Hester Prynne and Nora Helmer: A Comparative Analysis

“I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

That is a line from the book turned into movie, The Great Gatsby. In the years I have been here wandering in the world, virtual and real, I have been slapped in the face by the incandescent standards of the universe and its littlest portion on how women should be. A woman is always portrayed as a gift from the skies, pretty and elegant, or a royalty in distress saved by a hero who makes her swoon, or an evil witch behind every man’s failure. But a woman is not a gift, she is not a possession, she is not an asset. A woman is not someone to be saved, if she is to be protected, then from what?

Back to the criticism, this essay leads to compare two iconic female characters from classic literary pieces, “The Scarlet Letter” and “A Doll’s House”: Hester Prynne and Nora Helmer. Their similarities and differences are simplified in the succeeding bullets:

• Physical beauty

Hester Prynne and Nora Helmer are two women depicted as beautiful and doll-like. Hester Prynne, although not of elite upbringing, is dazzling in her youth that she had Chillingworth marry her to give an accent to his name. Chillingworth thought of marrying Hester a good chunk on his personality for he is known to be physically unattactive (but interesting) aside form him being too smart for anything. The same is true in Nora’s case. Torvald, her husband, married her for the same reason: beautification of his name and image. Nora is beautiful and is a good accessory to his ego. They were both chosen to be trophies and not wives.

• Sacrificial tendencies

They say that women always sacrifice for the people they love. And that sacrifice thing is observed on both characters. Hester sacrificed not just her life but her whole dignity as a person. She was tormented by the public eye, considering the society she belongs in (she actually chose to stay there). The Puritan society believes on life as a way of torment and punishment, and so “sins” are paid off in life on earth, hence making it a dimension of hell. She took all the blame on Pearl’s existence, which is a fruit of infidelity to her husband. While, Nora on the other hand tried to save her husband, which is a mortal sin on their times. She signed (forged) a signature to have access on banking procedures, which is an act viewed as a form of rebellion against the authority of a man over his wife. Women are not allowed to perform and take part on financial aspects even if it concerns her and her family. But they both did it anyway for the man they love. Hester protected Dimmesdale’s name, for he is a clergyman, and Nora tried to protect Torvald for he was sick that time.

The two symbolizes a woman’s change in perspective of her self as they both got out of the stereotype dictated by the society and its people. Nora got out of the doll house, and the chains of his husband’s ball-less-ness to accept that he too needs help, and Hester got of the scarlet’s letter’s barrier. The difference is that, Hester still needed Dimmesdale to be actually freed from the curse of the society, while Nora escaped on her own as she walked out of the house.

An Analysis of the Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

As in all of Hawthorne’s writings when one finishes reading his stories you come up with more questions than answers. No other writer makes you question like Hawthorne. The philosophical question of what is true perfection and can it be achieved through physical means or is it a state of the spirit is the heart of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story The Birth-Mark.

Aylmer, the main character of the story is a brilliant scientist/alchemist. He posses a belief in “man’s ultimate control over nature”, and thinks there is nothing man can’t master or achieve. His obsession with his wife’s small imperfect birth mark, which resembles a hand, begins shortly after they become married. Aylmer is fixated with his wife Georgiana’s perfection; he believes that in order for him to experience perfect love, he must have a perfect woman to love. His obsession gradually becomes Georgiana’s obsession at which point she becomes so distraught that she tells Aylmer “Remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life”. Aylmer sits down and tells his wife that there may be risk involved but he is confident that he shall remove the mark and his beautiful bride will be perfect in every way. He sets up comfortable surroundings for his wife described as “beautiful apartments, not unfit to be the secluded abode of a lovely woman”. After the alchemist attempts and fails numerous methods for removing the mark from his wife he develops a “perfect elixir” that will without a doubt cure her and make her completely perfect. He administers this elixir and to his great delight sees the cursed hand start to fade and disappear; only to have his wife tell him “Aylmer-dearest Aylmer-I am dying!”

Georgiana achieved perfection in Aylmer’s eyes in her dying moments; so did he Aylmer achieve what he set out to accomplish? I believe he did. Aylmer was a man who loved his work; he loved science more than he could ever love any human being. He was a man riddled with his inadequacies and imperfections, and as a result of his low view of himself, he demanded perfection in his wife. This is exhibited when Georgiana is reading out of his ledger which is described as a “sad confession, and continual exemplification, of the short-comings of the composite man”. Aylmer was a self serving individual whose only goal is to make his wife perfect for his own sake or perhaps for science’s sake. All these things being true; I do believe he loved Georgiana, and in his own bizarre way he wanted her to be perfect for her sake, because he believed that she deserved no less. In his quest for her perfection (which is impossible in the purely material sense) he destroyed her.

Aylmer’s wife Georgiana was at first a happy woman; married to someone she believed to be a great man, until one day her husband tells her that the mark upon her cheek might be removed. This of course is the beginning of her as well as her husband’s obsession with removing her one imperfection. The first thing that stuck out in my mind about Georgiana was her undying love, loyalty and desire to please her husband. This was very much a mark of the time. The fact that she would rather die than meet his disapproval I found significant. She seemed to me, to be the ultimate exemplification of love and unselfishness, to an insane level, which is exhibited in the line “You have aimed loftily! – You have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best earth could offer.” Georgiana does not feel ill towards her husband because she believes his feelings to be those of pure love.

The Birthmark touches on similar themes as Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein in the idea that humans can possess a supernatural power to undo and make perfect what is imperfect. Aylmer does not believe in God or the natural laws he created, which is obvious by his belief in man’s ultimate control over nature. God created man as a part of nature and we are not above nature but integrated with it. Just as today we are fighting the ethical issues of an increased understanding of science versus what we know to be natural law. Hawthorne’s story The Birth Mark is just as relevant today as it was when written in 1843 if not more so. Today we are struggling with issues such as cloning, stem cell research and other aspects of science that seem in contradiction with God’s and nature’s laws. If confronted with the modern day issues we now face Hawthorne’s opinions would probably be the same as he has set forth in this short story; that when man tries to accomplish what he was not intended to accomplish disaster will be the ultimate result. The hand was not only a birthmark but an integral part of Georgiana’s soul, and removing this mark in the quest for perfection was her demise.

Hawthorne is telling us that humanity is imperfect, there is no perfection in the physical sense, and the only way to achieve perfection is through the spirit in death. The Christian parallel is clear here; none of us are perfect and the only way to become perfect is to become one with God, in death, which results in our going to heaven. This goes back to what makes us who we are; we are not pure flesh and blood, our psyches and our true selves go so much further beyond that.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Birth Mark touches on philosophical and ethical issues valid in his time, as well as ours. His work makes us think about what is perfection and is it desirable in the physical state. In the end we discover that if we overstep our bounds and try to make perfect that which is imperfect, death will be the final result, for only in death through God, can we achieve perfection.

by John Schlismann

Good or Evil? – A Literary Analysis of Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible"

In “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller portrays two women whose characters, when juxtaposed, appear to vastly contrast each other. Although the exact words are not used, one woman is basically put forth in the story as “good” and the other woman as “evil.” Such black and white rulings of these characters would be ironic, considering that Arthur Miller wrote his play to expose the hazards of judging people with different mindsets or belief systems. Miller portrayed that such illogical reasoning is dangerous or at the very least, counterproductive.

Exploring the characters and motives of the two main women, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor, a rough microcosm comes into view, paralleling the message of the story as a whole. The reader begins to recognize that more is at play than a surface rendering of “good” versus “evil.”

Abigail Williams, the “bad” girl, is introduced in the play as the ringleader who led other girls to a taboo gathering; her primary purpose was so to cast a spell upon Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of John Proctor – with whom she had an affair when she lived with them as a servant. Clearly, what to John was a small detour off the path of morality was to Abigail the doorway to a new world. Abigail was confused, and her reasoning illogical, but that was no different from the logically-impaired perspective of many in the town of Salem, even the most powerful and well educated. Abigail’s reasoning that if Elizabeth died she would obtain John, fit well among the illogical perspectives of many characters in the play. Her motives were, in a morally secure world, wrong; yet they were so well-hidden that few saw through her guise of persecuted innocence.

If Abigail’s reasoning was illogical and her motives impure, her methods definitely tipped the scale against her character. She was willing to let numerous innocent people be accused and die. In many cases, she sat in the seat of the accuser. Having the story written as a novel might have been helpful at this point, because the only glimpse into Abigail’s point of view is the discussion she had with John Proctor, which was for a time cut from the story by Arthur Miller.

In that conversation, the young woman seemed completely convinced of the righteousness of her cause as well as enraptured by her fantasy that she would have John once his wife died: “God gave me strength to call them liars… Oh, John, I will make you such a wife when the world is white again” (150). Perhaps Abigail was truly deluded, or perhaps very good at playing the part, even to John Proctor. It is almost that, by that point in time, she had gone so far that, whether she believed in her lie or was deliberately faking it the whole time, she knew it would be suicide to stop there.

At the end of the story, the “evil” woman escaped, faultless in the eyes of many, into the night, having stolen her uncle’s money to take her far from the volatile situation. Here again the reasoning of the men in power can be brought into question. If the main accuser was gone, having stolen money – which in those days must have been a crime more tangible than sending one’s spirit to hurt another in the night – would it not stand to reason that perhaps her testimony should be brought into question? Yet such an idea never arose and the men who held the lives in the sway of their judgment continued on their oblivious path toward false sentencing and ultimately, murder.

Elizabeth Proctor, by contrast, was the “good” woman. She entered the story fully in the first scene of Act II, a scene awkward to read. The unnatural discourse between husband and wife seems an egg-skin cover stretched thinly over a wound. When John Proctor blew up toward the end of their dialogue, his words acted as a rift in that strained cover, yet Elizabeth simply turned the power of judgment over to him, stating, “I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you. I never thought you but a good man” (55). This heated exchange brings to light the issues that brimmed beneath the surface in their marriage, which don’t come out completely until the very end of the play.

The clearest view into Elizabeth’s mind and heart arises from a conversation that took place in the last meeting between her and John: “I have read my heart this three month, John. I have sins of my own to count. It needs a cold wife to prompt lechery… I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept” (137).

Here, Elizabeth’s heart was exposed in a way that no other character’s was, and the deeper reason is shown as to why they had a strained marriage. Elizabeth always thought herself inferior, unlovable. One can only imagine the world of her younger years, possibly one child of many, forgotten and overlooked, very likely judged harshly for minor infractions. One pictures little joy in such a community and a one-sided approach to Christianity, which was a form of Old Testament legalism without the promise of love and forgiveness. Never once in the story were concepts such as abiding joy, life abundant, or forgiving love mentioned. It was all judgment and harsh rulings, the very element that Jesus called into question when he exposed the motives of the religious class of his time, the Pharisees.

Elizabeth’s character represented, in a way, all those who grew up under the thumb of distorted belief systems. Her perspective and existence was a product of that upbringing, though she was likely blind to it herself. In this respect, Elizabeth’s character was not much different from Abigail’s. Raised with little love and little true understanding of the world around them, these women’s only survival was in their obedience to rules that in many cases were neither logical nor biblical. Both women were beset by fear: Elizabeth by fear that she was unloved and could never truly be loved for who she was; Abigail, by fear that if she didn’t take matters into her hands, her life would be spent alone and unhappy.

In the end, Elizabeth discovered that she truly was loved. Perhaps it was too little and too late, but her husband loved her. Her husband was willing to give his life, perhaps not exactly or entirely for her, but in a way his act represented that unselfish love. John Proctor’s love for his wife gave him the strength to confess his deeds with Abigail, and although it cast him in a bad light and brought him death, he chose rather to die for the love of his wife than to live without her. One analysis states that, “Elizabeth’s noblest act comes in the end when she helps the tortured John Proctor forgive himself just before his death” (Shmoop).

History reveals that Elizabeth Proctor, although accused, was not condemned. If Arthur Miller was accurate in his portrayal of her character, one can only hope that her life was transformed by the fact that she learned she was loved. Perhaps she felt not so plain and acted not so suspicious, for true love transforms the heart in ways that cannot be explained but only experienced. Abigail, on the other hand, escaped from the situation, running from her fear in the end. One can only assume that it followed her to the end of her days. Her story was not a “happily ever after” as she never faced those things she feared the most.

The “good” woman and the “evil” woman were both products of their upbringing. Still, they had the power to choose whether this would determine their decisions or whether they would rise above and take the more difficult path of truth, acceptance – even of one’s own deepest fears – and of love. One is not surprised – considering the actions of these two women throughout the story – by the decisions they made in the end. There was no character arc for Abigail, but there was for Elizabeth, who came to understand love and forgiveness in a way she never had. Presumably, hopefully, it set her free to truly live.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: Screenplay. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.