Hester Prynne and Huckleberry Finn

Characters in literature are often put at odds with the world around them. They are forced to live in a society that judges or mistreats them. It is that struggle that brings life to the character and the story. Two great characters of American literature are Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter and the titular character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They both find themselves at odds with their communities and struggle in different ways.

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Hester Prynne lived in a Puritan society. It was a deeply religious society built upon a foundation of rules. It utterly rejected human beings’ natural instincts and viewed them as sinful. In order to curtail their wicked nature, they created a system of laws. These laws were the earthly embodiment of God’s will and a harsh biblical force that would force people into godliness. Man could not be trusted to be virtuous for the sake of virtue. They were crushed under the weight of biblical mandate and would be virtuous so as to avoid the gallows (Abel 306). The fear of earthly punishment was the key to the church’s authority. It was under this system that Hester found herself being crushed.
She was married young, before she truly knew herself. Her husband, Chillingworth, was aware of the risk of her awakening passion upon leaving her but did so anyway. Upon returning he didn’t name himself as her husband but left her to suffer her disgrace while he plotted his revenge upon her co-offender. Dimmesdale, for his part, was more guilty than she. He had a pastoral responsibility over her and a moral obligation given his role. When the time for confession came he left her to suffer the condemnation of the people and the church alone. Her sin was that of a young woman, left alone by a poor match of a husband, finding a natural comfort in a happier match.
She gave in to her natural instinct and in doing so wronged God and the church (Abel 305). Her husband left her to suffer alone. Her partner in this sin allowed her to bear the punishment for them both. She became an outcast, unable to have a real relationship with any member of society. She was kept at a distance and used as an example. Her quest for a piece of happiness put her in direct opposition to the society she had been a part of.
Besides being puritanical, the world Hester found herself in was incredibly patriarchal. It was a male-dominated world. As a woman of the period, she would have found herself at constant odds with societal norms. Upon being released from prison she is commanded to reveal the name of the child’s father. She has virtually no authority in this world and discovers the only power she can wield is her silence. She refuses to give the name. She chooses to suffer the punishment for them both. That is her power. The governor threatens to take away her daughter, Pearl, and she demands to keep the child (Hawthorne; ch. 3). She chooses to bear the penance of her sin and raise Pearl on her own.
Hester finds strength in a world built against her and women in general. She defied convention by having and raising a child out of wedlock. Her entire existence was an affront to the society that had judged her unworthy. She became self-reliant and supported herself and her child with her embroidery work. She may have been a sinner, but she was also a survivor (Seabrook, “Hester Prynne: Sinner, Victim, Object, Winner”). She demonstrated strength in wearing her sin bravely out in the open. She transformed the symbol from one of her transgressions to one of her determination.
Huckleberry Finn was very much let down by his community. He was from a lower class of white society and lacked formal education. His father would disappear frequently leaving Huck homeless, needing to fend for himself. This developed his resourcefulness but did little to foster any trust he had in people. This trust is further eroded upon the return of Pap. Instead of protecting Huck from his drunken father, the new judge takes Pap into his own home. Huck is eventually kidnapped by his father and locked in a cabin where he receives regular beatings. He is let down by the very man that should strive to protect himself from the world. In turn, he is let down by the people failing to protect him from his father. His only recourse is to fake his own death and escape his father and community that failed him. “What Huck does is to resign from the world of men through his ‘death’ in Pap’s cabin” (Cummings 5). His response to these failings is rejecting society entirely.
Huck struggles against a system he doesn’t fully understand. He knows that Jim is the property of Miss Watson but also feels that helping Jim is the right thing to do. Throughout the novel, Huck struggles with his conscience. He knows that society would say that turning Jim in and returning him to Miss Watson would be the right thing to do (Twain; ch. 16). Instead, he stays true to what he believes to be true and while not openly rejecting the system established by white society he manages to struggle against it enough to aid a friend.
Much of Huck’s struggle is a passive one. He is merely an observer through most of the novel. He is able to see that the King and the Duke are not what they claim but chooses to do nothing about it to avoid a quarrel. “His vote of discretion often casts him in a passive, even submissive, role, as in the shooting of Boggs, the feud, and the Royal Nonesuch” (Cummings 2). His struggle against society would not see him change the world around him but instead escape it. It is in the wilderness away from those looking to take advantage of him or school him that he is happiest. In the end, this is the route that he takes.
Hester and Huck are both outcasts from their respective societies. Her struggle arises from her gender and the sin that has been assigned her in a repressive world. His stems from his low-class upbringing and lack of education. Women and the poor have both been mistreated and underrepresented throughout American history. Her fight is one that still continues for women today. A single mother may not be as taboo now as she was then but women’s sexuality is still viewed as an affront to religious and patriarchal views. The pride and defiance she demonstrates are truly American characteristics. Likewise, Huck demonstrates courage in his abandoning of the community that wronged him. He works to help Jim despite the obvious argument against it. Both characters actively broke the rules of their communities but in doing so demonstrated the rebellious spirit of America.
Both characters were failed by the men in their lives. Hester was abandoned by her husband and left to suffer alone by Dimmesdale. Huck was kidnapped and beaten by his own father. It was not just society as a whole, but these individuals that share blame for disconnecting the characters from their communities.
Hester demonstrates incredible self-reliance and struggles to build herself a life. There can be no greater representation of what it means to be an American. She is self-made. After being scorned and judged by society she ultimately decides not to escape it but to return to it. She chooses to stay and wear her scarlet letter as a symbol of her determination. This is the main difference between the two characters.
Huck was repeatedly let down by society. He found himself at odds with the system and struggled with the moral dilemma of following the norm. His ultimate decision was to reject society and head out west. It may have been a rejection of society that led to that decision but that pioneering spirit is distinctly American.
Hester and Huck shared the title of outcast. They were mistreated and abused.
While they shared characteristics they ultimately diverged onto two different paths.
Hester struggled and found a place for herself within the world that had spurned her. Huck chose the alternative and rejected the world to which he couldn’t belong. The journeys they take are different but they have both found a way into the collective trove of cherished American literature.
Works Cited
Abel, Darrel. “Hawthorne’s Hester.” College English, vol. 13, no. 6, 1952, pp. 303–309. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/371782.
Cummings, Sherwood. “What’s in Huckleberry Finn?” The English Journal, vol. 50, no. 1, 1961, pp. 1–8. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/810673.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Scarlet Letter. Big Cheese Books, 2019.
Seabrook, Andrea. “Hester Prynne: Sinner, Victim, Object, Winner.” NPR, NPR, 2 Mar. 2008, https://www.npr.org/2008/03/02/87805369/hester-prynne-sinner-victim-object-winner#:~:targetText=
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Benediction Classics, 2017.