I’ve mentioned before that authors choose their characters’ names very carefully, researching them like they would for their own children. These offspring of the imagination need a name that edifies the reader about their traits, either in agreement or contradiction.
Last weekend I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I haven’t read it since college, and although I remember the plot well enough that I was shocked and dismayed by the movie version a few years ago, I had lost some of the finer points. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish reading until moments before book club, and I didn’t get a chance to do some of the research I’d like to have done on the characters’ names. So I’ll do some of that exploration here.
The protagonist of the story, of course, is Hester Prynne. Her name is delightfully symbolic, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen reference to this in any on-line study guides I’ve skimmed through.
Her first name, Hester, is Greek. Like “Aster” it means Star. This meaning opens up several possible interpretations. A star is a beacon that guides the lost. A star illuminates the darkness. A star is unreachable. A star cannot be hidden for long, even if it is covered by cloud, it is still above all, shining. A star is forever burning. A star can implode and suck others into the void. A star inspires stories, music, and wishes. Now consider the character of Hester and all the ways those things apply to her…
Her last name, Prynne, is not an accident either. Although it doesn’t mean anything to us, to Hawthorne it would have been a classical Puritan choice, like naming a Mennonite character Friesen or Reimer. William Prynne was a very famous Puritan leader and pamphleteer. He lived in England and wrote denouncing the Church of England and its Archbishop Laud. Over objections to some of his writings, he found himself in court a time or two, and managed to get his ears cut off as a disciplinary measure. He was rather successful in his campaigns, however, because Archbishop Laud was executed. Like William Prynne, Hester Prynne was punished publically, but challenged authority by bearing unapologetically the mark of shame, and thereby turning it into a badge of honour.
I ponder whether Hawthorne could have known the Sanskrit word prem, which is a homophone of Prynne? Prem means love. Seems pretty coincidental, doesn’t it? Hester Prynne was a star of love, blazing above her community, having flaunted the moral rules of the community by embellishing the token of sin and becoming a beacon and a talisman.
(c) Shawn Bird. Students, to avoid plagiarism, cite this article as follows:
Bird, Shawn. “Hester Prynne: the star of love” https://shawnbird.com/2011/02/17/hester-prynne/ Collected (insert the date you copied the information)
There are four posts on this blog about characters from The Scarlet Letter. Click to see all four.
Love your deep analysis! Great thinking!
One of my favorite characters of ALL TIME! Steadfast in the Storm! Your analysis ROCKS!
I’m glad you like it.
I really enjoyed your breakdown and analysis of this story and its characters. I now have a completely different perspective about The Scarlett Letter.
You’re welcome. I should probably do more of these, but I’m afraid my own students will quote me to myself in their essays. lol
Nice thinking to show citation form. I enjoyed your analysis
Ooops. Hit the reply button too quickly. Thanks for reading my blog!
Thanks for visiting my blog. I really enjoyed reading your explanation of the character’s names.
I hope it was useful for you.
The Scarlet Letter was my favorite high school required reading book. I knew about the last name, but not about Hester. Thanks for sharing this!
You’re welcome. You might be interested in the analyses of the other character’s names as well. 🙂 (linked at the bottom there)
Hi Shawn, thanks for liking my poem “Open Heart”.
I loved your explanation for the name Hester Prynne. Coincidentally I am looking for names for some of my characters (to avoid potential prosecution). I will definitely give their aliases more thought, now that I know what a complex, and ultimately rewarding, process it can be.
Thanks Dennis. If you scroll to the very bottom of https://shawnbird.com/grace/ There are links to three posts about names/symbols for my characters. The meanings of some names reflect character identity and role, others are symbolic, and some are tributes to wonderful people.
The name Hester appears in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, another nineteenth century novel. She was known as Hetty and she bore a child out of wedlock and her end was tragic. The character Hester Prynne stands as a strong character whom even her husband, Roger Chillingworth, did not blame.
But, there is no connection between the Hindi word “prem” and Prynne. The Sanskrit word is “prema”. and a lot of Indian languages have variations of that word.
It is good to hear that you appreciated this novel and the character of Hester Prynne.
I don’t believe in “is or is not” in literary analysis. Whether the author intends something or not, if a phrase, interpretation, or connection is evocative for the reader then it is relevant to him/her, and worthy of consideration. There is no real black and white in literary understanding–too many things are possible.
Thank you for visiting my blog; I’m glad that you liked my writing.
I’m reading The Scarlet Letter at the moment, so I’m going to save reading this until I’ve finished!
Fascinating background and thoughts!
Really good analysis, best I’ve read online. Also, Prynne rhymes with sin… so there you go.
Ah yes. I feel a poem coming on! “Hester Prynne, you fester sin / Though scarlet letter does not fetter / your little girl, your precious Pearl. Eh?” (Ha ha, little Canadian joke there at the end…)
[…] (https://shawnbird.com/2011/02/17/hester) […]
Hester’s lover was the minister, and yet she never divulged his identity no matter her punishments and pain. When I read the book, it was in between the Beatnik and Hippie era. It was a time when teachers couldn’t be in the classroom when their condition started to show (married or not) and a “stewardess” would be fired. Living in a culture where unwed motherhood still required sending your child to another city before it showed and farming the baby out for adoption (never to speak of it again), the minister’s guilt and cowardliness seemed all the more heinous.
Yes, but that wasn’t necessarily the way it was in other times or places. The Puritans were judgmental, but at the same time in history many areas didn’t have ministers, and therefore lacked the Puritanical attitude. That difference is why the Puritans left liberal minded England on the Mayflower.
Across Canada, for example, in the 1600s through 1800s people often lives ‘au facon du pays” (In the way of the country) which meant common law. A baby coming? Shrug. More farm help! 🙂 It’s only with the pressures of the assorted churches that having a baby without a ceremony first became a shame issue.
Growing up, I thought that’s just how things were. I never heard the word “divorce” until I was in middle school. But most of history wasn’t like that.
The information we can glean from the internet about different cultures ranges from fascinating to deeply disturbing. Some are worse than the puritans.
Location, location, location.
Of course he knew! 😄It was brilliant.
A very entertaining read, both the post and comments, but too down on the poor Puritans whom I love.
Thank you for this. I think you’ve taught me more about the Scarlet Letter here than in all the years I’ve studied it in high school and college combined. Thanks for the Sanskrit word for love. It just elevated Hester into a whole other level. Also, if I didn’t get the chance to express it before… thank you for the follow and constant “likes” to my blogs. I appreciate that you read them often.
Thanks for stopping by here!
Reblogged this on I-NETRADIO.
Very interesting stuff. I love names, anyway, but this etymological adventure is particularly apt and intriguing. 😀
Happy holidays to you and yours!
Thanks Kathryn. I did all the main characters of Scarlet Letter, but this seems to be the only one anyone ever reads. Some American teacher probably asks a question about Hester’s name in her English class, I’m guessing. 🙂 Most students are looking for ‘right answers’ rather than expanding their brains, so they don’t bother to really explore they deep meaning they’d get by comparing all the characters’ names. (That is the tragedy of learning using standardized tests as measurement).
Very interesting Shawn. Especially the Sanskrit connection. I wonder if it was the collective unconscious working. I’ve found with character names, once the story is written, the names are amazingly appropriate, without my having consciously considered them. Happy New Year to you, Shawn 🙂
Yes, I will discover spine chilling coincidences at the end!
Glad you liked my blog post yesterday. I find this article of yours quite enlightening since I teach high school English–in my case British literature. Unfortunately, the person who teaches lit to juniors has quit teaching this book. We just read some Dickens and he certainly named characters carefully.
Thanks Juliana. This post from my first year of blogging is still one of the most popular ones on the site (no one goes to the others in the series examining the other characters. Obviously the teachers don’t ask about the other characters, so students don’t feel like looking! lol). I just hope the hundred of student visitors are careful to cite their source, so they don’t get nailed for plagiarism.
Today, I started grading projects and after three out of five showed significant plagiarism, I decided to check them all for plagiarism before I bothered to grade. I have warned them repeatedly. Sad.
I have a number of strategies that I use to ensure I get kids’ own work. Our school focuses on project based learning, so kids choose their own project work; they tend to be passionate about what they’re doing, so that helps. I guide them as they work, and will see many, many iterations of a task before it reaches completion. I also work to ensure they understand the task and have the skills to do the task before they begin the theoretical assignments. If I say pick a topic, then think of a metaphor, a simile, and a personification relating to that topic, then two descriptions that rhyme, I’ve ‘made’ them write a cinquain. They didn’t even know they were doing it. Then then hand it in, one check mark! We have removed grades, too, for most year 8-9 students, in favour of competency based learning. Did they meet the competency or not? Yes. No. Makes coming to work quite wonderful!
Only one of my classes has just 8-9. This was a project and they had a lot of choices.
Our school runs almost entirely on project based learning at all grades. It’s pretty awesome. The only hold outs are Science 10 and the two levels of Math 10, because kids have to spit out very specific facts. Everything else (including Calculus 12!) is project based.
Brilliant stuff Shawn, well done.
Len Freeman (poemsperday.com}
I think its that Hester’s last name, Prynne conveniently rhymes with sin. I am reading this book now and realized the relationship, and is a piece of evidence for the theme of sin in the Scarlet Letter.
Definitely! And there’s also the similarity to ‘prim’. She is on the outside, but not on the inside.
One of my students misspelled Hester’s name as “Hyster” and that made me wonder if there’s a link between her name and the Greek root for uterus as well as the misogynistic words hysterical and hysteria.