Forgive Yourself, Sweet Hester
“It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge,” calmly replied Hester. “Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport.” (163)
Hester Prynne, the central character in the Scarlet Letter, realizes and accepts the consequences of the adulterous act she committed against her husband, Roger Chillingworth, as Hawthorne shows in this quotation. Hester, throughout the book, excludes and humbles herself because of her crime, rather than simply running away. At the same time, she advertises her sin through the brilliantly embroidered “A” and through her daughter, Pearl, born out of this sin. Hester realizes that she indeed sinned in committing adultery, and, being the strong individual that she is, accepts the consequences of her actions.
In fact, much of the suffering incurred from Hester’s sin results from her own actions. She, by her own choice, wears humble, dismal clothes; she moves to the outskirts of her town, but refuses to run away to a place where no one knows of her crime; she excludes herself from society, while society does not always exclude her. Instead of escaping her crime, Hester embraces it. She declares, “It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge... Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport,” realizing the crime she committed and the fairness of her punishment—the scarlet letter (163).
Hester goes so far as to dwell upon the letter as a symbol of her guilt. The brilliant crimson “A” resides on her humbly clothed chest, making the letter stand out all the more; Pearl, the child of sin, runs beside her mother, dressed in spectacular clothing “abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold thread,” in effect, personifying that same symbol (102). In each case, Hester advertises the fact that she has sinned and that she is paying for her crime, again bring more suffering upon herself. And again, she accepts it. She realizes the letter should only be removed when she is no longer guilty of her crime. She knows, therefore, that day will never come.
Society, however, thinks differently. They see Hester now for her talents as a weaver, not as an outcast. True, they do not allow her to make holy garments, but her work is described as being fit for a king to wear. Even Roger Chillingworth, the man she wronged, does not believe that her crime merits such a punishment as the letter, meant to shame her in front of society. Society tends not to respond to her as an outcast, but instead values her ability. Many even turn to say that the letter does not stand for “adultery,” but rather “able.” It is she who shames herself.
This quotation reveals the determination and strength of Hester Prynne. Knowing she committed adultery, she fully accepts and endures the consequences of that act. Yet, Hester increases those consequences by her own hand through her willing exclusion from society. She bears two symbols of her crime—the scarlet letter and her daughter Pearl. Still, to Hester, neither seems to be punishment enough.