In Chapter 5 of The Scarlet Letter, where do Hawthorne's sympathies lie?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The tone, point of view, and narrative of Chapter 5 in Nathaniel Hawthorne's TheScarlet Letter is clearly sympathetic to Hester in several ways.

The chapter is titled "Hester at her Needle", and two things of extreme importance are brought up. One, that Hester is free, but not from the oppression of the sanctimonious villagers. The other, that Hester's talent with needlework sets her aside from every other woman, and represents her shining inner light.

Sympathy for Hester is evident, being that this chapter tells about the moment when Hester Prynne is finally removed from prison. The narrator expresses how Hester's heart is nevertheless "morbid" and "sick" with suffering. This is even the day when her sentence was finally over.

Even though this is a moment of physical liberation, it is obvious that this is not going to be a joyous moment for poor Hester. She will have to live now in the free community and endure the daily judgement of her fellow villagers. If anything, at least in prison she only had to endure public humiliation during the scaffold days. Now, she will have to face everybody, at all times, and everywhere she goes. In a very poignant choice of words, Hawthorne expresses the extent to which Hester's situation is hopeless

She could no longer borrow from the future, to help her through the present grief. Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next; each its own trial...

Chapter 5 is also sympathetic to Hester because it explains that the reason why Hester does not flee the village after her liberation is that there is a dim light of hope that she and Dimmesdale may reunite. However, it is clear that she has lost some of that hope too, making the reader commiserate with her at an even deeper level.

She barely looked the idea in the face...What she compelled herself to believe,—what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England,—was half a truth, and half a self-delusion.

Aside from relating the sad reality of Hester's life, Hawthorne also gets to "show her off" through her needlework; a craft which attracted every walk of life in the settlement. In fact, it is Hester's needlework that makes the town suddenly beautify, as great ladies are drawn by it and, even little Pearl, stands out brightly as a result of it.

Yet, the strongest evidence of sympathy that can be found in the chapter deals with the manner in which Hester, even with her talents, continued to be the scapegoat of hatred, discord, and prejudice of her fellow citizens. She had to undergo the punishment of seeing children and adults alike look down on her. However, Hawthorne proclaims her dignity as that of a heroine; a martyr.

She was patient,—a martyr, indeed,—but she forebore to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse.

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The Scarlet Letter

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