Favorite Fictional Characters, #263: Hester Prynne
As I discussed earlier in this list with Hamlet, Hawthorne's classic protagonist from The Scarlet Letter remains important today because she serves as a bit of a cipher, a template onto which readers can project their own world view. To some, this is a straightforward tale of guilt and shame, of Puritan intolerance. Others find an exploration of the various kinds of courage. Some reinvent Hester Prynne as a paragon of female dignity, of sexual liberation.
What I've always enjoyed about Hester is the mystery about her, the ambiguity of her motivations that allows for so much speculation, scholarly and otherwise. In conceiving a child out of wedlock she has broken the laws of her community and her church (virtually the same thing in 17th-century Boston), a sin for which that community imposes a permanent penance. This shunning, or shaming, or ostracism resonates with us as modern readers because we still do it today. We may like to believe that our rigid interpretation of behavior has grown more sophisticated over the centuries, and in some ways it has. In some ways we remain as smugly prudish and self-righteously judgmental as our Massachusetts Bay forebears. Take a glance at the reactions on social media to the recent protests by NFL players during the national anthem. I daresay there are those who would advocate that Colin Kaepernick and those who have joined him should have a scarlet A affixed to their uniforms for apostasy. The stocks have been replaced by the meme in our arsenal of public shaming.
To what extent are we defined by single actions? Hester Prynne lives a life of Christian charity and yet cannot escape her defining sin. Dimmesdale is so consumed by it that his existence becomes a constant, unforgiving torment. (By the way - read The Scarlet Letter again and then A Prayer for Owen Meany again, and tell me John Irving wasn't telling a modern interpretation of Hawthorne's opus in his own masterwork.) Is Hester a feminist icon? Was she centuries ahead of her time in owning her own sexuality and refusing to conform to societal strictures? Or is the commentary here a condemnation of that society and its willingness, even eagerness, to eat its own in pursuit of a narrow interpretation of godliness? It is a tribute to Hawthorne's talent that we are still able to debate that today, and still able to find confirmations for our own prejudices in a book more than 160 years old.