Misogyny is a worldview that is characterized by hostility towards women. Misogyny can manifest itself in many ways, including discrimination, violence, and sexual harassment. Misogyny is often found in literature, and one prime example is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In this novel, Hawthorne uses the character of Hester Prynne to explore the effects of misogyny on women.
Hester Prynne is a woman who has been condemned by her Puritan community for committing adultery. She is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest as a sign of her shame. Hester endures public humiliation and scorn because of her sin, but she also faces misogyny from the people around her. The men in her community view Hester as a temptress and a whore, and they treat her harshly because of it. The women in the community are also dismissive of Hester, viewing her as a bad example for their own daughters.
Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, is one of the most misogynistic characters in the novel. He is obsessed with revenge, and he views Hester as nothing more than a tool to be used in his scheme. Chillingworth is cruel to Hester, both mentally and physically. He subjects her to psychological torture by constantly reminding her of her sin, and he also physically hurts her on multiple occasions.
Hawthorne uses Hester’s story to explore the effects of misogyny on women. Hester is a strong and independent woman, but she is also deeply scarred by the misogyny she has experienced. The novel shows how misogyny can lead to isolation, shame, and self-loathing in women. It also demonstrates how misogyny can be used as a tool of control and oppression.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, suffer from the consequences of a society hell-bent on conformity and obsessed with sin. As a result of the Puritans’ misogynistic views, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for adultery, is publicly humiliated, and is not allowed to raise her daughter with any man.
Misogyny, or the hatred of women, rears its ugly head in The Scarlet Letter in various ways such as through the character of Roger Chillingworth, the townspeople’s mistreatment of Hester, and even through Hawthorne’s use of sexist language.
First and foremost, misogyny is rampant in The Scarlet Letter through the character of Roger Chillingworth. Although he is Hester’s husband, Chillingworth is more interested in revenge than he is in her. After Hester commits adultery with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Chillingworth arrives in town masquerading as a physician. In reality, however, he only wants to get close to Dimmesdale so that he can find out who Pearl’s father is and exact his revenge.
When Chillingworth finally learns Dimmesdale’s secret, he begins to torture him both mentally and physically. For example, he feeds Dimmesdale strange herbs that make him weak and sickly. In addition, Chillingworth relentlessly prods and prods at Dimmesdale’s conscience, driving him insane. In the end, Chillingworth’s obsession with revenge destroys both him and Dimmesdale. Moreover, it is clear that Chillingworth hates women because he views them as nothing more than objects to be used and abused.
For instance, when Hester first tells Chillingworth about her affair, he responds by saying, “Woman! Woman! You were created for man’s pleasure! And do you know your duty? To please him—to be his slave and toy! […] It is our doom” (Hawthorne 72). Here, Chillingworth not only degrades women but also insists that their sole purpose in life is to serve and please men. In other words, he believes that women are nothing more than sex objects. Consequently, it is no surprise that Chillingworth takes out his hatred of women on Hester by torturing Dimmesdale.
In addition to the character of Roger Chillingworth, misogyny is also evident in the way the townspeople treat Hester. For instance, after Hester is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” for adultery, she is subjected to public humiliation. Whenever she walks down the street, people point and stare at her, and children make fun of her.
In fact, even Hawthorne refers to her as the “wretch” and the “adulteress” (Hawthorne 41). Furthermore, the townspeople are so obsessed with sin that they even go so far as to force Hester to stand on the scaffold in the marketplace for three hours, holding Pearl and her scarlet letter “A” for all to see.
The townspeople’s treatment of Hester is a clear example of misogyny because they are treating her poorly simply because she is a woman. If she were a man, they would not be nearly as hard on her. In fact, if Dimmesdale had been caught committing adultery, he would have most likely gotten away with it because Puritan society was much more lenient towards men. Consequently, it is evident that the townspeople’s mistreatment of Hester is a direct result of their misogynistic views.
Lastly, misogyny is also present in Hawthorne’s use of sexist language. For example, he repeatedly refers to Hester as a “strumpet” and a “harlot” (Hawthorne 41). In addition, he describes her as being “in the wildest flush of youth and beauty” (Hawthorne 41). By using such language, Hawthorne objectifies Hester and reduces her to nothing more than a sexual object. Furthermore, he paints her in a negative light by suggesting that she is nothing more than a sinful woman who deserves to be punished. In other words, Hawthorne’s use of sexist language is a clear example of misogyny.
Misogyny is a major theme in The Scarlet Letter, and it is evident in many different ways. First and foremost, it is present in the character of Roger Chillingworth. Secondly, it is evident in the way the townspeople treat Hester. Lastly, it is present in Hawthorne’s use of sexist language. Consequently, it is clear that misogyny plays a significant role in The Scarlet Letter and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view of women.
Hester, Hawthorne demonstrates a misogynistic viewpoint by depicting that women have no meaning and exist to serve others. He illustrates how the repression of women inhibits self-discovery and results in a shared existential crisis, burying the female psyche in dehumanizing, machine-like madness. When expressing Hester’s virtue and gravestone, Hawthorne emphasizes the inferiority of women.
Furthermore, he reveals the societal expectation that women must serve and please men through Hester’s subservient role in the household and her acts of self-effacement. Lastly, Hawthorne emphasizes the ways in which women internalize misogyny, causing them to repress their own desires and succumb to a life of false contentment. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a misogynistic society that ultimately results in the repression of women and their dehumanization.
Hester Prynne is a perfect example of Hawthorne’s view on women as she is seen as an insignificant character with little to no redeeming qualities. Even from the very beginning, when Hester first arrives in Boston, she is described as “a small, thin woman… with a scarlet letter on her bosom” (Hawthorne 9). The first thing the reader learns about Hester is that she is not only small and weak, but she also has a symbol of shame branded on her chest.
This immediately sets her up as someone who is not to be taken seriously and serves as a reminder that she is an outsider in this Puritan society. In addition, when Hawthorne describes Hester’s virtue at the end of the novel, he states that it is “a sad reality that virtue is seldom rewarded on earth” (Hawthorne 169).
By saying this, Hawthorne implies that even though Hester may have been a good person, her goodness was not enough to save her from the punishment she received. In other words, her virtue was not significant enough to outweigh the scarlet letter and she will always be known as a sinner. Furthermore, at the end of the novel, when Hester is on her deathbed, Hawthorne describes her grave as being “a simple slab of granite… with no ornament or device whatever” (Hawthorne 169).
This shows how even in death, Hester is not given the same respect as other women in the Puritan society. She is not given an ornate grave like those who are considered good and virtuous, but instead she is given a simple stone that does not even have her name carved on it. This emphasizes Hawthorne’s view that women are not important enough to be remembered and their lives are not as valuable as those of men.
In addition to Hawthorne’s view that women are insignificant, he also suggests that their only purpose is to serve and please men. This is seen in Hester’s subservient role in the household and her acts of self-effacement. When Hester first arrives in Boston, she is forced to live in a small cottage on the outskirts of town with her daughter, Pearl.
While living there, she makes a meager living by doing laundry for the townspeople. This shows how Hester is expected to do all the work around the house and how her only value is in her ability to serve others. Furthermore, Hester is constantly putting herself down in an effort to please the people of the Puritan society.
For example, when she is asked to stand on the scaffold and reveal the name of Pearl’s father, she does so without hesitation even though it would have been much easier for her to keep silent. By doing this, Hawthorne suggests that women will go to any length to please men, even if it means sacrificing their own happiness.