Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and "Tess of the D'urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy. Specifically, it will compare and contrast the main characters of each novel. Each of these women is strong and determined, but each of them has also sinned, and in their time, this was a terrible tragedy. Thus, both these women are tragic heroines. They may triumph for a time, but in the end, their lives are tragic and their authors each have a moral lesson for the reader to solve.
Both of these women symbolize the mores and societal constraints of their time, and this is just one of the things that make them tragic heroines. The authors were attempting to show the affect of strict societal restrictions on people of the day, especially women. Only one lives at the end of their tales, but this does not make Hester Prynne any less tragic. Hester and her daughter Pearl lead a life estranged from the other villagers because of the scarlet "A" Hester is forced to wear because of her sin of adultery. Hawthorne makes it clear she is a good woman who simply made a costly mistake. She is an excellent mother, which is clear from this passage: "Hester Prynne, nevertheless, the loving mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of undue severity. Mindful, however, of her own errors and misfortunes, she early sought to impose a tender but strict control over the infant immortality that was committed to her charge" (Hawthorne 134). However, she is more than a mother, she is a woman with desires and needs, none of which are met as she lives alone and alienated from the people around her. What may be even more tragic is that she must pay for her sin alone. The Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester's partner in sin, is never publicly exposed. He suffers in his own way, but he is never ostracized or alienated from the people around him as Hester is. Thus, Hester is branded a "harlot" by the community, and must spend the rest of her life publicly paying for her transgressions. However, the man involved is never sought out or punished. Clearly, the strict Puritanical mores of the day placed all the blame on falling from grace on the woman, and the same is true with Tess. Even though she was raped, she is still the fallen woman, and ultimately pays with her mind and her life. Hester may be stronger than Tess is, but that does not make her any less tragic. Her life is spent alone, especially after Pearl will leave the nest, and this, as anyone who has spent a lifetime alone knows, is a tragedy in itself.
Perhaps the most distressing element of Hester and Pearl's lives is their seclusion caused by their total dismissal by the population. Pearl develops alone, missing the affection of young acquaintances. In effect, the community punishes Pearl for her mother's sin, which magnifies the iniquity of the loneliness she feels. She did nothing wrong, but must pay for what her mother did according to Puritan ideology. It is clear Hawthorne is illustrating how unreasonable this is, and how the penalty is as morally and ethically corrupt as the sin.
Both these women are strong and determined. Hester is strong in her ability to stand up to the village as she raises her child alone. Tess is strong and determined in her fight to make something more meaningful of her lowbred life. In today's world, each woman would have numerous opportunities to live a better and more fulfilling life and this is part of the tragedy of their stories. Tess' story is far from the happy conclusion of a romance novel, but Tess' entire life epitomized tragedy. Like Hawthorne, Hardy was making a marked point about society of the day. He often wrote of the repression of England's lower-class women, and this novel continues the tradition. Throughout the narrative, Hardy illustrates Tess as the victim of those surrounding her, and how society persecuted its women. Clearly, Hardy was irate about his society's handling of women, and it is demonstrated in this tale. That Tess dies in the end is the definitive tragedy, making her the definitive tragic heroine. She committed murder, but it was not really her fault, the societal mores surrounding her live and actions drove her to madness. Hers is the ultimate account of a fine woman pulled into sin by the malevolence of those around her. Hardy illustrates that Tess was damned by the social order from the very first page of the book, and the poor girl never could have endured. Hardy begins painting Tess as a tragic figure early in the book, and he continues in this vein throughout the novel. He writes, "In the ill-judged execution of the well-judged plan of things the call seldom produces the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving" (Hardy 46). Already the reader can see the handwriting on the wall, and that Tess will not come out of her experiences unscathed, and that a man will be the cause of her undoing.
Even those that say they love her misunderstand Tess, and this is another tragic element of her character. She tells her husband Angel, "You once said that I was apt to win men against their better judgment; and if I am constantly before your eyes I may cause you to change your plans in opposition to your reason and wish'" (Hardy 288). Her own husband makes her sound like a temptress and a devil, and yet, she is neither. She is simply a woman attempting to make her way in a society ruled by money and men. Part of the tragedy of both these characters is not only that they were misused by men, but that their families and neighbors allowed it to happen, and blamed them when they succumbed. Tess' family blames her for her fall, and is astounded that someone might love her enough to marry her. Even the man she loves questions if she is "good" enough for him. Hardy writes, "He loved her: ought he to marry her? -- dared he to marry her? What would his mother and his brothers say? What would he himself say a couple of years after the event?" (Hardy 159). Sadly, Tess is a product of the strict code of levels of society in England, and can never really rise above her station in life, although she hopes to. She is a tragic victim of society and events, just as Hester is, and both are sad figures who lost control of their lives through one action that might have been prevented if women understood more about men and their motivations, and men were as controlled by societal mores as women of the time were.
Each of these women is a victim, and that plays a part in their ultimate tragedies, too. Both are victims of strict societal mores, but both are also victims of men. Today, they would suffer far different fates, but at a time when society frowned on any type of sin, their fates were sealed when they met the men who would ruin them. It might seem that Hester was the less tragic of the two figures because she lived, but in reality, she was the more tragic because she lived. Tess died at the gallows for murder, and so was released from her life of pain and suffering. Hester was not, and what is more, she returned to her old home after a long absence to take up her "penitence" once again. Hawthorne writes near the end of the book, "But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne, here, in New England,…