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Four Centuries Of Shaming
Jeimmy Hurtado
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The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a classic novel about a woman in Puritan New England who is accused of committing adultery. Before moving to Boston from England, the main character, Hester Prynne, had married a much older man named Roger Chillingworth. She didn’t love him, but marriage was expected of women in the 17th century. It wasn’t socially acceptable for them to live independently.

While waiting for her husband to meet her in the New World, Hester gets pregnant. The townspeople and ministers interrogate Hester, demanding that she reveal who the father of her child is, but she refuses. (Eventually, you find out who it is, but I don’t want to be a spoiler. Hester never reveals who he is so he goes unpunished, although he does fall ill from guilt.)

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Because Hester committed adultery, she is marked and shamed by having to wear the letter “A” patched onto her dress. This shaming does not go away after the birth of her child, Pearl. Hester is forced to endure years of alienation; the ministers arrange for her to live in a small cottage on the outskirts of town and no one talks to her. When she does walk into town with her daughter, the townspeople shun her and say things to each other like: “Behold there is the woman of the scarlet letter….Let us throw mud at them!”

A Better World for Women?

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While reading The Scarlet Letter, I saw a parallel between Hester’s humiliation and my own. Hester was publicly shamed by having to wear the letter A, so the world would know she had committed adultery. I was publicly shamed by having to wear oversized gym shorts all day at school, so everyone would know I had violated our school’s dress code. (I had worn leggings, which were considered too revealing.)

In my case, the huge gym shorts, which cover up a girl’s entire midriff and go down to her knees, are intended to prevent any “distraction” for boys. Both my gym shorts and Hester’s “A,” although four centuries apart, are symbols meant to punish women for natural expressions of sexuality. They also show that men don’t have to deal with these kinds of judgments. Hester is forced to display her “sin,” whereas the man who she had the affair with can hide it successfully. It’s been my experience that school dress codes mostly punish girls, not boys. Many other female students agree and have been protesting unfair dress codes at their high schools
all over the country.

In the novel, Hester eventually transcends her public shaming by reaching out to others who have suffered. Perhaps due to her isolation, Hester is able to see the lack of respect and degradation of other women in the town that she was not able to see before. “She felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense…it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.”

‘‘One day,’’ Hester says, ‘‘when God is ready, there will be a new world—a better world for women. We will be the same as men.’’ It is sad that although what happened to me is centuries later than Hester’s story, women are still degraded and do not receive the same treatment as men.

(NYC-2016-11-10)