The modern-day definition of feminism is largely regarded as the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of equality of the sexes. A widely debated topic amongst scholars is whether Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an example of proto-feminist literature. The first wave feminist movement wasn’t put into action until the late 19th century, a few years after The Scarlet Letter was written and published, prompting questions regarding if Hester Prynne was one of the first feminists and a pioneer for the foundation of the early feminist movement. The Scarlet Letter is unintentionally a feminist novel because of the way Hester rejects the Puritan’s cruel condemnation of her and her child, and because of the fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notions of female liberation were ahead of his time. Feminism, in its most elementary form, has been around since the beginning of time. However, it wasn’t explored formally until the 19th and early 20th century. First wave feminism simply concentrated on women acquiring more political rights. The second and third waves developed later in the 20th century, focusing on women’s roles in society and social justice respectively. With that being said, since feminism was scarcely discussed, let alone supported during the writing of The Scarlet Letter, it stimulates questions concerning the role of feminism in the novel. A woman’s destiny in a Puritan society was to produce viable offspring for her husband and to submit to their male counterparts. Women were categorized as the “weaker vessel in both body and mind,” and that “her husband ought not expect too much from her.” It was believed that Eve’s role in original sin illustrates a woman’s innate moral fragility. Furthermore, women were assumed to be much more vulnerable to temptation and possessed qualities that could easily turn sinful. Women were expected to submit to every whim of their husband, and if she was a good spouse, she had fulfilled her God-given duty. When a woman was discontent and had extramarital affairs, it was the worst thing a woman could do to her husband. The husband would be humiliated, and the woman would be punished severely. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s punishment for adultery was to be publicly ridiculed with a tangible representation of her sin, leaving her isolated from her own community. She was no longer an ordinary citizen; she was a public spectacle. “The Letter had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (Hawthorne 37)However, as the novel progresses, what once was her torment, becomes her liberation. “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.” (Hawthorne 137) She no longer has the boundaries of regular Puritan women, because she has nothing to lose. She could pass through the forest as she pleased, she no longer had to submit to her husband, and she has no need for inhibitions and reservations. When Hester finally accepts what has become of her life, she wanders into the forest and lets her spirit free. She takes off her cap and lets down her hair; she removes the scarlet letter and throws it into the wind as if it had never caused her torment. What had once confined her, led her to her freedom. She finally felt at peace in the forest, her wild soul fit perfectly with the wildness of nature. “Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed freely as the wild Indian in his woods.” (Hawthorne 137)  As she lets go of all the stigma that surrounds her, she bears “…a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. … Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past…” (Hawthorne 139) Is this not the very essence of feminism? She finally becomes proud to be a woman and won’t let her actions define her. She is a woman; not a spectacle.With Hester Prynne being such a radical character who was ahead of her time, it raises questions regarding if The Scarlet Letter is one of the first examples of proto-feminist literature. Where did Hawthorne get his ideas of feminism? Was Hawthorne influenced, or did Hester’s spirit bring out the feminist undertones of the novel? It’s unclear whether The Scarlet Letter is a feminist novel, because Hawthorne never discussed his inspirations for Hester’s character, so no one knows if she was intentionally a feminist. While her character shows the very essence of feminism, the idea of feminism itself was scarcely discussed in the late 1800’s, let alone supported. In contrast, Hawthorne is frequently believed to not be a feminist, because of his misogynistic critiques of female authors, describing them as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” Many people today presume that Hawthorne felt his literary position was ultimately threatened by female authors. However, a majority of people still believe The Scarlet Letter is a feminist novel, because Hawthorne’s concepts of female liberation were ahead of his time by many years.Hawthorne paints Hester Prynne as a free woman, who is no longer confined to sexist Puritan society, which was a theme that was ahead of its time at the time the novel was published. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is unintentionally a feminist novel because it displayed feminist themes, however it was written before feminism was truly embraced and talked about. The Scarlet Letter is a great novel for feminists because it can inspire modern women to be more confident in their identities and strengths, as “women on our way.”


I'm Katy!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out