Nothing is permanent but change
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This means that life is a matter of change, and nothing can remain constant forever. Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is a clear example of the growth of a human being over a period of time. Her character and way of viewing life varies throughout the novel, as she goes from a prideful and glorious woman, to ashamed and hollow, to an example of redemption and self-empowerment.
Before her public penitence in the scaffold, Hester is shown as a strong-willed and impetuous young woman. In this same scene, she shows a sense of irony and disdain. This is seen in the elaborated scarlet letter A on her bosom, which “seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity” (51). Later on, she is said to be “the image of Divine Maternity.” With the baby in her arms, she looks angelic; yet she’s standing there because of sin, and the child is the result of it. Furthermore, the fact that she has an affair also suggests that she once had an extremely passionate nature.
But it is what happens after Hester’s affair that makes her into the woman with whom the reader is familiar. Shamed and alienated from the rest of the community, she becomes unfilled and indifferent. “It was a sad transformation, too, that her rich and Raulerson 2 luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine. (…) [T]here seemed to be no longer anything in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon” (150). Yet, Hester becomes a kind of compassionate maternal figure with respect to society: she cares for the poor and aids them.
“Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one” (148). In fact, the people in town start saying that the letter glistening on her bosom means able instead of adulterer. Hester’s problems and experiences with the Puritan society also lead her to be stoic and freethinker. Since her life is limited to shame and solitude, she assumes “a freedom of speculation (…) with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society” (151). She’s lost in thought, and even loses sight of her whole self. Although the author pretends to disapprove Hester’s independent point of view, his tone reveals that he secretly admires her independence and her ideas.
Hester takes up, once again, control of her own identity, and in doing so, she becomes an example to others. By the novel’s end, Hester has become a protofeminist figure to the Puritan community. The shame attached to the scarlet letter is long gone. She returns to her home, where had been her so-called sin and penitence. “But (…) the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence, too” (238). Even the townspeople come to her and recognize that her punishment was unfair. What Hester undergoes is more similar to reconciliation than penitence.
She creates a life in which her punishment and the scarlet letter become a symbol of knowledge gained rather than failure or condemnation. She has learned how to Raulerson 3 live with dignity and pride again. It is ironic, too, that her punishment-which was meant to make her an example to the community-has lead her into a “moral wilderness” devoid of “rule or guidance.” As has been noted by the reader, Hester undergoes changes throughout the novel. In her search for a true self, she goes from a free and passionate woman to an empty, vacant human being. Finally, she develops into a strong, kind, decorous person. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is portrayed as an intelligent, capable, but not necessarily extraordinary woman. It is the extraordinary circumstances shaping her that make her such an important figure.