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.