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In Chapter 2 of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s dominant physical traits are described in some detail. Those traits, and their significance, include the following:
- The first physical detail mentioned about Hester is her youth. The fact that she is young helps explain her sexual attractiveness and also helps emphasize the likely duration of her punishment and suffering. If she were a very old woman, she might have just a very few years to live. Instead, the fact that she is a young woman means that she may have to bear her disgrace for many decades.
- The second physical trait attributed to Hester is physical strength, as when she repels the hand of her jailor and emerges from her imprisonment as if by her own free will. Her physical strength suggests the other kinds of strength – including strength of character – she will later display.
- Having emerged from jail, Hester is said by the narrator to have displayed
a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, [as she] looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.
Hester’s blush suggests her natural modesty, but her haughty smile and unabashed glance suggest her self-respect, as well as her disdain for the less-generous members of her community.
- The fact that Hester is “tall” once more suggests her strength, her dignity, and self-respect (she is not, for instance, hunched over in shame).
- The main description of Hester’s appearance emphasizes her “dark,” “abundant,” and “glossy” hair – all features suggesting that she is sexually attractive and thus all features that are relevant to her current status as a sexual outlaw. The light associated with her hair makes her hair seem vibrant and makes Hester in general seem full of vitality.
- Hester’s face is described in ways that make her seem not only conventionally beautiful but also thoughtful (“a marked brow and deep black eyes”).
- In bearing and manner she seems strong and dignified – characteristics she will display later in the novel.
- Her hand-made clothing is striking, suggesting once more that she is an unusual woman – the sort of woman who might engage in unconventional behavior just as she dresses in unconventional ways.
All the details of Hester’s physical appearance just described imply that she is young, beautiful, and strong both physically and psychologically. In short, she displays many of the standard traits of an archetypal heroine. She is associated with light, life, vigor, and vitality. She seems sexually attractive but does not seem sexually self-conceited. Her body seems beautiful, but her spirit seems attractive at well. Whatever haughtiness she displays seems more a means of self-protection than an indication of real arrogance or deep-seated pride.
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