What It Betokened: Waiting for Hester in The Scarlet Letter
Abstract

This contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium on enmity argues that there is more to the problem of enmity than understanding, preventing, and resolving it: one must also recover from it and from its effects. Drawing on a psychoanalytic theory of shame that discriminates between narcissistic injuries that are enduring and those that can be overcome, this essay proposes a reading of Hester Prynne’s transformation in The Scarlet Letter as a series of recognitions informed by her emotional relations to her estranged husband, her lover, their daughter, and her fellow women. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heroine is condemned by her community for her adultery and suffers in silence for seven years before her shame erupts as anger at the men she had idealized and now recognizes as having betrayed her long before she deceived one of them. Only when she understands that the marriage arranged by her father to a man of his own age took advantage of her youth and legal powerlessness does she begin to redistribute blame for this sexual abuse. Refusing to serve the interests of her hated husband, she is able to forgive herself and eventually becomes a source of healing for other injured women.


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