Hester Prynne is the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. She is portrayed as a woman condemned by her Puritan neighbors for having a child out of wedlock. The character has been called "among the first and most important female protagonists in American literature".[1]

"Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks", an illustration by Mary Hallock Foote from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter

Fictional character overview


A resident of Colonial America, Hester is sent ahead to the "New World" by her husband, who later assumes the name of Roger Chillingworth, as he has some business to finish before he can join her. After he is shipwrecked and captured by Native Americans and presumed dead, Hester continues to live her life as a seamstress in the town. She looks to the local pastor Arthur Dimmesdale for comfort; somewhere along the way passion emerges, culminating in the conception and subsequent birth of their child, Pearl. Because Hester has no husband with her, she is imprisoned, convicted of the crime of adultery, and sentenced to be forced to wear a prominent scarlet letter 'A' for the rest of her life.

Though scorned by her fellow citizens, Hester continues to lead a relatively uneventful life. Shortly after the birth of the child and her punishment, Hester's husband reappears and demands that she tell him the name of the child's father. Hester refuses but swears not to reveal the fact that Chillingworth is her husband to the town folk. Hester continues living her life as a seamstress, providing for herself and her child.

Novelist John Updike said of Prynne:

She's such an arresting and slightly ambiguous figure. She's a funny mix of a truly liberated, defiantly sexual woman, but in the end a woman who accepts the penance that society imposed on her. And I don't know, I suppose she's an epitome of female predicaments. ... She is a mythic version of every woman's attempt to integrate her sexuality with societal demands.[1]

One analyst wrote:

All the contradictions of Hester Prynne – guilt and honesty, sin and holiness, sex and chastity – make her an enduring heroine of American literature. She is flawed, complex, and above all fertile. The idea of Hester Prynne, the good woman gone bad, is a cultural meme that recurs again and again – perhaps because we as a culture are still trying to figure out who Hester really is and how we feel about her.[1]

Inspiration and influence


According to popular tradition, the gravestone of Elizabeth Pain in Boston's King's Chapel Burying Ground was the inspiration for Hester Prynne's grave.[2] Scholar Laurie Rozakis has argued that an alternate or additional source for the story may be Hester Craford, a woman flogged for fornication with John Wedg.[3] Another story claims that Hester was modeled after Mary Bachiler Turner (fourth wife of well-known Colonial minister Stephen Bachiler) whose life in colonial Maine bore a striking resemblance to Hester's tale.[4][5] Boewe and Murphey (1960) posit that Hester Prynne is not based on any particular person but is a composite character based on elements and aspects of the lives of women in similar circumstances in the society.[6] But Berson (2013) adds that there was no law requiring a scarlet letter.[7]

Hawthorne chose his characters' names carefully, so that symbolism could be understood by the careful reader. Her given name Hester is of Greek origin and means "star".[8][9] The character of Hester is immersed in her community by her surname Prynne,[10] that of the famous Puritan leader and pamphleteer, William Prynne.[9]

In various film adaptations of the novel, Prynne has been portrayed by actresses such as Lillian Gish, Sommer Parker, Meg Foster, Mary Martin, Sybil Thorndike, Senta Berger, and Demi Moore.[11] In the cult television series Twin Peaks the name was also adopted as a pseudonym by the character Audrey Horne. Another literary figure using the surname Prynne is a woman who had an adulterous relationship with a pastor in the novel A Month of Sundays by John Updike, part of his trilogy of novels based on characters in The Scarlet Letter.[1] In the musical The Music Man, Harold Hill refers to Hester Prynne in the song "Sadder but Wiser Girl". He sings that he wants a girl "with a touch of sin", remarking "I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more 'A'."[12]




  1. ^ a b c d Seabrook, Andrea "Hester Prynne: Sinner, Victim, Object, Winner" NPR.org (March 2, 2008)
  2. ^ Barlowe, Jamie (2000). The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne Southern Illinois University Press, ISBN 978-0-8093-2273-2
  3. ^ Rozakis, Laurie (1986). Another possible source of Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. American Transcendental Quarterly, 59:63–71
  4. ^ "Our Fascinating Ancestor, Stephen Bachiler". Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  5. ^ Newberry, Frederick. "A Red-hot 'A' and a Lusting Divine". The New England Quarterly.
  6. ^ Hester Prynne in History. Charles Boewe and Murray G. Murphey. American Literature. Vol. 32, No. 2 (May, 1960), pp. 202-204 (3 pages). Published by: Duke University Press. Accessed 14 February 2024.
  7. ^ On the Trail of the Scarlet AD. Joel S. Berson. Nathaniel Hawthorne Review. Vol. 39, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 133-154 (22 pages). Published by: Penn State University Press. Accessed 14 February 2024.
  8. ^ Baby Name: Hester. nameberry.com, accessed 14 February 2024.
  9. ^ a b [https://shawnbird.com/2011/02/17/hester-prynne/ "Hester Prynne: The Star Of Love". By Shawn L. Bird, 17 February 2011. Accessed 14 February 2024.
  10. ^ Prynne, Prinn, "firstborn"; from Old French prin ‘first superior; small slender’. McKinley Surnames of Sussex p. 405 notes that Nicholas Prinne (1327) is possibly the same man as Nicholas le Premir (1332). Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, 2016.
  11. ^ "Hester Prynne" on IMDb
  12. ^ "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl For Me Lyrics" StLyrics.com accessed 2013-10-20