The Madonna/Whore Complex In The Scarlet Letter

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Within the past year, the treatment and perceptions of women have been challenged due to the various marches and movements. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance, The Scarlet Letter, presents how women were viewed in a Puritan society, falling into a rigid dichotomy of either being the “saint” or “sinner.” This is otherwise known as the “Madonna/Whore complex,” which is explored through the life of the novel’s protagonist, Hyster Prynne. Her struggles and experiences through this dichotomy ultimately affect her both physically and emotionally as it represses her femininity. Firstly, what does the Madonna/Whore complex even mean? According to Gottschall, it is defined as how “men and/or society divide women into two binary types: virgins and whores.…show more content…
She cannot be defined by just one label, but both. She is a mother to Pearl, who is a child born from adultery. She is a caregiver, seamstress, a lover, and a counselor, but the Puritanical society Hester lives in constantly reminds her that she is just a whore. By subscribing to this label, Hester loses her identity in a way. The effect of being an outsider due to the letter causes her to become a shell of her former self. Her beauty is lost as “her rich and luxuriant hair had either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine” (Hawthorne 515). Hester has stopped being a woman, which the narrator even confirms. She is able to reclaim her womanhood briefly when she takes off her cap and letter in an intimate moment with Arthur Dimmesdale. She is finally allowed to be beautiful since “the burden of shame and anguish [depart] from her spirit” (Hawthorne 536). However, when she has to put her hair back in the cap and fasten on the letter “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, [depart], like fading sunshine; and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her” (Hawthorne 541). This is just another example of how women and their bodies are policed under this dichotomy. Yet men are free from the being either the Madonna or the whore because that separation is exclusive to women. Throughout the story, Hester’s torment is contrasted with the man whom Hester had an affair with, Arthur Dimmesdale. Despite Arthur revealing his part in their adultery, the townspeople do not condemn him. In the conclusion, the narrator reveals how the spectators refused to believe that Arthur’s “dying words, acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any, the slightest connection on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so lone worn the scarlet letter” (Hawthorne 566). Even the highly respectable witnesses

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