Feminist Critical Thought and The Scarlet Letter


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne should not be classified as a Feminist text whose primary goal is to defend equal rights for women. Rather, The Scarlet Letter is a book that promotes some feminist ideas and contains a strong female lead. I think that understanding some core concepts of the text can educate readers about important feminist issues and the double standard between men and women. However, I feel that feminism is a secondary theme and is a prominent undertone of the story. Hawthorne views women solely in their relationship to men, Hester's independence is used to demonstrate the majority of women's dependence, and ultimately Hester is willing to give up her independence for a man. These factors  make The Scarlet Letter far from a feminist book.

Hawthorne demonstrates a distinctly male gaze in his writing. He views the women in The Scarlet Letter primarily through their relationship to men. In the middle of the novel, Hawthorne describes how Hester has changed since she was punished by the town for committing adultery. The narrator says, “She who has once been a woman, and ceased to be so, might at any moment become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to effect the transformation” (Hawthorne, 92). In this quote, Hawthorne claims that Hester is no longer a woman because she has not been touched by a man which is the only thing that could make her a true woman again. Had this been a truly feminist text, the author would not claim that Hester is any less of a women for being independent and unattached to a man. This is a clear demonstration of the male gaze in The Scarlet Letter. 

When standing alone, Hester can be considered a strong character and feminist icon, however in context with other women, Hawthorne uses her as the exception. Hester is unlike most women, because most women are not strong or capable of independence. Hawthorne shows Hester's stark contrast through her beauty (another example of the male gaze) On page 25, Hester is described as “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion”. This contrasts sharply with his description of the other women in the town who are chubby and unattractive. These women are “simple” and unintelligent as described on page 24, "The witnesses of Hester Prynne's disgrace had not yet passed beyond their simplicity."  If this were a truly feminist text, the author would make it clear that many women were capable of Hester’s traditionally male qualities and could also break away from their conventional dependent role. Even Pearl is pushed into traditional gender roles by Hawthorne. She is condemned for being rambunctious and “out of control”. Pearl's high energy and disobedience makes her own mother see her in connection with the devil which would not be the case if  Pearl was a young boy. Hester is clearly the only exception to gender roles and stereotypes in The Scarlet Letter rather than the definition of who women truly are.

Another factor that makes The Scarlet Letter far from a feminist text is that Hester is ultimately willing to give up her autonomy and commitment to her beliefs for a man. Hester stays in Boston as an act of self improvement and independence. In the final chapters, Hester agrees to run away with Dimmesdale because he is in pain. “‘There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!’... ‘Thou shalt not go alone!’ answered she, in a deep whisper.” (Hawthorne, 100). Hester gives up her independence and her commitment to her own values for a man. A feminist text would not portary a feminist character as prioritizing a man’s wishes over her own.

Though the main character of the novel is a strong woman, Hawthorne views her and every woman in the novel through the lens of a male perspective. The reader can see this when Hawthorne portrays women solely in their relationship to men and when Hester's independence is used to demonstrate the majority of women's dependence. Hawthorne's portrayal of Pearl shows his feeling that women should stay in their traditional place and generally be obedient.  Hester is even willing to give up her independence for a man by the end of the story. The male gaze is extremely prevalent in today's media and culture and to ignore its presence in The Scarlet Letter is to ignore a larger issue in our culture. 

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