Is The Scarlet Letter a feminist novel?

Although The Scarlet Letter was written in 1850, long before the emergence of what we now refer to as feminism, the novel amounts to a spirited, pre-feminist defense of women and women’s rights. Although modern readers might not immediately identify the tormented, cringing, sometimes self-loathing Hester Prynne as a feminist icon, that is exactly how Hawthorne portrays her. Whether directly or indirectly praising her behavior, Hawthorne holds her up as a model individual from whom both men and women should draw inspiration.

Hawthorne is not always straightforward in his depiction of Hester as a strong woman worthy of admiration. His tendency toward obfuscation, in combination with the now-archaic gender roles portrayed in The Scarlet Letter, misleads some readers into deciding that Hester is weak and her behavior inexplicable. But in fact, even those actions that might strike us as puzzlingly self-defeating become, upon closer reading, evidence of Hester’s strength. We may wonder why Hester stoically wears the symbol of her adultery on her chest instead of ripping it off, but Hawthorne suggests that she appropriates the letter A, making it her own and turning it into a symbol not of her adultery, but of her many abilities. We may wonder why Hester remains in the midst of the people who have treated her so badly, but Hawthorne argues that by staying in town, she shows that she does not have to run away from her past in order to transcend it. Even when the narrator expresses disapproval of Hester’s actions, an undercurrent of approval runs beneath it. For example, the narrator’s purported condemnation of Hester’s increasing coldness and self-reliance is mitigated by a strong sense that he understands and appreciates the reasons she has changed.

If Hawthorne is often reserved in his praise of Hester, however, he is just as often lavish with it. He portrays those who judge her, male and female alike, as coarse hypocrites. He turns our attention to Mistress Hibbins, forcing us to recognize the insanity of a society that tolerates an unrepentant, devil-worshipping witch on the one hand, yet banishes an adulterous woman on the other hand. He asks us to compare Hester’s strength, openness, and loyalty with Dimmesdale’s cowardly silence and Chillingworth’s nearly psychotic quest for revenge. He has Dimmesdale state explicitly that adultery is practically meaningless compared to the evil of vengefulness, a statement that casts Hester as a martyr at the hands of society in general and Chillingworth in particular. Hawthorne stresses that in the face of unbearably cruel treatment, Hester responds with laudable strength and humility.

Of course, Hawthorne never would have used the word feminist to describe Hester Prynne. Yet if a modern reader described a feminist as someone who believes that women have rights, Hawthorne would likely agree that Hester fits the description. His tapestry of approval for Hester’s actions, which he weaves from both quiet and bold colors, provides a picture of what strong pro-woman sentiment looked like in the days before feminism existed.