The two novels The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne relate to each other through some selected themes, the main symbol in both novels and the characters of two protagonists Edna and Hester.
In The Awakening and The Scarlet letter meaning can be found in the theme of freedom and the most important symbols present (Bird and Scarlet letter). Difference in Edna’s and Hester’s characters can also be noticed.
The theme of freedom in both The Awakening and The Scarlet Letter is portrayed through the protagonists Edna and Hester. Freedom, for Edna, is being released from the expectations of women in the victorian society and conventional image, which Chopin compares to an ill-fitting garment. Chopin means that the restricted conduct which was expected of women does not fit Edna. Thus, she relates them to an ill fitted garment. Edna’s idea of freedom is pulling back from duties of any kind, including moral duties to her husband and children.
This wish of radical freedom is the reason behind Edna’s obsession with the sea, which is free and a place of peace and privacy. As Edna lost her connections with other characters in the novel, she got the sense that the people in her surroundings were ‘half human beings’ in an ‘alien world’. This world is ‘alien’ for her as she does not belong to the creole community. She feels deviated from her place in the world, as though no longer human and is free from all restrictions. Throughout the novel, Edna gaines freedom through various “awakenings.” She realizes her importance as an individual in the world For example she moved out of Leonce’s house without consulting him and also stated “I am no longer a possession of Mr Pontellier” to Robert (Chopin ch36).
Same is the case with Hester in The Scarlet Letter. Hester gaines freedom the day when she arrives in Boston. She uses her free will to commit adultery with the young minister Dimmesdale. However, this act of her’s resulted in loss of her freedom. Hester Prynne lives in a heavily oppressive puritan society. It is therefore no wonder that the Puritan community treated Hester as an outcast for the sin she commited. After the birth of her illegal child Pearl, Hester’s freedom perished. She is jailed and ‘forced’ to wear the scarlet letter on her body as a symbol of sin. The whole town lashes out on her for several years. Hester is treated as an outsider and is left with no choice but to live in an abandoned cottage in the outskirts of the town.
However, just like Edna, Hester gaines her freedom due to her acts. Her first step can be seen when she confronts Governor Bellingham while he tried to take Pearl away from her. This shows that regardless of her social status, Hester has freedom of speech and is ready to face challenges. Hester due to her charity works and public service gaines recognition which provides her with freedom as people respected her by taking the letter A for able and she is once again allowed to be a part of society. By the end of the novel Hester has the audacity to make an escape plan with Dimmesdale which shows that she has regained her lost right of freedom.
The protagonists in The Scarlet Letter and The Awakening share similar attributes. Both Edna and Hester are strong willed women. Hester protects the young minister Dimmesdale, her true love. She does not reveal Dimmesdale’s secret of adultery by taking the matter into her own hands. She is put on the scaffold in front of the whole community for her sin. Therefore, Hester has to wear an embroidered letter ‘A’ and has to endure all the public humiliation because of her act of adultery with Dimmesdale. She has the opportunity of escaping the atrocities by fleeing away.
However, Hester does run away from her problems, instead she acknowledges them. On the contrary, Edna She tolerates all of her problems including her husband and uses strength as weapon against them. Edna due to her actions becomes an outsider just like Hester, but even in this state, she remains strong and determined. Independence for Edna is key to her identity; the main leap towards this independence is when she moves to the “pigeon house”. This is similar to Hester’s action as when she decided to flee to Europe with Dimmesdale. These actions alone shows how strong both of them became by the end of the novels and were not afraid of the consequences of their own actions.
Both Edna and Hester have romantic personalities as they make various decisions based on their desires and affections in the heat of the moment, even though they are aware of the outcome of their actions. Hester commits adultery with one of the town’s most well known and honorable minister Dimmesdale. It is a sin that was punishable by death in the Puritan society. As a result, she suffers punishment for her sins. While on the other hand Edna who is also a married woman with two children Raoul and Etienne, has affairs with a couple of men in the novel. She loves Robert from the bottom of her heart. While Robert is away, she has a small affair with Alcee Arobin as well. Even though cheating is considered a sin in Edna’s ‘Creole’ society, she is involved in affairs without any fear due to her romantic desires.
Both Edna and Hester are mothers. However, Hester cares more deeply for her child as compared to Edna. Hester names her child Pearl because she is her only ‘treasure’.The relationship between Edna and her illegitimate daughter Pearl is quite significant. It is unquestionable that Hester loves her daughter. This can be seen from the fact when Hester pleaded so touchingly for Pearl when the Governor tried to take her away from her mother. ”Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” (Hawthorne pg#101). This quote, is said by Hester when she implored the governor to let her keep Pearl. It shows just how important Pearl was to Hester.
Moreover, Hester always treats Pearl with love and calmness. She tries to groom her in the best way possible in the harsh conditions they were in. While on the other hand, Edna on most occasions is unable to show true love and affection for her two children Raoul and Ettien The other ‘mother-women’ such as Adele who surround her seem to put their children as first priority above everything else. This is not the case for Edna, who is more concerned with her own satisfaction and happiness than that of her children. This is evident as Edna addressed to Adele “I would give up the unessential, I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but i won’t give up myself…” (Chopin ch16)
There are plenty of symbols in both the novels however, some prominent ones such as the ‘Bird’ in Chopin’s book and the Scarlet Letter in Hawthorne’s book are seen all across the text. The bird in the awakening symbolizes Edna’s wild nature. At the start, there is a caged parrot and a caged mockingbird which represent Edna. The birds just like her, are cared for and natured but are deprived of freedom. Mademoiselle Reisz links rebellious women like Edna with birds who must be strong enough to soar high above society. Just before Edna’s apparent suicide, she sees a bird with a broken wing that descended into the water as she drowned.
The last bird to be mentioned in the novel is a symbol of Edna’s failed effort to be free from all restrictions. On the contrary, the scarlet letter shows the world that Hester committed adultery, and so it is a mark of her sin and disgrace. However by the end of the book, the letter is taken for “able”. Thus, the symbol of dishonor became a badge of honor. In a larger sense, the scarlet letter represents Hester’s identity, who she is to herself and to others, which shifted during the course of the book. The symbol echoes in Pearl (the living embodiment of the A), the meteor streaking across the sky, the A that Pearl fashions with seaweed and puts on her chest, and finally the A on the gravestone that links Hester’s grave and Dimmesdale’s.
The Scarlet Letter and The Awakening are written in the same context . Edna represents all victorian women while Hester all women of New England. Since these books are written in the time similar to the time period shown in the stories, the primary aim of both authors is to create awareness among people about women’s problems. They also possess a great lesson for today’s women. They are truly blessed since women in the modern world are free and have equal rights as men which was not the case in older times.