risk the life of his wife Georgiana to have her appearance satisfy his needs and wants. Georgiana was submissive. She gave into her husband s demands because she wanted to please him and become perfect in his eyes. Hawthorne showed women in real situations and gave them individual personalities. Each of these characters dealt with the hardship given to them the best they could. Ultimately this showed the best they could be prominent figures in literature. Ones which the reader could relate to!


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Microsoft Encarta online Encyclopedia 2000

The Power of Passion. Heath, William. The Cortland Review May 1998 Issue III

Roy R. Male. Hawthorne s Tragic Vision (New York w.w. Norton & Co. Inc., 1957) pg. 4&5

Ellis, Barbara. (1993). Some Observations about Hawthorne s women. WILLA, Volume II

Arlin Turner. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography ( New York Oxford University Press, 1980). Pg. 356

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter Bantam Books 1986.


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