The Scarlet Letter: Unveiling the Meaning of Hester Prynne as an Early Feminist

Last Updated: 30 Jun 2023
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In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a novel entitled The Scarlet Letter. This controversial story recounts the life of Hester Prynne, a seventeenth-century woman in a Puritan settlement in what would become Massachusetts. The novel begins with Hester being punished for adultery. Consequently, her punishment was to stand on a scaffold in front of the whole town and wear a scarlet letter “A” for the rest of her life and had to live with public shame. Nevertheless, Hester refused to reveal the identity of the father. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne portrays Hester as an early feminist through her actions and interpersonal relationships.

To understand how Hester Prynne is an early feminist, we first must take a look at the definition of feminism. Feminism, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” and “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” While Hester has never blatantly said that she believes this, her actions reveal more than words ever could.

Hester Prynne reveals through her incredible strength that she is an early feminist. Hester is in love with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. However, she is a married woman. She was married years ago to a physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth. Although she is married to him, she does not truly love him, and hasn’t seen him for years and presumed him dead. She becomes pregnant with Dimmesdale’s child, but nobody knows that it is his.

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She sees Chillingworth while she is on the scaffold. He is dressed like an Indian and has a shoulder deformity. When on the scaffold in front of the town, Hester publicly refuses to name Dimmesdale as the father of the child. “‘I will not speak!’ answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognised. ‘And my child must seek a heavenly father; she shall never know an earthly one!’” (66) Hester also shows amazing strength when she raises Pearl as a single mother in a seventeenth-century Puritan village. Back then, single mothers and bastard children were seen as the scum of society and socially unacceptable. However, she still kept Pearl as her child and raised her well. When she is brought from the prison to the scaffold to be mocked and condemned by the entire community, she does not cry, break down, or attack back.

She is stoic, even while she feels attacked and weak inside. The scarlet letter that she wore was mean to bring shame upon her and ruin her and the adverse is true. The letter that once was seen as an ignominious, humiliating mark, was seen as meaning “able” to the villagers. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathise—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification.

They said that it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (158) She was ostracized and seen as a symbol of sin, just like the scarlet letter. But, just as she gave the scarlet letter new meaning, she also gave herself a new meaning, not one of a weak, sinful woman, a slave to her desires, but a strong, able one who the whole society can agree is a model for what they should all be. Hester has shown many times through the whole of the novel her incredible strength and bravery that can only be seen as allied with the feminist movement.

Through her personal relationships, Hester Prynne truly displays the qualities of a protofeminist. In her relationship with Roger Chillingworth, she is not scared or intimidated by him. While he spends seven years trying to get revenge on Dimmesdale, killing his own soul in the process, she moves on and builds a new life. In her relationship with Dimmesdale, she is the brave one, protecting him, the one she loves, despite the community putting immense pressure on her to reveal his true identity. But Hester strong and unwavering in her beliefs. In her relationship with Pearl, Hester single-handedly raised and supported Pearl. Through her incredible skill with her needle, she kept the household afloat, financially, which, back in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, was seen as a man’s job. Yet Hester did this job just as good as any man could.

Undoubtedly, Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester portrays her as a protofeminist through her actions and personal relationships. Hester shows undeniable strength through the entirety of the novel and manifests it in her personal relationships. Throughout the novel, she broke down barriers for women and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that women can do anything a man can do. She shows the world that she is not weak, but able. She shows within her a woman’s strength that truly captures the meaning of the feminist movement.  She was a model of bravery and equality for all. Her incredible bravery and strength can cause all to agree that she is one of the early feminists.

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The Scarlet Letter: Unveiling the Meaning of Hester Prynne as an Early Feminist. (2023, Jun 22). Retrieved from

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