The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

May 9, 2012
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Hester Endures The Greatest Suffering:

The character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, The Scarlet Letter, who suffers the most is Hester Prynne. While there is an abundance of suffering in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book overall, Hester’s character suffers more than the others. It has been said about Hawthorne that “Ostensibly his “triumphant” sense of professional satisfaction depends on breaking a woman’s heart and mind, much as his narrative pacifies the heart and mind of it’s heroine. But Hawthorne’s “success” also depends on evoking great sympathy for female suffering” (Leverenz 552). This statement explains that perhaps it was one of Hawthorne’s goals while he was writing, to break his story’s heroine, Hester Prynne, and make her suffer in an effort to induce his audience’s sympathy for not only suffering in general but also, more in depth, female suffering. In my reading of texts related to The Scarlet Letter I found that many people did not think Hester Prynne suffered very much because of the way she handles her problems; such as, keeping Dimmesdale a secret even under pressure, refusing to let them take Pearl from her, and not hiding from the public after her sin is revealed and she is punished. Nonetheless, while Hester Prynne does in fact endure her suffering better than the other characters it is still she who sufferers the most. In fact, Hawthorne repeatedly gives textual evidence throughout The Scarlet Letter of this. Some of the things Hawthorne put in the book to cause Hester Prynne more suffering are: the constant reminders of her sin that she must live with, her relationships and interactions with Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, and the way she responds to her sin and the results of it.
One of the reasons I find that Hester Prynne suffers the most is that she must live with two constant reminders of her sin, the scarlet letter and her daughter, Pearl. I agree with what Ernest Sandeen stated: “It is true that she submits to the harsh, life-long penance of the scarlet letter and suffers with patience the various agonies which it daily imposes on her.” (Sandeen 425). In The Scarlet Letter it explains it as: “they have doomed Mistress Prynne… for the remainder of her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom.” (Hawthorne 58). Furthermore it depicts that “The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne’s bosom.” (Hawthorne 148). This tells that not only was she required to wear it daily but it was also a mark of shame and she felt as though it burned her bosom.
Additionally, she was responsible for the caring and upbringing of Pearl, which was not a simple task. Pearl was no ordinary child by any means, she questioned and taunted her mother often. “Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter, -the letter A,- but freshly green, instead of scarlet!” (Hawthorne 155). In this same instance she questioned: “What does the letter mean, mother?-and why dost thou wear it?-and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?” (Hawthorne 158), causing Hester such mental suffering that she, for the first time, was not true to the symbol that she wore. Not only did Pearl physically bring her mother suffering but Hester also had dreams and visions of Pearl that caused her even more suffering. “It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion.” (Hawthorne 87). So both the scarlet letter and Pearl caused her suffering, both physically and mentally.
Another reason that Hester Prynne is the character that suffers the most is because of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth repeatedly interrogates Hester. ““And what of him?”… “What choice had you?”… “What evil have I done the man?”” (Hawthorne 148-149). He taunts her with questions. He depresses her and tries to make her feel guilty, sometimes for things she didn’t even do. “Hester, -for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame” (Hawthorne 68). Hester hates Chillingworth because of the many times he has wronged her more deeply than anyone else. One instance of wronging her was when he married her even though he knew she did not love him; another was that he made her keep his identity a secret from everyone. Yet another problem is that he would not cease bothering her, he intended to travel along on the boat with them and threatened to reveal Dimmesdale’s secret.
Yet, even worse than Chillingworth’s rude and evil nature was her suffering caused by Dimmesdale. It has been said: “Her suffering is not the price she has agreed to pay for her guilt but the cost she is glad to bear for her love” (Sandeen 426). This means that she endured her suffering not to get rid of her guilt but for her love. By saying she is “glad to bear it for her love” it does not mean that it made her happy but that she found her love worth it. Indeed, her love for Dimmesdale caused her great pain and mental anguish. From seeing his agony and pain she suffered by knowing that she was, in some part, responsible for it. ““Never did mortal suffer what this man has suffered.”… “Hast thou not tortured him enough?”… “It was myself!” cried Hester, shuddering”” (Hawthorne 150-151). Even while talking with Dimmesdale, himself, she could not help but feel guilty because of everything that had happened. In any case, the context from the book seems to point out that a lot of Hester’s suffering came from and/or was caused by Chillingworth’s vengeance and Dimmesdale’s suffering.
Yet, a third way of how Hester Prynne suffers the most is that she is her own enemy. She often downgrades herself and causes herself mental anguish. She does this both through her inner thoughts and her outward appearance. For one, she knows what her sin is from the very beginning; however, she did not fully realize the complete meaning of the letter and what it meant for her until she stood on the scaffold. “She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes! –these were her realities, -all else had vanished!” (Hawthorne 55). She felt such remorse for her sin that she “yet struggled to believe that no fellow mortal was guilty like herself.” (Hawthorne 79). Her negative thoughts also added to the suffering, she doubted herself, she had thoughts of harming herself and other people, and she blamed herself for a lot of things she has no control over. “she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once” (Hawthorne 54). Not only were her thoughts a reflection of her attitude but even the way she dressed had personal symbolism related to her feelings and attitude. “Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit” (Hawthorne 50-51); for her common, every day, attire: “Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most somber hue” (Hawthorne 75). Just as her dress was coarse and somber, so was her attitude. She was morbid and felt doomed so she wore plain, drab dress to show her feelings. Overall she turns out to be her own enemy by causing herself to suffer even more through her reaction to the sin she has committed.
In the end it turns out to be Hester Prynne who suffers the most throughout the story. Even though both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth die towards the end of the book neither of them suffers as much as Hester, and I personally see their deaths as more of an escape from suffering while Hester must continue to struggle through life. All in all, between the letter itself, her daughter- Pearl, Chillingworth’s vengeance, Dimmesdale’s suffering and pain, and Hester’s own pessimistic thoughts, and peculiar way of expressing herself and her own opinions and outlooks, Hester endures more pain, grief, sorrow, and torment than any other character in the book therefore being the character whom suffers the most in Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter.





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