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Rereading The Scarlet Letter as a Proto-Feminist Text

The Scarlet Letter, perhaps the most notable work of prodigious American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, was first published in 1850 and has since been subject to a plethora of literary criticisms, including those from psychoanalytic, new historical, and reader-response perspectives. In each of their articles, scholars Jamie Barlowe, Jesse F. Battan, and Suzan Last aptly choose to analyze the text through a feminist lens. While they each approach the subject in varying ways, these scholars all allow the reader to intuit that, despite being written by a male during an era when men were considered to be highly superior to women, The Scarlet Letter is indeed a proto-feminist text.

In “Hawthorne’s Feminine Voices: Reading ‘The Scarlet Letter’ as a Woman,” Last argues that though “the narrative contains many passages that characterize the narrator as a champion of patriarchal values,” Hawthorne’s use of distinctly feminine narrative techniques has “the effect of creating a narrative of radical sympathy for women suffering under patriarchal oppression” (Last 349). Last goes on to list the vast differences between feminine and masculine methods of discourse, stating that female narratives are often written from “many perspectives” rather than from a “one subject perspective,” do not follow a typical “beginning-middle-end” format, possess a sense of “plurality of meaning,” and are usually more “subjective” than “objective,” among a multitude of other discrepancies (Last 350). She also notes that it is vital “to keep in mind that these distinctions are only arbitrary, and necessarily artificial, based on social constructions” (Last 350). However, the notion that these definitions are merely social constructions does not render them meaningless in the least. Over time, they have become deeply ingrained in the manner in which our society operates, and thus we respond to them in very real ways.

Looking back at The Scarlet Letter, we can detect these supposedly “feminine” qualities in Hawthorne’s writing. As in most of his other works, there is much ambiguity to be found in the novel; for example, it is left up to the reader to discern how the scar on Arthur Dimmesdale’s chest manifested itself or if it is even truly there. The novel also fails to follow the typical beginning-middle-end structure, instead commencing in media res, as Hester Prynne leaves the town prison with her young daughter Pearl in tow and the infamous “A” already emblazoned on her chest. Additionally, the Hawthorne’s use of an omniscient narration style allows the novel to reveal the contrasting perspectives of several characters.

The combination of these seemingly feminine characteristics in Hawthorne’s prose results in what Last refers to as “a much more profound sympathy with female oppression than is usually to be found in a male text” (Last 351). As a product of this sympathetic sentiment, by the novel’s conclusion, Prynne comes across to the reader as more of a heroine than a heathen, despite her constant condemnation by the Puritan townspeople that she is surrounded by. This sense of compassion and understanding for Prynne is just one of the examples of proto-feminism that can be found in The Scarlet Letter.

In “‘You Cannot Fix the Scarlet Letter on My Breast!’: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America,” Jesse F. Battan discusses the reconstruction of gender roles that was brought about by a group of Victorian women in the 19th century who were known as the “Free Lovers.” Battan compares these female activists to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, postulating that “throughout the last half of the nineteenth century it was precisely the kind of woman symbolized by Hester Prynne who would emerge as a confidant to the discontented and as a prophet of a regenerated emotional life” (Battan 601). In spite of her strong similarities with these more modern feminists, Battan points out that Prynne is never able to fully embody the role of a “catalyst” because “Hawthorne gloomily concluded that the role…would be reserved for a woman who is ‘lofty, pure, and beautiful,’ rather than one, like Prynne, who was ‘stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow’” (Battan 601).

A less optimistic reader could see Prynne’s inability to fully personify this revolutionary role as a means for Hawthorne to reinforce the patriarchal perception of women as weak and ineffective when compared to men, a commonly held stereotype of the time. But the fact remains that he comes to this realization “gloomily,” therefore reiterating Last’s claim that Hawthorne’s narrative is decidedly feminine and consequently shows genuine sympathy for the plight of women. One can assume that Last would wholeheartedly agree with Battan’s conjecture that Prynne’s character typifies many of the qualities found in future women’s rights activists; perhaps Last might even venture further to assert that Hawthorne did so intentionally.

Here, too, lies an essential distinction that makes Hawthorne’s work come across as proto-feminist and not fully feminist: although Hawthorne characterizes Prynne as an intelligent, independent, and tenacious individual, she is still held back by her gender. In most feminist texts, the female protagonist ends the novel with a sense of “possibility,” rather than the conventional conclusions of a happy, traditional marriage or death. Yet at The Scarlet Letter’s finale, Prynne is still marked by her sin in the form of the crimson “A” on her breast, and thus she is debarred from transforming into the agent of change she so desperately wants to become.

In “Rereading Women: Hester Prynne-Ism and the Scarlet Mob of Scribblers,” Jamie Barlowe takes issue with the unfair interpretations which numerous male literary critics have made about The Scarlet Letter, pointing out that “the primary way in which male mainstream Hawthorne scholarship has Othered women has been in its almost total disregard of women’s scholarship on The Scarlet Letter” (Barlowe 198). This “Othering” she speaks of can be defined as the view of Prynne as a sexual object rather than as an actual human being–a problem that is constantly faced by women outside of the literary realm, as well. Barlowe reasons that Prynne is so often sexually appropriated because “no woman has been viewed as more continuously desirable to white men than one who, like Hester Prynne, is beautiful, strong, silent, self-regulating, (hetero)sexual, and subversively sinful enough to break sexual codes” (Barlowe 200).

Whatever the reason for Prynne’s sexualization may be, it has certainly pervaded pop culture. A cartoon feature in an issue of Playboy “‘depicts [Hester] at the head of a bevy of Puritan lasses…beaming smugly and proudly, Hester sports an A+ on her bosom while all her companions have just simple A’s’” (Barlowe 200). In the recent film Easy A, Emma Stone’s allegedly promiscuous character embroiders the letter “A” on a racy black corset that she later wears to school, thus perpetrating the notion that the “A” and, by association, Prynne, are sex symbols rather than literary archetypes. Even the “supposedly wholesome musical The Music Man” contains a sexual innuendo addressed toward Prynne, as follows:

“I smile, I grin when the gal

With a touch of sin walks in.

I hope, I pray, for Hester

To win just one more ‘A.’” (Barlowe 200).

Disturbingly, these examples are just a few of the countless instances in which this overt objectification takes place.

Thankfully, more enlightened critics, such as Barlowe, Battan, and Last, refuse to see Hester as a mere object for male pleasure to be projected upon. Their feminist analyses prove that she is far more than that; she is a symbol of early feminism and a beacon of hope for future feminists. Surely, had Barlowe read the works of either Battan or Last, she would have been both refreshed by their inclusion of non-othering female perspectives and in agreement with the arguments that are proposed in each article.

Thus, Barlowe, Battan, and Last, through their feminist readings of the text, prove that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is truly a proto-feminist work. Interestingly enough, the first wave of feminism began in the United States not long after the initial publication of the novel. By 1920, women had gained the right to vote and the concept of “the New Woman” had emerged, popularized by the renowned British-American author Henry James, who was, unsurprisingly, a fan of Hawthorne’s work. With these facts in mind, one could hypothesize that by writing The Scarlet Letter and including the strong-willed Hester Prynne as the protagonist, Hawthorne inadvertently (or perhaps purposefully) helped to pave the way for feminists to come.

Works Cited

Barlowe, Jamie. “Rereading Women: Hester Prynne-Ism and the Scarlet Mob of Scribblers.” American Literary History 9.2 (1997): 197-225. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

Battan, Jesse F. “”You Cannot Fix the Scarlet Letter on My Breast!”: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America.” Journal of Social History 37.3 (2004): 601-24. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

Last, Suzan. “Hawthorne’s Feminine Voices: Reading “The Scarlet Letter” as a Woman.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 27.3 (1997): 349-76. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

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