Essential Passages by Character: Hester Prynne
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 2
When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
Hester Prynne, an English colonist of seventeenth-century Boston, has been found guilty of adultery, evidenced by the birth of her child, Pearl. Rather than have her submit to the severe consequences required by Puritan law (i.e., death), the authorities have given her a measure of mercy, due to the unknown fate of her husband, and have required that she simply wear the letter “A” upon her breast for the rest of her life. Having served at least three months in prison, Hester is now brought before the entire community, along with her baby, to stand upon the scaffold for several hours, subject to the shame and taunts of the community. At first, Hester displays shame for the scarlet letter and tries to shield it from view by drawing Pearl closely to her. Realizing that Pearl herself could be considered a living “scarlet letter” and evidence of her sin, Hester lowers her child and almost proudly displays the letter. Having embroidered the letter herself, she has made the most of it, sewing with a richness that was characteristic of Elizabethan fashion but definitely contrary to the Puritan practice of simplicity of dress.
Essential Passage 2:
(The entire section is 1803 words.)
Essential Passages by Theme: Moral Cowardice
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 4
“Thou knowest,” said Hester,—for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame,—“thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”
“True,” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream,—old as I was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was,—that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!”
“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester.
“We have wronged each other,” answered he. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced."
Hester, remaining in the prison cell following her stint on the scaffold, is so upset that a physician is sent for. Having learned some medicine in Europe and even more during his stay with the Indians, Chillingworth answers the call. (He has been posing as a doctor.) This gives him the opportunity to confront his wife. After explaining his absence as being the result of a hostage situation, he absolves himself of guilt for leaving Hester alone to come to the New World by herself. Chillingworth then confesses his own errors. As a scholar in England, he had lived alone with his studies until middle age. Seeking to ease his loneliness with a wife, he chose the very young Hester and persuaded her to marry him. Knowing him to be a scholar, and evidently ready to leave the poverty of her home, Hester married him, despite the age difference and the separation of their social classes. Hester is now honest with him, that she never loved him, nor professed to. He agrees that she did...
(The entire section is 1789 words.)