More Than Meets The Eye
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Everyone knows this hackneyed quote, but people still judge others based on outer appearance. By doing so, these people ignore the possible inner greatness of those they so quickly set aside. The character Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is a victim of such judgment and proves the quote to be valid advice. Hester’s actions and mien substantiate the theme of appearance versus reality throughout the novel.
In the beginning of the book, though Hester may give the appearance of being a boastful rebel, she is actually quite distressed about her miserable circumstances. For example, when Hester steps onto the scaffold and the crowd sees her beautifully stitched and gold embroidered letter, one of the Puritan women comments, “She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain… but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates…” (45). By accentuating the letter with beautiful decoration, Hester reinforces the facade that she is proud of her crime. A woman with much shame will not take time from the contemplation of her state to make herself look nice, thus the crowd thinks that Hester is blasphemous and uncaring. She is incapable of giving in to the pressure of society and showing that she is in any way hurt by her dilemma, at least in public. Hester’s actions show that she feels her adultery was an act of love and passion and that she does not deserve punishment. However, Hester’s bravery on the scaffold is an illusion. Her true feelings wait to surface until she is out of the community’s prying eye: “After her return to the prison, Hester Prynne was found to be in a state of nervous excitement that demanded constant watchfulness, lest she should perpetrate violence on herself, or do some half-frenzied mischief to the poor babe” (59). Pretending to be irreverent in public, Hester hides her true torment until she is safely alone.
As years pass, Hester suppressing her actual feelings breeds “sinful” notions in her thoughts. She hides these thoughts, however, by performing acts of benevolence throughout her community. Hawthorne describes Hester’s position in society this way: “It was perceived, too, that while Hester never put forward even the humblest title to share in the world’s privileges, – farther than to breathe the common air, and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful labor of her hands… None [was] so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty” (140). These kind acts allow people to see that Hester is not really the sinful wench they thought, but a selfless Good Samaritan who tries her best to make life better for the people around her. She gives the little she has to anyone who can benefit, living a more charitable life than some of the most pious around her.
However, Hester continues to wonder if “existence [is] worth accepting… The whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… before women can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (144). Hester ponders thoughts that no God-fearing woman in her community would ever imagine. Because Hester’s thoughts break the law of her town and that of the Bible, they appear evil and blasphemous. She can only conceive of progressive, feminist ideals because of her sin. On some level, Hester knows that she is on her way to Hell no matter what she does, so she lets her thoughts venture into places that others never do, for fear of damnation. Her mind takes great liberties and creates ideas that, if discovered, would be given greater punishments than those of adultery. Hester’s public works and humility give the impression of great piety, while at the same time her mind thinks “blasphemous” and “damning” thoughts.
Though Hester can fake possessing devoutness, externalizing her spirit is quite different. Hester’s outer appearance gives the impression that her soul is dead; however, Hester eventually shows that it is, in fact, quite alive. Hawthorne describes Hester’s appearance after seven years of wearing the scarlet letter and states that, “All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might have been repulsive, had she possessed friends or companions to be repelled by it” (142). Living for years under the burden of her sin has a devastating affect on Hester’s physical appearance. As humiliation and shame bombard her emotional state, Hester loses much of her beauty and feminine grace. She spends years contemplating her actions and not communicating and socializing with people. Hester’s ignominy crushes her appearance and soul; she appears to have given up hope altogether and believes herself incapable of feeling anything ever again. However, when Hester and Dimmesdale are in the woods they talk about what they are going to do with their lives. Hester cries out, “‘Thou are crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery… But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! It shall not cumber thy steps.” Dimmesdale replies, “O Hester… I must die here. There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!” To this Hester has nothing more to say but, “Thou shalt not go alone!”(173-174). Hester is, in fact, capable of not only feeling emotions, but the greatest one known to man – love. She loves Dimmesdale to the point where she is willing and wanting to leave everything she knows to lighten his burden. Despite the fact that the town has brought great pain to Hester, it is the only place she calls home. To be able to leave her settlement shows much bravery and the magnitude of the sacrifice which she makes for Dimmesdale. Though Hester is in an incredibly weak emotional state at this point in the novel, she can still support Dimmesdale. Hester may appear to be an emotionless corpse on the outside, but her inner spirit is strong and full of love.
The people of Hester’s community, judging only what they can see, misunderstand Hester’s motives and ideals. Like others who form opinions based solely on appearance, the community forfeits the possibility of truly knowing – even learning from – the deep, strong spirit belonging to the woman they have shunned.
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