Representation of Gender in Invisible Man and Scarlet Letter Both Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne share some common themes. In Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne addresses the suffering that emerges from sin, especially the sin of adultery that leads to isolation of sinners. The plot revolves around two female characters Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl. Through the two women, Hawthorne reflects the women’s hardships in the 17th century.
On the other hand, Invisible Man is a novel that not only critiques racism but one that makes women invisible. Ellison fails to develop the female characters in an equal manner to the male character to reinforce the idea of gender inequality. This essay seeks to evaluate the representation of gender in American literature in Invisible Man and Scarlett Letter. Due to gender difference the society places men and women in unequal positions. Men are considered superior and capable of being leaders while women are considered inferior to their male counterparts.
Traditionally, it was assumed that women were incapable of reasoning but were endowed with the capability of nurturing the society. It was also believed that the position of women was to support husbands and take care of children. Additionally, religious systems reinforce the idea that power belong to men because religion limits women within the confines of family life. In Scarlet Letter, Hester is a female character developed by Hawthorne in a different way from the traditional woman.
For example, she protects herself to portray women in a new image with qualities of strong mind, rebellion and self-reliance. Similarly in Invisible Man masculinity is evident through the unnamed male narrator who depicts the black masculinity (Elkins, 2014). Nathaniel’s Scarlet Letter was set in Puritan in the 1600 hundred, and it recaps the life of a married woman and the child she bears through an adulterous act. Such an adulterous act was considered a punishable act by the religious class.
For example, when she gave birth to her daughter, she was marked with a scarlet labeled “A” to symbolize adultery (Hawthorne, 1985). While the woman is ridiculed with the aim of embarrassing her due to the adulterous act, the man whom they bore the child does not face any consequences. Such portrayal of women is in line with Guan (2004) argument that men flatter women and eulogizes them as wives to take care of their children, hence making men limit women within the confines of the family circle (Guan, 2004). Based on Puritanism society, everyone in the community must obey the rules of Puritanism.
However, that is not the case when it comes to Hester because she rebels the Puritan rules. For example, she is not ashamed of her adulterous act. Instead, she takes pride when the society has isolated her because she shows dignity and grace as opposed to agony. Similarly, in Invisible Man the black man grapples with social inequality and isolation. Women are the subject of circumstances as demonstrated by the author’s way of depriving them subjectivity and interiority while giving marginal male characters subjectivity and interiority (Ellison, 1994).
Just like in Scarlet Letter, women in Invisible Man are reduced to abstractions because they are marked with an invisibility hence evading the exploration of their subjectivity. For example, the representation of female characters is merely a sacrifice that leads to self-revelation of the black man because female characters such as Mattie Lou Trueblood and the white stripper aid the Invisible Man to investigate his invisibility (Ellison, 1994). In both books, authors have demonstrated the danger of objectifying characters as minority oppression.
In the Invisible Man, the magnificent blonde is objectified as she is presented dancing naked in a group of men in a room though she is nearly invisible. Such portrayal makes her an object to be coveted or owned, just as she is described, “[her] hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll…the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of baboon’s butt. [The narrator wanted] to caress her, destroy her…and murder her…. ” (Ellison, 1994, p. 19).
The narrator’s description portrays women as objects to be owned and destroyed by men and, it is as if they lesser human being. Notably, the characterization of the blonde woman is negative objectification (Fisher & Silber, 2003). For example, the young narrator while describing the woman he shows that the woman does not possess anything including her own body because instead of showing possession, he separates her parts of her body from her being, “the face, the eyes, the hair” rather that “her face, her eyes, her hair” (Ellison, 1994, p. 9).
The narrator further shows his intense hostility in his reaction towards women because he desires to “destroy and murder her”, this shows the author’s presentation of women characters as hopeless misogyny (Elkins, 2014). In Scarlet Letter, female characters are stereotyped in a similar way because she is presented as bad, sinful and more of a victim than a heroine. Hester is forced to stand before the Puritan society, purposely to shame her in the stare of the townspeople to paint her as an example of a sin.
Thus, she is objectified just like the female character in Invisible Man because Hawthorne portrays her as an object of a cruel love triangle. Besides, the female sexuality is controlled by the patriarchal society due to male anxiety to control property, social order and everything (Wang, 2010). Ellison’s Invisible Man silences the women’s voice as evident from the lack of feminine ideas in the novel. The narrator avoids going into great details when describing the women that he encounters.
For example, he sleeps with Sybil but to him this seems not to play a significant role in the plot of the story (Stanford, 1993). Additionally, when the narrator tackles the question on “The Woman Question” in chapters eighteen and nineteen, he reacts in a classic masculinity by stating that, “I stood there… thinking the woman question and searching their faces for signs of amusement … all the more so since the faces of others reveal no awareness” (Ellison, p. 407). The commentary from the narrator shows that he does not perceive the women’s movement to be unimportant and unworthy of attention.
The narrator is inexperienced on issues about women, and he easily falls into the trap of Sybil’s advances. Due to Sybil’s gender, the narrator is unable to say “no” to Sybil as she seduces him into bed in the name of having a philosophical discussion. It is evident that the narrator is overpowered by his masculinity to an extent that he does not handle the situation at hand, and he is unable to stop himself from sleeping with her. Ellison depicts that women are free as men as demonstrated through his character, Sybil, who has the full opportunity to express herself (Daileader, 2005).
In Scarlet Letter, Hester crosses the gender barriers by overcoming her public humiliation and stands up against Puritan norms. Hester goes against the gender norms that were set in the Puritan society. For example, Hawthorne claims that “[she had acquired] passports for regions where other women daren’t not tread” (Hawthorne, 1994, p. 137). Hester demonstrates the greatness of her personal strength in raising her daughter all by herself, and to fight back when the authority attempts to take Pearl from her.
The ortrayal of Hester as adulterous supports patriarchy and masculine hegemony because the father of the child in question is not mentioned anywhere in the book. Hester’s success is similar to Sybil ability to demonstrate that women are free as men. The gender cast in ¬¬Invisible Man is a double edge sword that shows the masculine struggle of black men with the White master, and how the blacks extend this to the female sex. According to Sylvander, the female characters are denied full humanity throughout the novel as evident by the narrator’s lack of recognition of women as human.
The narrator’s blindness to female characters perpetuates women stereotypes and oppression because they cast as not fully human. None of the three women in the story, Mary, the battle royal woman and Sybil match the definition of human life. The author evaluates the humanity of the black men but fails to reveal the dignity of the female minorities (Sylvander, 1975). The narrator stereotypes Mary by portraying her as a woman whose role is homemaking. However, the narrator’s misogynistic view of Mary demonstrates that social oppression exploits all subjugate groups of gender.
Despite her portray by the narrator, Mary’s ideas and aspirations challenge and influence the narrator. Although the narrator remains blind to Mary’s strength and he extends his attitude towards the dignity and humanity of women. The description of Mary by the narrator as a woman with a husky voice and motherly position demonstrates that women are not recognized as human worth. The masculinity and male ego is evident in the organization of brotherhood because it brings the black men together to make them whole.
Additionally, black masculinity demonstrates a recovery from the oppression of the superior whites. The black male characters revert by remaining blind to the humanity of the female characters (Fisher & Silber, 2003). Therefore, it is clear that Ellison shows that patriarchy works both in terms of black and white, and it exploits all subjugated groups of gender. On the other hand, The Scarlet Letter presents a distinctive woman who possesses a rebellious spirit different from traditional types.
She is a character that goes against the set gender boundaries by fighting for her freedom and dignity. She demonstrates what feminism advocates by showing self-reliance and rebellious spirit that defy the power and fight against unfair principals that divide the society along gender lines. Despite the Puritan community’s decision to shame Hester and condemn her by making her wear a scarlet letter “A”, she remains in stands in the public view with her head high. Hester prefers to stand alone because when she was asked about the father of the child she responds “never” (Hawthorne, 1994).
Unlike women in the Puritan society, she does not depend on men rather she is self-reliant. Hester also demonstrates an independent thought because she does not keep adherence to her husband. Instead, she breaks up with her husband and falls for Dimmesdale. She portrays that men and women alike have the freedom to exercise individuality and live a private life. Hester does not fall rather she struggles against the Puritan force that demean women, hence representing a new female image (Nina 2000).
In conclusion, both Invisible Man and The Scarlet Letter are two texts that execute the ideas of gender during Ellison’s and Hawthorne’s time period respectively. The blindness of the narrator in Invisible Man helps in exemplifying the maleness and gender identity through his life encounters where he fails to develop female characters in great depths. Similarly, The Scarlet Letter focuses on the issue of gender equality through Hester, who fights to be a free woman. At the end of the novel, Hawthorne paints Dimmesdale as equal to Hester by making them share a common marker on their tombstones.