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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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Hester Prynne is one of the most enigmatic characters in all literature. As the wearer of the scarlet letter, she may be expected to possess some definitive insight available to no one else. Yet her final word on the subject is "I know not. I know not."

Is Hester a glorious heroine, standing up to an unduly repressive society in the name of love and freedom? Or is she a sinner who has broken a basic and sacred law? And if she is a sinner, does sin lead her in the direction of evil or of good?

Let's look at Hester from a number of different viewpoints:

1. Hester is a magnificent woman fighting for her natural rights to love and freedom. To know what Hawthorne means by his heroine, you have only to look at her. With her flashing eyes, her rich complexion, and her abundant hair, she stands for what a real woman should be beside a crowd of tight-mouthed Puritans.

It is true that during the years of her punishment, Hester tries to subdue her spirit and sensuality, hiding it all (with that wonderful hair of hers) beneath a sad cap. But she can't do it. One breath of fresh air, one ray of sunlight, one moment alone with her lover in the forest, and she is herself again, reaching passionately for a life of freedom and fulfillment.

2. Hester Prynne, if not the out-and-out criminal the Puritans believe her to be, is still a woman who has deeply sinned. She is, after all, guilty of adultery-no small matter, even today.

As Hester herself admits, she has irreparably wronged her husband. And so she bears some responsibility for the corruption of Chillingworth's soul.

She has also shattered Dimmesdale's peace. She has lured the minister-admittedly, with his full cooperation-from the straight and narrow path of orthodoxy, where it was surely in his interest to stay.

3. Hester is, indeed, a sinner. But her sin is a cause not of evil but of good. Suffering disciplines Hester, so that she grows strong. Sorrow awakens her sympathies, so that she becomes a nurse.

In fact, the best deeds of Hester's life come about through her fall from grace. Her charity to the poor, her comfort to the broken-hearted, her unquestioned presence in times of trouble are the direct result of her search for repentance. If Hester had not sinned, she would never have discovered the true depths of tenderness within herself.

4. Hester is neither a heroine nor a sinner, but something in between. She is a flesh-and-blood woman in tragic circumstances, trapped in a loveless marriage and in love with another man. Whichever way she moves, there is bound to be a sacrifice of some vital part of herself, either her honor or her deepest need.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes

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