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In Chapter Five, "Hester at Her Needle," the narrator tells us that, "Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her infant, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them." Hester dresses herself in the "coarsest materials and the most sombre hue," spending little money, evidently, on her clothing and none at all on ornament. On the other hand, she apparels her daughter, Pearl, in "fanciful" fashions of "fantastic ingenuity." Hester clearly spends more money or her daughter's dress than on her own.
What she has left, she actually gives to the less fortunate in her community, people who are still -- in some ways -- more fortunate than she. Hester is truly charitable and seeks only to help others with her extra, despite the fact that these individuals are often ungrateful to and judgmental of her. She also makes "coarse garments" for the poor when she has time, and "It is probable that there was an idea of penance in this mode of occupation, and that she offered up a real sacrifice of enjoyment, in devoting so many hours to such rude handiwork." Thus, she not only gives of her extra money but of her extra time too; rather than do something more enjoyable, she spends her spare moments in service to others.
When Hester is released from prison, she finds employment doing needle work, particularly for the type of ornate dress worn by magistrates, for funerals, and for babies. Her needle work is prized, and she sews ruffs on the clothes that the governor wears. She also sews military scarves, babies' caps, funeral shrouds, and ministers' bands. She is, however, never called on to sew a bride's veil. Her own ornate scarlet letter "A" serves as an advertisement of her talent at sewing.
Hester herself wears coarse and subdued clothing, and she only spends money to dress her baby, Pearl. She gives away all her spare money to the poor, on people who actually have more than she does. She also makes garments for the poor, and her charity is perhaps a form of penance for her sins.
Besides using the money she earns as a seamstress to support herself and Pearl, Hester also uses it to help the poor. The irony is that she has to endure insults from the poor and the sick she is helping. Instead of being lauded for her good works, she finds herself often used as an example of a sinful woman in sermons and public lectures.
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