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Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter: Description, Traits & Character Analysis

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  • 0:01 Book Summary
  • 0:24 Description
  • 1:49 Traits
  • 3:05 Character Analysis
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will discuss the heroine of 'The Scarlet Letter,' Hester Prynne. A description of her physical appearance, her traits, and an analysis of her character will be followed by a short quiz.

Book Summary

The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne, might seem archaic to modern readers. This is partly due to the fact that the novel is set in the 1640s, over 200 years before its publication. Hawthorne's most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman who commits adultery and is forced to live with the consequences in the Puritan community of Salem, Massachusetts.

Description

Hester Prynne is first described in the chapter 'The Market-Place' when a group of townspeople gathered on the lawn outside the jail witness her release. The women in the crowd have a poor opinion of Hester, calling her a malefactress, a female criminal.

The first physical description of Hester follows just after her release. Described as a young woman, her actions are 'marked with natural dignity and force of character.' Even though she is in prison and at the whim of others, her actions are described as appearing to be of her own free will.

When Hester is released, she holds her 3-month-old child in her hands. The child, a product of her sin of adultery, stirs mixed feelings in Hester. She blushes, but maintains a 'glance that would not be abashed.'

Aside from Hester's beauty, which is dignified rather than delicate and described as shining behind her so strongly as if to make a 'halo of the misfortune' she has experienced, the most notable part of Hester's physical appearance is the A on her chest. It is described as being made from 'fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread.' The A stands for her crime of adultery, and Hester is forced to wear it as part of her public humiliation.

Traits

Although Hester Prynne is beautiful, her beauty barely compares to her strength of character. Even when she is punished for her crime of adultery and publicly humiliated by being forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest, Hester does not break.

She remains exactly who she is: strong, kind, proud, but also humble. Contrary to what the gossiping women on the grass at the beginning of the book think, Hester is not without shame. She is honest about her affair, but after she is released from jail, she isolates herself from the rest of the society and covers her beauty by wearing a hat. Appropriately distanced from everyone else, Hester raises her daughter who she thinks God gave to her for a reason.

Another strong trait of Hester's is her honesty. Although her husband demands to know the name of her lover, Hester refuses to turn her lover in. Because of this, Hester endures her punishment alone.

Hester is also kind. Since she is shunned by the rest of the community, she has no friends, and apart from raising her daughter, she has no obligations, either. She spends her time in solitude or giving help to those who need it, such as the poor or the governor, whose bedside she sits next to as he dies. The people she helps do not show the same generosity to her in return.

Character Analysis

Even though her fellow townspeople look down on her, Hester Prynne is a likable character. Readers might not approve of her adulterous behavior, but they can sympathize with her desire to escape, at least momentarily, from a loveless marriage.

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