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Hesters experiences throughout nathaniel hawthornes novel the scarlet letter

PinIt Instapaper Pocket Email Print Once when I was about nine, I wandered into my aunt's kitchen during Thanksgiving to find all the grown-up women whispering, hugging, and crying. When they explained to me what was going on Auntie Cookie had just found out she was going to have another baby and they were crying from happinessthey confirmed a story I already knew--the one about how babies just happen, and women to whom they happen are considered very lucky.

How else to explain the crying? A few years later, when my friend Phyllis told me her parents were "trying to make" another baby, I had the crashing revelation that human actions create babies. Reading about unwed mothers and welfare these days, I can't help but think the nation is in need of a crash course in sex education. According to an article by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in the Atlantic Monthly last October, we've got lots of public school sex education programs, but they're teaching the wrong thing.

Under the guise of "family life education," she wrote, the programs are just ideological bearers of the sexual revolution of the sixties, encouraging anything-goes sexuality for young people. Whitehead thinks there should be more straight talk about the downside of teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, especially for girls, because "girls bear the burdens and penalties of nonconjugal sex. She describes all the bad consequences for teenage girls who "get pregnant," "find themselves pregnant," and "experience pregnancy.

Whitehead's article got me thinking about that great American textbook of sex education, The Scarlet Letter.

Even those who haven't read it know its central image: An adulterous woman is forced by her community to wear a scarlet letter "A" as a sign of her depravity and a foreboding lesson to other women. Nathaniel Hawthorne's parable about hypocrisy and punishment is set in the early days of Puritan America, two centuries before its publication in 1850.

It opens with one of the most memorable images of social stigma ever printed on the page: Hester Prynne is led from a prison door, carrying an infant and wearing a scarlet "A" she has meticulously embroidered. She mounts a platform in the public square--Hawthorne pointedly calls it a "scaffold"--where she is reviled and remonstrated by the townspeople.

Although the punishment might have been seen as mere ridicule in his day, Hawthorne says, in Puritan New England it was "invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself. The Scarlet Letter is much more than a metaphor for searing stigma.

Hester Prynne and her daughter Pearl are the archetypal unwed mother and illegitimate child in American social history. Before the story begins, we learn, Hester had been married in Europe to a dried-up, pretentious, academic sort who sent her ahead to America, intending to follow. He got hung up pursuing his fruitless studies, and after a couple of years, everyone, including Hester, presumed he lay dead at the bottom of the sea.

Hester and her minister--yes, Puritan minister--Arthur Dimmesdale, had fallen in love and had relations. Dimmesdale had a crisis of conscience. Dimmesdale never does have as the story progresses is the courage, or necessity, to own up to his adultery or his fatherhood.

While Hester is forced to stand for hours before the censorious community, Governor Bellingham directs Dimmesdale to use his priestly persuasive hesters experiences throughout nathaniel hawthornes novel the scarlet letter on Hester to make her name the child's father. Accord ing to the notes in my edition, Hawthorne's prototype for his fictional governor and upholder of the law was a real Massachusetts governor of the same name. In 1641 Bellingham married a woman already betrothed hesters experiences throughout nathaniel hawthornes novel the scarlet letter a friend of his and performed the ceremony himself in a rush job, so as to avoid going through the required publication of marriage intentions.

When asked to step down from the bench during an inquest about his breach of law, he refused. Thus, Hawthorne shows us "a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical," inflicting a punishment equivalent to death on a woman, through the offices of their minister and their governor, each of whom has transgressed the same laws for which Hester is to be banished from human society. Hester pays dearly for her and Dimmesdale's love. Unlike him, she cannot conceal the fact of her adulterous sex because she cannot hide her pregnancy.

She cannot flee from the fact of her motherhood because the child is in her and issues from her. And she cannot escape parenthood, because no one else is going to take care of the child and child abandonment is frowned upon.

About the Author

Dimmesdale pays, too, but his is a very private penance. He is eaten by guilt and dies near the end of the novel. She is marked from the get-go, presumed by the Puritans to be the child of the devil. Even Hester absorbs the social view that nothing good can issue from a woman who was in a state of sin when the child was "imbibing her soul.

She does eventually grow up to lead an apparently prosperous life--but only by escaping from her home and living in England. So it is today with what is now called the illegitimacy problem: The stigma of nonmarital sex, the identity as biological parent, and hesters experiences throughout nathaniel hawthornes novel the scarlet letter work of child rearing almost always fall on the women.

In the absence of an omniscient narrator, the fathers often remain invisible, at least to the public eye. Like Pearl, illegitimate children are regarded as predestined to a life of waywardness. Now, however, we cite statistical probabilities instead of the devil as the cause of their propensity to crime, drug abuse, dropping out of school, going on the dole, and having more out-of-wedlock children.

Many conservatives seem to have adopted The Scarlet Letter as a primer on what to do about illegitimacy. Mothers of illegitimate children should be heaped with scorn for neglecting, abandoning, and abusing their children. They are irresponsible and immoral for "getting pregnant," as though they did it all by themselves. In Hawthorne's Puritan Salem, at least, Dimmesdale would have been held equally responsible and immoral, had he been found out. The way to deter people from having illegitimate children is to do what Salem did to Hester: Thus, the Republican Personal Responsibility Act would eliminate AFDC eligibility for young women who bear children outside marriage, and it would preclude any additional monies for women already on AFDC who bear another child.

The double standard of The Scarlet Letter still prevails. Both the Republican and Democratic versions of welfare reform pay lip service to holding fathers more accountable, but both treat mothers far more harshly. Both plans, like Governor Bellingham, talk tough about establishing paternity. Mothers will have to cooperate with the state in identifying fathers and establishing paternity.

The Republican bill, strikingly, does not add a thing to existing child support enforcement tools or provisions.

Sex, Lies, and The Scarlet Letter

Neither bill sets up work requirements, much less job programs, for fathers. So beyond identifying more fathers, what will welfare reform do to men? At its toughest, it might succeed at getting the courts to order more child support, but whether it will get more money to kids is another question.

Nothing in the Republican reforms creates more jobs, more job stability, or higher wages for men. States would, however, be allowed to use money they would otherwise spend for food stamps to subsidize private sector jobs.

And perhaps even more important, nothing in the contemplated welfare reforms is addressed to increasing fathers' involvement with their kids. Because most of the father's payments go to the state, the system doesn't even give dads the psychological satisfaction of helping their kids.

Part way through The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Pearl have one of those quintessential conversations about where Pearl "came from" that might have been a lesson in family values, had Hester not felt the pressing need to protect Pearl's father.

I have no Heavenly Father.

Some of the good Christians of the town, it seems, had concluded that "if the child were really capable of moral and religious growth. There she has an audience with Governor Bellingham, Arthur Dimmesdale, and another minister named Wilson. Bellingham commands Wilson to determine whether Pearl has had a Christian upbringing. In a moment of impish perversity, she says her mother plucked her from a rose bush.

She is obviously "unsocialized," as the current rhetoric would have it.

  • Chapter 6- Pearl Hester decides to name her daughter Pearl because she paid a great price for her treasured daughter;
  • While Hester is forced to stand for hours before the censorious community, Governor Bellingham directs Dimmesdale to use his priestly persuasive powers on Hester to make her name the child's father;
  • And perhaps even more important, nothing in the contemplated welfare reforms is addressed to increasing fathers' involvement with their kids.

She will be taken from Hester and put in care of the state. And here's the pain of it: The very lie that Hester has maintained to preserve the authority of church and state and to protect the good name of Dimmesdale becomes the source of Pearl's resistance and the evidence of Hester's unfitness as a mother.

The Scarlet Letter

Dimmesdale, true to character, remains silent during this little child welfare hearing--until, that is, Hester rises up in a fury and commands him to speak on her behalf. He has the gall to bring the authority of the church down on Hester once again, this time to her advantage. He speechifies about God's purpose in sending this "child of its father's guilt and its mother's shame" as retribution and even a "torture" to the mother, to remind her of her sin.

Hester gets to keep the kid because the church, the minister, and the dad all say punishment is good for her soul.

The great lie here--that bad children were created by bad mothers and that fathers and social policies bear little responsibility--is the same lie that justifies taking children away from their mothers.

It's bad enough that these unwed mothers take support from the government.

  • Hester begins to worry that Chillingworth stand in the way of their pending happiness;
  • Hester does not want the Governor to think Pearl is possessed by evil spirits;
  • He also becomes active in religious life;
  • It opens with one of the most memorable images of social stigma ever printed on the page;
  • Bellingham commands Wilson to determine whether Pearl has had a Christian upbringing;
  • This system creates no incentives for biological fathers to act like fathers.

But many of them turn out to be bad mothers to boot. Even with all the money we taxpayers give them, they still don't feed their children properly, supervise them, discipline them, or give them quality time. Their kids would be better off in the hesters experiences throughout nathaniel hawthornes novel the scarlet letter of the state.

Better an orphanage than a neglectful and abusive mother. There are, certainly, a whole lot of children who are ill cared for, neglected, and abused, and who would probably be better off in some kind of group home for young unwed mothers or boarding school for kids. But why are their mothers--the ones who do feed them, watch them, and spend time with them at all--the only parents who are bad? In most cases, if unwed mothers spent as little time with their kids as unwed fathers do, we would call it abandonment.

Why do we look for solutions by focusing on the character and behavior of the mothers, while ignoring the fathers? Lest anyone doubt how lax our norms for fatherhood are, let them look at child support awards among divorced couples. Fathers are generally ordered to pay only a small proportion of their income in child support, and the portion declines as the man's income rises.

Around half of fathers who are ordered to make child support payments do not make them after the first year or so, and courts do next to nothing about enforcing the awards. Since we don't hold middle class and affluent fathers to any standard of decent support for their children, how do we expect to convey norms of financial responsibility to the poor?

Apparently, through brute force. We have a much more aggressive child support enforcement system for poor men, and we exact a much higher portion of their incomes than we do for middle-and upper-income men in divorce cases. By the time she is seven, Pearl comes to know on some level that Dimmesdale is her father. Once, Hester and Pearl come upon Dimmesdale in the middle of the night. He is standing on the scaffold where the three of them once stood together.

He beckons them to join him, and they all hold hands in a moment of electric intensity.

She begs for acknowledgment and commitment, for a promise that Dimmesdale will take her and her mother's hands in public. She tries to pin him down to a date. Pushed into a corner, he names "the great judgment day. Near the end of the novel, Hester meets Dimmesdale in the woods and tries to persuade him that the three of them should return to Europe, where they could live out the love that "had a consecration of its own.