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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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In an earlier chapter of the novel, Hawthorne told us "The scaffold of the pillory was a point of view." And so it is. From that doubtful eminence, Hester has observed her society and found it wanting. She has always possessed a vision of a richer, warmer, freer existence than any permitted by the Puritans. And now, she is critical, too, of the dismal position that women hold in her world.

Are we to see Hester's intellectual independence as a good or bad thing? To quarrel with it goes against the American grain. Freedom of thought and conscience is the essence of our tradition. We are reluctant to deny anyone this first prerogative in life.

And yet, there is another side to the coin of free speculation. Someone like Hester, an outcast from society who lives on the edge of the wilderness, has no recourse to other minds and ideas, even in books. She has nothing to go on but her own rum experience, her admittedly distorted view of life. It is possible to argue that even the Puritan beliefs-stringent and mean as they are-have more validity than Hester's own. (Hawthorne will later say that shame, despair, and solitude have been Hester's teachers, and they have taught her "much amiss.")

NOTE: Once again, a cultural debate of the 19th century informs Hawthorne's fiction. Emerson and the optimists of his party believed in intellectual self-reliance to the exclusion of everything else. In their eyes, traditional religion was unnecessary, social conformity counter-productive. All a person needed to do was to listen attentively to the voice of his or her conscience.


Hawthorne's answer to Emerson, by way of Hester Prynne, was that the uninstructed voice of conscience could be misleading. We needed all the help we could get from religion, society, history, philosophy, and law. A mind in isolation ignored cultural truths at its peril-and could turn out to be dead wrong.

We should note that Hester's criticism of society ends in speculation and stops short of action. She never becomes a reformer or what we might call an advocate of women's liberation. Perhaps you will view Hester's silence as a failure of nerve. But to Hawthorne, it is clearly a saving grace. His view of women is conservative. He believes (wince, if you like) that a woman's proper province is the home and not the soapbox. Bad enough that Hester has become an intellectual. He will never make her an activist.

Male chauvinism aside, it is important to realize that we have in Hester yet another character with a gap between thought and feeling, a split between the inner and outer self. Hester's emotions are crushed, or buried deep within her. Her ideas in her society are literally unspeakable. As a result, Hester, like Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, is leading a double life.

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