In the 1800s and well into the mid-1900s, the genres of literary fiction and non-fiction alike, whether authored by women or by men, tended to reinforce stereotypical gender norms. Women were typically portrayed in what was assumed to be their rightful place, namely the domestic sphere, where the “four cardinal virtues” of “piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity,” the “core of woman’s virtue [and] the source of her strength,” were to be on constant display (Welter paras. 2-3). While twentieth-century feminist revisionary analyses of popular novels such as those by Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte have identified subversive characteristics and behaviors that are offered forth as evidence that nineteenth century women were not solely confined to the “fearful obligation [and] solemn responsibility” of “uphold[ing] the pillars of the [domestic] temple with her frail white hand,” (Welter para. 1), close analyses of contemporary, twenty-first century literary productions also demonstrate that representations of women may not have strayed too far from the “cult of true womanhood” (Welter para. 1). Although the women’s and feminist movements of the latter part of the twentieth century ensured that American women would have more choice in self-representation and roles than at any other time in history, a thoughtful examination of the literature seems to support the claim that many texts subtly reinforce the traditional cardinal virtues that have long been ascribed as particular to women.
In the 1800s, the cardinal virtues were portrayed and reinforced throughout literary fiction and non-fiction. The literature written by men clearly had a motive for emphasizing the importance of “True Women” striving “to maintain their virtue, although men, being by nature more sensual than [women] would try to assault it” (Welter para. 8). By creating images of demure women who were either chaste and virtuous until marriage or who were punished brutally for failing to fulfill their role as “the highest adornment of civilization [keeping] busy at morally uplifting tasks” (Welter para. 17), men ensured that they themselves, as well as their homes and the very country which they had worked so hard to secure, were safe from any perceived threats of immorality and, by extension, the decline of American civilization before it had even properly begun. One of the best examples of literature written by a male author that reflected these preoccupations with feminine piety were the stories and novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, first published in 1850, was particularly exemplary of the themes that kept Hawthorne writing busily throughout his adult life. The novel, set in Puritan New England, is about a young woman named Hester Prynne who has committed the unpardonable sins of adultery and conceiving a child out of wedlock. Not only has Hester cheated on her husband, but she has insisted upon her right to give birth to the child, which shows her to be overtly defiant of the social expectations implied by all four of the cardinal virtues identified by Welter (para. 1). For her refusal to conform to gender norms and social proprieties, Hester Prynne is led before the townspeople for public shaming, and she is forced to spend her life wearing a red “A” stitched on her garments, symbolizing her brazen act of adultery. The narrator observes that the town elders have acted in “great mercy and tenderness of heart” to permit Mistress Prynne to “stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory, and then and thereafter, for the remainder of her natural life to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom” (Hawthorne 120).
Clearly, Hawthorne has a moralist agenda in The Scarlet Letter, one which is familiar to the student who has read his other stories and novels. The fact that Hester Prynne lives out her life in miserable marginalization, exiled by the men and women of her town alike, confirms that the nineteenth-century woman who refused to join the cult of true womanhood would be essentially ex-communicated from society, made “a living sermon against sin” (Hawthorne 120). Indeed, Hester does wear the scarlet letter “A” on her bosom throughout her life, and Hawthorne seems to suggest that this conscious act of shaming has the effect, over the years, of making both Hester and the townspeople—women in particular, of course– more reflective about and more committed to their own piety.