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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Scarlet Letter: The Paradox of Hester Pyrnne

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A single event often has the potential of becoming life changing. As revealed in The Scarlet Letter, Hester Pyrnne’s punishment for adultery takes its toll on all the main characters. Hester is able to hide her pain from public eye, but careful analysis reveals drastic transformations in her disposition due to the sin and public persecution. The alteration in her personality can be evaluated through her attitude towards others, her appearance, and her concealed emotions in both the first scaffold scene when she bears the weight of the letter and in the forest when she is briefly released from the burden.


The consequence of adultery somewhat affects Hester’s attitude. On the scaffold, the adulteress looks down at the townspeople with “a haughty smile and a glance that would not be abashed” (Hawthorne 50). The word haughty evokes arrogance with a touch of overconfidence. Although this phrase demonstrates Hester’s apparent strong will, it also suggests that she is shielding grief from the public with a cold smirk. The “halo of misfortune and ignominy” that hung over Hester indicated “something exquisitely painful” as well (51). This reemphasizes the burden that Hester would have to endure for seven years, suppressing her determination. In contrast, when Hester removes the scarlet letter in the forest, she experiences “a happiness before unknown” (186). Even though the letter directly affects her cheerfulness, Hester still seems to be determined. Coming out of the prison, Hester refuses to be lead outside, “an action marked with natural dignity and force of character” (4). Overall, Hester’s sin does not appear to directly change her character.


Hester’s appearance does not drastically change in respect to the first scaffold scene and the forest scene, but the few differences are important in evaluating her change in character. During both these times, Hester blushes. However, her “burning blush” on the scaffold should be distinguished from her glowing “crimson flush” in the forest (50; 185). Embarrassment or anger most likely triggered the burning blush while youthful elation probably caused a glowing, crimson flush. The smile Hester wears differs as well. As previously stated, Hester’s haughty smile from the scaffold suggests arrogance and coldness. After the loss of the letter, a “radiant and tender smile” gushes from Hester (185). In both scenes, the adulteress is described as lady-like and youthful. This insinuates the desire to remain strong through a time of trial, but the few physical changes in Hester demonstrate her inability to do so.


Hester’s inner spirit completely transforms due to the burden the scarlet letter carries. At heart, Hester is completely crushed since she “underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon” (5). Hester’s distress is bottled up inside her, shielded from the crowd. Yet when the letter is removed, “maiden hope” replaces despair (186). The letter also affects her perspective. Hester reminisces about her past while on the scaffold. Furthermore, Hester admits she “had habituated herself to… speculation” before removing the letter (18-18). In both cases Hester thinks about everything except the present to escape her suffering. After removing the letter, Hester “threw it to a distance among the withered leaves,” suggesting she is casting the stigma behind her (185). In general, the heavy burden of the scarlet letter weighs down Hester’s soul.


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Hester manages to continue to be perceived as strong-spirited and courageous, but she suffers on the inside from the scarlet letter’s load, in turn causing a slight change in her appearance. Hester tries to continue to be stable when in view of the public eye, and only subtle changes in her personality reveal her true self. Hester’s appearance changes slightly because of the scarlet letter, pointing to her inner misery. Only analysis of her true disposition can expose the real weight the scarlet letter has on Hester. As shown in the forest scene, only Dimmesdale is able to remove the letter’s burden, “free[ing Hester] at last from her burden of ‘sin and sorrow’” (Gross ). Their sin leaves Dimmesdale in complete control over Hester’s life.


Works Cited


Gross, Seymour. “Solitude, and Love, and Anguish.” College Language


(illegible) Journal (168).


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York Bantam, 18.





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