Throughout the history of the last few centuries, an ongoing conflict in society has been the roles of the public and private spheres. The first of these has been mainly represented by men, taking on the positions of power and dominance, working outside of the home. The latter however was primarily controlled by their female counterparts; their positions as wives and mothers being all that mattered.
In the private sphere children are raised to be citizens and given moral values, adults are formed here. In the puritan society in which The Scarlet Letter unfolds, the separation of these two spheres is almost non-existent. The government and authority (aka the men) have complete control over both spheres, leaving little to no room for the mothers to run their households how they deem fit.
Hester Prynne challenges this notion and advocates for a separation of spheres; advocates for privacy that women were not allowed at the time. In chapter XIII, where this passage takes place, we flash forward 7 years and Hester has evolved as not only an individual but as a woman in society. People are less scornful of her letter “A” however she is still entirely in the public sphere which has significantly hardened her old compassion and tenderness.
The separation of the public and private spheres is vital to a productive society as proven by the transformation of meaning that the scarlet “A” undergoes through the sentimentality that the citizens place on it, the judgment of humankind usurping government standards, and the overall gender separation the two spheres force upon these people who ultimately hold the actual control.
The development of sympathy in the citizens of mid 17th century Boston, particularly the males, was a great contributor to the alteration of meaning of the “A” Hester was forced to wear as punishment for her sin of adultery. They began to acknowledge Hester’s “power to sympathize” to the point “that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification” and “had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as a token”. Her behavior overpowered the stigma that the letter carried and people decided to listen to the woman herself instead of the brand, changing it’s meaning from “adulterer” to “able”.
What was once a punishment transformed into something she could be proud of, however, this is moreso a mirror to the people of New England in this era. It was such a powerful thing for a woman to hold the sense of power that Hester Prynne now possessed and for men to respect a woman to that degree. Recognizing her caring nature and sympathy towards those in pain helped the public sphere of males to adapt slightly, to accept sentimentality.
People in this time were predisposed to a type of judgment that is unfamiliar in our current society. “The prejudices which they shared in common with [the wise and learned men] were fortified in themselves by an iron framework of reasoning” which was dug into them since the day of their birth. Knowing the place of women and men in their lives and the power women had, or lack thereof, forced the populace to separate Hester, who behaved unlike any other women in the time, from the rest of womankind.
This did not so much separate the public and private sphere as Hester had originally intended by refusing to name the father, instead it pushed her into her own sphere which was not public nor private. By secluding Hester and tacking yet another label on her, claiming “the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun 's bosom”, they tore away her person; who she had identified herself as. This proves that the way the world judges a person changes who they are, no matter how badly they desire to not have it affect them. A proper separation of spheres where a woman would be allowed her privacy and control of her own life would have saved Hester’s integrity.
The gender separation has a major role in every aspect of this text, pushing men and women to opposing sides, taking all power and individuality from the woman and putting it into the hands of men in authority. This puritan and totalitarian lifestyle is driven by gender roles, as proven by “the men of rank, on whom their eminent position imposed the guardianship of the public morals”, ultimately controlling the opinion of Hester that the public held. Sadly, this fact removed Hester from womanhood entirely, the text claiming that “she who has once been woman” had “ceased to be so”. To a certain degree, gender separation and gender roles can be extremely destructive and damaging to a person’s humanity. On the other hand, removing any type of separation to the degree of excluding someone from either side, takes away their humanity.
The scarlet letter itself could be a social commentary that was not only very powerful in the time but today also. Our society is transfixed on removing all social spheres and gender separation but through examining this situation from the 1600s, the judgment, the development of sentimentality, and gender separation itself, we can see the damage that utter neutrality can do on a woman, shedding her of her original values.