Hester and I

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Hester and I

Name:  Marie

My first reading of the Scarlet Letter took place in high school. As a young and nave girl, with virtually no relationship experience, I felt no real connection to the work. However, rereading the book almost five years later, among greatly changed circumstances, I feel a more personal attraction to the work and its characters. This is due to the fact, and I'm almost afraid to say it, that I, like Hester, am an adulterer.

That may be a bit dramatic, but about nine months ago I cheated on my long-term boyfriend. Understandably, the situation between Hester and I is different- obviously, I was not married, did not bare a child, and was not publicly condemned and jailed by Puritan society. Nonetheless, I do not find this comparison silly or useless, for like Hester, I continue to harbor feelings of guilt and shame, and am forced to face people's judgments. Just as Hester's affair shaped her very existence, this event proved extremely meaningful in my own life, and affected me in ways I never could have imagined. As a result of my past actions, I identify myself with Hester more than anyone and anything in the novel and thus believe it interesting to juxtapose our two stories. By offering a modern retelling of Hester's plight, I hope to analyze the basic emotions and consequences that inevitably accompany "cheating." Furthermore, in examining two similar cases set in two very different times, I question the value of the lessons learned in a contemporary reading of the Scarlet Letter. My "Hester-like" personal experience illustrates that more than one hundred and fifty years after its writing, these Puritanical conceptions of judgment from sin still remain dispersed throughout society.

In the Scarlet Letter, the reader knows very little details about the affair between Dimmesdale and Hester; the reader of this essay will not have the same dilemma. After dating my long-distance boyfriend John* for almost a year and a half, I made a decision to cheat and engaged in a three week "affair" with a friend from high school. Feeling lonely and unloved, and seeing that John was hardly ever around, I justified the secret to myself until finally caught. Filled with hatred and pain, John acted out, becoming quickly vengeful towards me. Feeling no need to hide the details of my "affair," he immediately called friends and family members, and exposed my sinful deeds. Word spread quickly, and soon almost everyone knew my story. Forced to acknowledge the truth, the next few days were tough and filled with tears; I constantly felt a mixture of pain, guilt, and humiliation towards John, my family, my town, and most importantly, myself. I now had a reputation and was more than aware of the truth within my mother's disappointed words: "This is how people may remember you."


The beginning of my story draws many parallels with Hester's own situation. Writes Hawthorne, "Hester Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with glazed eyes...She had borne, that morning, all that nature could endure" (50). Similarly, both our sins were not merely personal matters, but matters that circulated throughout society. Thus the quote covers two feelings- the shame Hester herself felt for cheating on her husband, and the shame she felt when exposed to the public. In looking inward, it was naturally difficult to internalize the reasons for my
action- the last thing I needed and wanted was to explain these reasons to people who did not truly know me. Without truly knowing the circumstances, they could never truly
comprehend my feelings, and thus never really understand why I did what I did. The same holds true for Hester, though her situation is more extreme and also more unfortunate. Condemned by the law, she had no means of escape from the scorn of society. Ransacked with emotions, Hester exclaimed, "I have thought of death-have wished for it- would even have prayed for it, were it fit that such as I should pray for anything" (52). At first, I felt that she greatly over-dramatized her response to the situation, but then I remembered my own reactions. I cannot say that I wished for death, but I recall yelling out, referring to myself as "a piece of scum" and "worthless." The emotions one feels after cheating are all encompassing and characterized by despair. Though Hester and I felt no real love within our relationships, the pain, guilt, and shame, especially when exposed to society, nonetheless caused tremendous suffering.


Eventually forced to face people again, I felt extremely vulnerable to what seemed like everyone's stares. The people who shunned me the most were those closest to John and his family, but seeing that they had been my friends too, this made things particularly difficult. For instance, one friend told me that her mother had exclaimed, "I didn't think Marie was that kind of girl!" Again, I felt immoral, distressed, and hurt. Yet, shamed as I was, leaving was not an option. School would eventually render an escape, but the entire summer was before me. Therefore, I acknowledged my mistake, and escaped from "the shadows"- eventually, I even learned to accept it.

Similarly, Hester, who never denies her wrongdoings, stayed in Boston and by wearing the "A," recognizes her immoral action. Writes Hawthorne, "There was more life for Hester Prynne here, in New England...here had been her sin; here, her sorrow;
and here was yet to be her penitence" (165). Furthermore, Hester, in accepting the letter, controls her fate, and doesn't allow society to completely exert its power over her. While recognizing the apparent differences between Puritanical and contemporary society, one still discovers that society contributes to these negative feelings and acts as another wall, which significantly hinders the personal conquering of the emotions that accompany the "sinful" action. These feelings do not easily go away and cannot simply be ignored. States Hawthorne, "Here again was the scarlet misery, glittering on the old spot! So it ever is, whether thus typified or no, that an evil deed invests itself with the character of doom" (135). Still, Hester fought through it all and with time "they said that it meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne with a woman's strength" (111).
Accordingly, many students viewed Hester a "strong woman." However, I believe this was, in part, due to her entire story being laid out before them, for they knew the conditions of her "sin" and could empathize with her constant pain. Further, they knew of the peculiarities of her "relationship" with Chillingworth and the true nature of her character. Aware of these details, the reader is reluctant to condemn. Similarly, my relationship with John marked a year of enduring emotional abuse and borderline depression. Whether my actions were a form of "lashing out" remains unseen, but is an essential aspect in assessing the situation. One would be foolish to judge an action as
immoral without knowing all the facts and circumstances that surround it. Yet, this is exactly what the Puritans did, and contemporary society shows little change.


Thus, for me, the Scarlet Letter is symbolic of a larger personal journey, especially in respect to the plight of Hester. "Had Hester sinned alone?" (60). No, she did not sin alone- I, along with countless other women and men, have sinned with her. Writing this paper gave me an opportunity to release the shame and guilt I felt. More importantly however, the similarities between our two stories shows how the Puritanical notions of sin, judgment, and condemnation, remain, unfortunately, fixed in society, despite changing times. Still, I wear my scarlet "A" not proudly, but courageously, and through acceptance and personal forgiveness, I, like Hester, am able to move from the past to the future. Likewise, the novel concludes with Hester's leave from Boston, which is symbolic of her own individual absolution. Though she returns, and continues to wear the "A," it takes a different meaning, and is no longer a stigma. I'm sure that she, like me, will always feel some guilt, no matter what the circumstances of our sin may be. But ultimately it is we who must forgive ourselves and move on, looking beyond the judgment of others Hopefully society will eventually realize the value of this lesson learned. Unfortunately, it has not happened yet.


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