The Virgin Mary: Hester Prynne as a Symbol of Divine Motherhood

Updated on October 1, 2018
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In the opening chapters of The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne is directly compared to the Virgin Mary. Hawthorne explains how her image may remind an outsider of “…Divine Maternity…the sacred image of sinless motherhood,” (Hawthorne 42)[1]. Hester’s comparison to the Virgin Mary can be analyzed on many levels, and this paper will examine the extent to which the comparison affects not only Hester’s character within the novel, but also how it challenges nineteenth century views regarding single mothers. Hawthorne uses Hester in order to promote an early version of feminism and argue that motherhood itself is divine, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it.

The narrator of this passage, and the entire novel, is Hawthorne himself. The passage is an observation put forth by Hawthorne, as opposed to the thoughts of a character in the narrative. Much of the commentary surrounding Hester’s actions and punishment does come from characters, especially in the pages surrounding this passage. The fact that this particular observation comes from Hawthorne acting as an intrusive narrator gives the passage more significance and causes it to stand out to the reader.

The passage itself, on the most basic level, describes Hawthorne’s observation that the image of Hester holding Pearl on the scaffold should remind a Catholic of the Virgin Mary. He then quickly notes that they would only be reminded of this due to the contrast between the two women. The wording of this passage is quite fascinating – Hawthorne says almost nothing definitively. He says that “had” a Catholic been present, he “might have” compared Hester to the Virgin Mary, which “should” remind him of “sinless motherhood,” (42). This wording is an incredibly interesting choice made by Hawthorne, as it is wildly ambiguous and does not actually tell the reader anything conclusive. Thus, the reader is left to his or her own interpretation of the comparison between the two women. That Hester would remind a Catholic of the Virgin Mary solely due to the contrast between the two is of minor importance; what is significant is that Hawthorne has forced the reader to ponder the identification of Hester with this sinless woman throughout the rest of the novel.

Although this passage appears quite early in the novel, it is not the first time that Hawthorne describes Hester in divine terms, nor is it the last. From the “halo” that Hester’s beauty creates from her misfortunes (40) to Hester’s exclamation that Pearl’s “Heavenly Father” sent her (67), Hawthorne has infused the novel with both subtle and overt references to Hester’s divinity and likeness to the Virgin Mary. Nevertheless, Hester has undoubtedly sinned: Hawthorne writes, “Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life,” (42). This sentence strongly contrasts the thought-provoking ambiguity of the earlier part of the passage. Similarly, the idea of sinless motherhood contrasts this deep sin that Hester has committed.

This sin that Hester has committed, however, is only a crime because society deems it so. Hester is being intensely watched by the Puritan society as she stands on the scaffold: the town beadle tells everyone to “‘…make way…[so everyone] may have a fair sight of [Hester’s] brave apparel…’” (41). The townspeople “thronged” to see her (41), and as she stands on the scaffold she is “…under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes,” (42). Even when Hester is compared to the “image of Divine Maternity,” it is through the eyes of a male Papist (42). Laura Mulvey, in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, explains the theory of the male gaze in which women are passive objects who are sexualized, projected onto, and styled by the dominant masculine heterosexual perspective.

Within the context of the Scarlet Letter, the Puritan society can be said to represent this male gaze as they watch Hester and make judgements onto her from a safe distance. The Papist who might have observed Hester, although an outsider, is also a representation of the male gaze. He projects the image of Divine Maternity onto her, but as a painting which “…so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent,” (42). Hester becomes an object, a work of art to be looked at and adored for her beauty instead of her life and being. As the entire town is watching her, their stares are “concentrated at her bosom,” (43). Hester becomes not only a beautiful object, but a sexualized object as well.

Hawthorne, as shown by the decisive end of the passage, does not pardon Hester’s sin. However, her sin does not ruin her character or life. Even from the initial scene on the scaffold, Hester refuses to be picked apart by the community. As she exits the prison, she repels the town beadle and steps forth “…as if by her own free will,” (40). Then as Hester reveals her scarlet letter, she sports a “haughty smile” and a “glance that would not be abashed,” (40). Hester completely owns her sin and accepts her punishment but refuses to receive the male gaze that attempts to control her.

Through Hester’s strength and strong will, she goes on to raise Pearl as a single mother. She uses her sewing skills to earn money for the two of them and uses her spare time to help those less fortunate, acting as a mother to them as well. She regains the respect of the townspeople to such an extent that many claim the “A” on her chest “…meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength,” (106). Hester’s goodness is so powerful that the Puritans, who initially punished Hester for her actions, begin to change their minds and her sin becomes accepted and often overlooked by society. At times, townspeople almost refuse to believe that she sinned at all.

Hester then begins to truly encapsulate the “sinless motherhood” that she is earlier contrasted with (42). She has accepted both her sin and her role as a single mother. Furthermore, she has empowered herself and has begun to truly represent Divine Maternity. Her embracement of motherhood and devotion to Pearl as well as her charity to others has allowed her to be redeemed. This suggests that motherhood itself is sacred: the divine love that binds Hester and Pearl together can coexist with and even overtake sin.

The idea that Hester, a single mother who conceived her child in passionate sin, can be compared to and said to represent Divine Maternity is a controversial suggestion, especially in the nineteenth century when single mothers were often judged quite harshly as they challenged the family ideals and standards for motherhood[2]. Hester’s role as a single mother breaks down barriers both within and outside of the novel. Although she is an individual, she can be said to represent a type, namely, she represents single mothers everywhere. Hawthorne, by making this comparison, challenges the ideals of family that are held not just by Puritan society but by many societies throughout the world, even into the twenty-first century. Hester, by showing her strength and gaining the respect of the community, destroys the male gaze that rests so heavily upon her as well as upon other single mothers. Hawthorne’s comparison between Hester and the Virgin Mary, both within the passage and throughout the novel, helps to break down the stigma surrounding single mothers and argues that motherhood in any form is divine

[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Edited by Leland S. Person, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

[2] See Leskošek for further reading on motherhood in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Leskošek, Vesna. “Historical Perspective on the Ideologies of Motherhood and its Impact on Social Work.” Social Work and Society International Online Journal Volume 9, Issue 2 (2011). Web. 29 Sept 2018.

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