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Hester has just been released from prison. She is holding her 3-month-old baby, Pearl. There is a crowd of miserable old shrews in the marketplace and they are gossiping about Hester and saying that she should be hung for her crime of adultery instead of let loose into the community, even though she IS wearing a scarlet letter. They do not believe it is punishment enough for her. Then, Hawthorne says that:
Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the world was only the darker for this woman's beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.
What he means is, that if there had been a Catholic among the crowd, that Catholic might have noticed how much Hester resembled the Virgin Mary. Hawthorne contrasts Mary, who was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus, but Jesus was not conceived of man, but of the Holy Spirit, so Mary and her child were holy. Hester, on the other hand, represents sin, nevertheless, Hawthorne is pointing out the hypocrisy of the Puritans who fail to see the beauty in Hester and her child because they are blinded by the sin that created the child. It is ironic because Jesus would have said, “Let he who is without sin among you throw the first stone,” yet the Puritans are all too ready not only to cast stones, which they are doing with their mean words, but to hang Hester at the gallows.
Hawthorne's allusion to the Madonna and child is particularly interesting in the first chapter since it was against the Church of England, a church which broke from the Roman Catholic Church but yet maintained its same liturgy, that the Anabaptists of England broke. In their attempt to purify religion from corruption, the Anabaptists eliminated a hierarchy of clergymen and stripped the churches of statues, stained glass windows, crucifixes, and anything that they felt was superfluous or distracting to true worship.
But, in so doing, the austerity of the Puritans stripped people of their aesthetic and passionate needs; in so doing, they corrupted what is natural to humanity. With the image of Hester as mother and child in a religious beauty in his first chapter entitled "The Prison Door," Hawthorne points to the loss of such a stringent religion--one that would deny true humanity and its beauty--and to the negative severity of a creed that denies the basic needs of people.
There are other such portrayals of the defeating severity of Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter. For instance, when Hester brings Pearl in Chapter VIII to Governor Bellingham's mansion for questioning, he and the Reverend Wilson remark that Pearl reminds them of the children at holiday time in the court of James I. And, in Chapter XXI, Hawthorne as narrator recalls what the Puritans have lost:
The persons now in the market-place of Boston had not been born to an inheritance of Puritanic gloom....Had they followed their hereditary taste, the New England settlers would have illustrated all events of public importance by bonfires, banquets, apgeantries and processions. Nor would it ahve been impracticable...to combine mirthful recreation with solemnity....The dim reflection of a remembered splendor....
In Chapter I, Hester on the scaffold with her scarlet A, standing in her beauty with her precious child, is "a dim reflection of a remembered splendor" a beauty of life that has been denied to the Puritans. Hester is not so much in contrast to the sinless Mary as the "bitter-tempered" and envious grey-clad women believe.
The madona and child is a common artistic image of the infant baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, the Virgin Mary. It has been painted and sculpted countless times - usually more in an honor to Mary and motherhood, than to the infant.
This reference, briefly mentioned as Hester and Pearl are described upon the scaffold, is meant to serve as a Biblical allusion comparing Hester to Mary and Pearl to Jesus - perhaps for two reasons. One, on display for the entire town, Hester does not even so much as blink too suddenly. She is statuesque. She keeps a straight face, her head held high, and her back erect. Even in her shame, she almost looks proud. Any artistic depictions of the Madonna and child would be similar in that Mary is presented as proud and beautiful. Perhaps Hawthorne wanted to show Hester as obtaining her strength from her child.
On another note, of couurse, we know the image of Jesus is typically linked to sinlessness and sacrifice. This image in one way foreshadows the symbolic aura of Pearl as she is built up throughout the rest of the novel as the one embodiment of truth. As she and Hester are presented to the town on the scaffold, it is like they are on a sacrificial display for everyone else who keeps their secret sins hidden. Certainly they are a sacrifice for the guilty father.
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