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Hester Prynne and Henry David Thoreau: Rebels in Society

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Hester Prynne and Henry David Thoreau: Rebels in Society

Hester Prynne is an anarchic force that destabilizes the status quo, allowing change to occur. She is a strong character, a rebel ostracized from society. The isolation she lives in brings her sorrow, yet grants her freedom of thought. Hester rejects the imprisoning commands of an accusatory society and has the will to fight against their influence over her nature. Henry David Thoreau also rebelled against the established orders of society and government of his time. He refused to support a government that permitted slavery, and voiced his opinions on individual liberties and responsibilities. Thoreau also contributed greatly to transcendentalist philosophy. Both Hester and Thoreau rebelled against the norms of society by choosing to think for themselves and refusing to allow society to shape their identities.

“Walden,” which chronicles his journey in search of an individual identity in the midst of industrialized civilization, illustrates Thoreau’s rebellion against society. Thoreau’s desire is for a life independent of industrialized society’s rules and norms:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” (Walden 8). He feels that his life within this society results in a loss of freedom of choice and individual judgment. According to Thoreau, industrialized America turns men into machines who have no time for thoughts of spirituality or of a higher purpose in life. Instead, men’s lives revolve around the vicious cycle of making and spending money. Within this system, there is no allowance for individual needs, desires, wants, or creativity unless they coalesce with the needs, desires, and wants dictated by consumer culture. Thoreau expressed a certainty in the power and the obligation of the individual to determine right from wrong, independent of the dictates of society. He saw that “…law never made men a whit more just…” and that “…by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” (Civil Disobedience 4). This led him to believe that dissent to immoral constraints is the ultimate obligation of the devoted citizen, and that the quest for moral conduct is at the core of the nature of dissent. Therefore, Thoreau spoke out against slavery by refusing to pay taxes in support of a government that allowed its continued existence. Public opinion in both north and south condemned the militant abolitionist John Brown for his history-making raid on Harper’s Ferry, yet he wrote that John Brown “…gave his life to the cause of the oppressed.” (A Plea 16). Thoreau also commented that he “…would rather see the statue of Captain Brown in the Massachusetts State-House yard than that of any other man.” (A Plea 17). Thoreau did not express complete commitment to nonviolence, thinking that violence might at times be the cost of justice. He maintained that the only way to change society was to rebel against it in any way necessary, even when this resulted in breaking the law.

Hester Prynne spurns the Puritan community's attempt to humiliate her through her separation and marking; her brazen refusal to accept guilt exposes her rebellious nature. As the beadle leads her out of the prison door, the crowd sees that on her chest is the letter ‘A’ sewn in “fine red cloth” and “surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread…a fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore.” (Hawthorne 42). In both this decoration of the symbol of her crime as something near-divine, and the later similar decoration of the product of sin, her daughter Pearl, in gaudy clothing, Hester demands that if there be recognition of her crime, it will be on her terms. Meant to be a punishment, she has embroidered the scarlet A on her chest intricately and with beauty, as though it were an ornament, something so grandiose that no Puritan woman could wear without reprimand. She thus presents a mark of individual rebellion as something to which she attaches a feeling of pride. However, her outward appearance also appears to show some compliance with the wishes of the community, both the “studied austerity of her dress” and the sad state of her

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