When I teach Hawthorne’s masterpiece at a conservative seminary, I frequently encounter people who struggle with the attitudes evidenced by Hester Prynne toward her sin. Is Hester utterly unrepentant? I don’t believe so. If she were, why would she speak so reluctantly when Pearl asks questions that cut a bit too close to that sin?
Still, Hester seems to behave strangely for a truly repentant person. She smiles broadly early in the novel. She famously embroiders the letter A on her dress, as if to draw extra attention to this enforced and visible marker of her guilt. Late in the tale, she conspires with Arthur as if to pick up their relationship where it left off and abscond to anywhere that isn’t Massachusetts.
I would suggest that none of the three principle adults in this novel behaves admirably, and each one’s failure revolves around his or her honesty and self-appraisal. Hester, by recoiling when Pearl touches the letter or avoiding the child’s questions, disavows who she is in relation to the child. This is a fairly insignificant level of dishonesty, leaving Hester, in my opinion, as the most admirable of the trio.
Arthur, of course, fails to acknowledge his daughter or to stand beside Hester in her time of accusal. For the length of the main narrative, Arthur lives a lie, one that eats at him and ultimately, apparently, leads him to an early grave.
Roger, of course, is the most dishonest of the trio, failing to acknowledge his own wife and even living under a false name in order to maintain his distance from her. Roger stands a sort of anti-Hosea. When Hosea’s wife of harlotry returned to her previous life, what does the prophet do but seek after and redeem her. Roger finds his wife, holding the fruits of adultery, and refuses to even acknowledge her.
Like most of Hawthorne’s important characters, none of this trio can be taken as wholly good or wholly evil. Hester redeems herself in both the eyes of the reader and those of the people around her not when they see that her sin was not truly sin. It was sin, and to read Hawthorne otherwise is to do violence to his intent. Instead, we see Hester as a sinful woman who redeems herself through a lifetime of good behavior. Like Rahab’s, Hester’s sin is not ignored; instead, it is seen to be a true failing that is not the sum of who she is.
Arthur, of course, tortured by his guilt as he is, eventually does the right thing, claiming his child years too late. Even the scoundrel Roger, who delights in foiling the couple’s plotted escape, demonstrates a few glimmers of decency and provides handsomely for Pearl, a child he might have been justified to ignore or oppose.
Hester’s strange behavior, then, is neither evidence of her angelic nature or her lack of remorse. Like all Hawthorne’s characters–and indeed like most humans–Hester is a mixture of good and bad, the bad element not to be eliminated while still on this earth.