While reading A Scandal In Bohemia, Arthur Conann Doyle’s 57th instalment in to the Sherlock Holmes series, I was interested in the character of Irene Adler. A strong, independent, powerful female character, her opposition to authority was almost intrinsically tied to her femininity. I immediately saw a connection to another female heroin of classic literature, Hester Prynne, in that both Prynne and Adler shared a common deviance, which rested solely in that their actions were executed through the lens of an unorthodox gender, female, whereby their male counterparts would not have been critiqued or even ‘dealt with’ in the same manner.
Great characters often exist as those who are most difficult to define. They escape one-dimensionality through the array of ideas they embody and embrace individuality through their natural and complex humanity. Much like The Woman, Hester Prynne, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a difficultly realistic character. During the novel she seems to undergo consistent transformations that force the reader to question the ideals she embodies and reevaluate their understanding of Hester. Yet, perhaps, a lasting image that can be portrayed of Hester is her existence as a feminist symbol. Hester defies both society and the male figures in her life in her persistence of subtle defiance and in her acceptance of her own identity.
Hester’s scarlet letter serves as a perpetual reminder of her downfall and disgrace, yet she solemnly works to redefine the letter and, consequently, defy the unforgiving society that oppressed her. The “A” was purposed to make an example of Hester. To let no public, and consequently, private moment pass without Hester being defined and constrained by her scarlet letter. The unforgiving Puritans sought to mark her by her guilt and humanity. And this was not to be a short-lived humiliation but one marked by the “accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame” (59). Yet, Hester did not cower underneath this humiliation. Yes, isolation was accompanied by pain, but Hester began to tend the poor and sewed for the town. Hester, the most low and ill treated of society, attended to all those whose condition may have seemed lesser than her own. She did not scream out against the punishment she felt weighing upon her, but instead, rose above it in silent defiance. She acted justly and kindly while bearing the badge of disgrace. In her morality she spited the patriarchal society who joyed so cruelly in antagonizing the “tempting” mistress. Consequently, the town that labeled her began to review their definition of Hester’s mark; “they said it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a women’s strength” (121). Hester reveals her feminist qualities in a realistic manner. She avoids what may be expected from a role model activist and does not stand and openly oppose her suppresser. Hester’s subtle retaliation and transformation reveals the realistic qualities of her defiance. She peacefully protests and rebukes the spirit of both female subordination and unforgiveness.
Unlike the two male figures in her life, Hester is forced to embrace her identity and the acceptance of her own image sets her above both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, who lead lives of guilt and vengeance. Dimmesdale never admits to his sin until the culmination of the novel and lives for much of his life under the internally and spiritually tearing effects of hidden grief. Although it terrified him, if he were to “stand there beside [Hester], on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life” (50). Dimmesdale is tortured by his hidden guilt. He hurts himself and is literally being killed by it. Hester lived with the pain of universal recognition of her mistake, yet this pain seemed to pass and in this pain was at least yielded some good from Hester in her attempt to defy Puritan society. Similarly, Chillingworth hides his identity in order to harm Dimmesdale and protect his name. In this deception is born Chillingworth’s decent into and desire for evil. Now “no friendly hand was pulling at his heart strings” (128). He had fallen into darkness and it was this darkness that would eventually claim his life. Hester eclipses both male characters in the novel because she is forced to address her identity. She carries the letter and she cares for Pearl and these two symbols act as constant reminders to both her and society of her “unforgivable” sin. The pride of men, on the other hand, yields deceit and pain. Dimmesdale tries to avoid the judgment of men and of earth, but is forced then to try, like Atlas, to bear the weight of the heavens. As his health wanes and guilt grapples him he whispers, “The judgment of God is on me. It is too mighty for me to struggle with” (147). But, it is at this moment that Hester reveals to him how he may escape this weight and be embraced by heaven. She tells him that forgiveness is possible, “hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it” (147). Hester understands that the only universal relief comes from the forgiveness of the almighty. Hester has surpassed both male figures in her life. They are tormented by regret, while Hester lives knowing that every secret she could have lived to hide has been amplified and projected. This may be at the expense of “her individuality” (59) and her femininity, but it propelled her beyond the pains of the male influences in her life and relinquished her from the eternal guilt and vengeance that drive the othe characters.
Hester defied patriarchal society and the major male characters in the novel because she was able to wear her intimate identity and redefine herself not by her past but by the life she chose to lead beyond her disgrace. Hester may not be the effulgent Joan of Arc style feminist role mode, but she stands before society confident in her own identity. She does not pander to oppression, but lives with dignified remonstration.