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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Female Independence

1

“[S]he repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free-will.”

This quote describes Hester leaving the prison for the first time. It is also the first time that readers see her. In having her refuse the prison guard's hand, Hawthorne establishes Hester's independence and dignity, even at a moment where she's supposed to be completely humbled. This independent spirit will continue to define Hester throughout the novel, as when she defends her right to raise her daughter at Governor Bellingham's mansion and when she urges Dimmesdale to run away to England with her.

2

“A tendency to speculation, though it may keep a woman quiet, as it does a man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her.”

This quotation uses Hester’s specific experiences to give more generalized ideas about the injustices women face. Women like Hester who become aware of the inequalities in the society around them have the sad realization that it is almost impossible for them to change the many ideas and beliefs that lead to women facing a double standard. Hawthorne uses this quote to indicate that Hester’s experiences are part of a larger pattern, and also to suggest that many of the features of Hester’s society may still not have changed, even in his own time.

3

“The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.”

This quote very powerfully shows how the experience of being exiled and shunned has changed Hester and given her a new perspective. When she was living as part of society, she had less reason to question the rules and expectations that came with it. Once she was outcast, she realized that many of these expectations were arbitrary and unfair. As a result, she can think more freely and stand up for herself. Her bold suggestion to Dimmesdale that they start a new life together shows that she has been liberated from social conventions and expectations.

4

“At some brighter period … a new truth would be revealed in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”

This quote shows Hester’s hope that eventually a day will come when there will be greater equality between men and women, and where women will not be so easily subject to shame and scandal. The quote is optimistic in that she believes such a day will come, but also sad in that it shows she has accepted she will not live to see it. The passage also helps to explain part of why Hawthorne thinks this greater equality is important, since it would allow both men and women to be happier and enjoy better relationships with another.