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In the Eyes of the Beholder

'The Scarlet Letter' and the Trade of Power

In the Eyes of the Beholder:

Classification, labels, branding: we have all been sorted into groups whether through our income, gender, religious beliefs, or even the most simple of things; your shirt, your shoes, the way we look at each other. According to Linguist Benjamin Whorf, “the words we use to describe things aren't just idle placeholders-they actually determine what we see" (Psychology Today). Adam Alter wrote about the physiological classification of everything we surround ourselves with. It is human nature to label, it makes a complex idea more simple for us to process. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne is labeled as a sinner and branded with the letter A, which is embroidered on all of her garments. This is the town's way of deeming her “the other” and stripping away her power and morality as an individual. Hawthorne unveils where power truly lies and how we can use that power through Hester Prynne.

Hawthorne starts the book off by telling of the era and morals during this time. He writes that the punishment for Hester's sin is “almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself” (Hawthorne 38). Hester must stand on a scaffold in the center of town and embroider a scarlet A on her wardrobe for the rest of her life. Hester also has a daughter she named Pearl; a daughter of sin. This book takes place in the 1650s when church and state were the same, and the Bible was law of the land. Hester Prynne had been convicted of adultery, which was one of the worst crimes you could commit. She was no longer the “figure of perfection” (Hawthorne 40), she was the “naughty baggage” (Hawthorne 39) of the town. Now, with all the gossip around town, Hester Prynne reaches a defining point. With the amount of shame and hatred she faces, she should be worn and remorseful. Her crime should drag at her feet like weights that she has to carry with her for the rest of her life. “ an action marked with a natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will” (Hawthorne 40). 

“And never has Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. (Hawthorne 40). In this moment, Hester held power. It would be believed that the townsfolk have the power; the power to break Hester down and tear her heart from her chest as if she owed each and every one of them her penance. It would be believed that the hierarchy of men would have power over Hester with their ability to sentence her to whichever punishment they find fitting. But that power can only be given by Hester. Hawthorne proves that Hester is the only one with a real origin of power. Her ability to stand before the only people she knew, to stand before the whole town and take away their power made her untouchable. The scaffold of sin and shame was held above those of the town, which in itself can symbolize hierarchical power. Although she wouldn't let anyone know, Hester was affected every day. The scarlet A that laid over her heart ran deeper than her garments. The A had a hold on her chest. It was loneliness and shame—a mark that scared everyone away, that designated her as the “other.”

With the amount of shame Hester is force-fed by the townsmen, her ability to hide her pain began to falter. As time goes on you see how an object can hold the most influential power of all. The scarlet A is supposed to serve as punishment by branding her as a sinner and depleting her of her humanity, which gives this A the ultimate power. According to J.D Meier there are six different types of power. The book Social Psychology: Theories, Research, and Applications by Robert S. Feldman is referenced as identifying these six types of power. The first is Reward Power: the ability to give rewards when others comply with your wishes. The second is Coercive Power: having the ability to deliver punishments. The next is Referent Power: when you hold power as a role model, somebody wanting to be like you. Legitimate Power: power that comes from a position or role, having authority. Expert Power: knowledge and credibility that bring power due to extensive knowledge. The last type of power is Informational Power: power derived from knowing information others don't (Meier). The Scarlet Letter is a prime example of uses of power. Hawthorne gives the “A” all of the power, but it means different things to each character. Pearl, for instance, believes the A is special and she grows up romanticizing the exclusive scarlet A. In Pearl’s case, the scarlet A gives Hester a sort of referent power. Pearl wants to have her own scarlet A and could even be considered jealous of her mother’s A. The minister, governor, and other high-class men of the town have legitimate power over the town and its citizens. This power has kept the town peaceful for many years, but with Hester’s scandal, they had to deliver a serious punishment. There is one more person with power—God—who is above them all. His power is a combination of reward power, rewarding those who live by the Bible with an afterlife in Heaven, and coercive power. As Dimmesdale said, “At the great judgement day,” whispered the minister... “Then, and there, before the judgement seat, thy mother, and thou, and I must stand together” (Hawthorne 101). God has the power to punish you for your sins on Earth.

Although power is evident in many forms, the most important is the power of the scarlet letter. This symbol of shame that isolates Hester from the rest of her world, the letter that lies over her heart—breaking it a little more every day. “The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne’s bosom. Here was another ruin, the responsibility of which came partly to her.” (Hawthorne 111) The punishment that was “ stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.” (Hawthorne 38) The A had drained her of her youth, had taken her vitality and hope. It left her a shell of the wild and adventurous girl she used to be. Finally when Hester removes the scarlet letter, “The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit”... “...she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance and imparting the charm of softness to her features. They played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes...”... “Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back…” (Hawthorne 130). This represents Hester freeing herself from all the power that had bound and intertwined her with the scarlet letter. Soon enough, Hester finds strength in the letter. She sees what the scarlet letter means to her. It means love. The love for her daughter Pearl, a direct result of her sin. Hester loves Pearl and sees much of her vibrant old self reflected in her. The love she had for the minister; the two would forever be tied together by the scarlet letter. To the townspeople, Hester was loved and forgiven for her sin, “Such helpfulness was found in her,- so much power to do, and power to sympathize,- that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (Hawthorne 106).

To conclude, Hawthorne wrote about the power of individuals as well as the power of labels. The Scarlet Letter proves that power lies in the eye of the beholder. As linguist Benjamin Whorf said, “The words we use to describe things aren't just idle placeholders-they actually determine what we see.” When Hester believed the scarlet letter was her shame to carry, heavy over her heart, it did. But when Hester believed in her own strength, the scarlet letter became a symbol of that strength. “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”- Philip K. Dick

Works Cited:

  • Alter, Adam. “Why It's Dangerous to Label People.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 17 May 2010,
  • Farr, Naunerle C., et al. The Scarlet Letter. Lake Education, 1994.
  • Jd. “6 Types of Social Power.” Sources of Insight, 22 Aug. 2015,
  • “Philip K. Dick Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore,
  • “Obo.” Social Control - Sociology - Oxford Bibliographies, 15 Feb. 2018,

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