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Teaching Motherhood in The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter has been a staple of high school reading lists for ages. Here are some ways to highlight mothering in the novel.


 

I did an informal poll last week and discovered that The Scarlet Letter appears to be one of the most-taught novels in American high schools, both public and private. Both of my sons, age 49 and 37 read it in the tenth grade in a DC public high school; I read it in the eleventh grade in a public school in Houston, Texas. Several of my nineteen-year-old current students read it in elite prep schools and two sixteen-olds I know are currently reading it. Even the ones who are currently reading it are vague about, as one put it, the “message.” The internet sites that “support” high school students with literary analyses are loud and clear: the “theme” of the novel is “about sin and punishment—how Hester Prynne has been punished for her “sin,” or how “secret sin leads to guilt and pain.”


I’d like to offer a different standpoint that highlights Hawthorne’s portrait of Hester as both mother and Madonna—in spite of her great “sin” of adultery. In Chapter II of the novel, the narrator introduces her as “this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity.”

This picture of divine maternity is a single mother, who, spurned by her community, denied by her minister-lover, takes in sewing and successfully raises Pearl, also known as the “elf” or “demon” child.

I would ask students to look closely at text throughout the novel that suggests that Hester is exalted rather than punished and even presented as an independent woman who turns that letter “A” into a transgressive and positive symbol of motherhood.


Feminist literary critic, Nina Baym, describes Hester Prynne “as the first and arguably still the greatest heroine in American literature.” I would suggest a class discussion that begins with this statement.

 

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