In The Scarlet Letter, how does Hester cope with her "situation" as she stands on the scaffold in public humiliation?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Before emerging from the jail to stand on the scaffold with her three-month-old baby, Hester had prepared herself as best she could for the pain and humiliation of the ordeal facing her. Once upon the scaffold, however, she suffers to such an extent that she fears she will go mad:

The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne . . . . under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

In order to endure her punishment, Hester's mind takes her away from the scene. She envisions images from her childhood and youth, the home where she lived, the faces of her parents:

[O]ne picture [was] precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of similar importance, or all alike a play. Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit, to relieve itself, by the exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight and hardness of the reality.

As one picture leads to another, Hester's reverie continues until she has followed her own footsteps through memory to this time and place and "awakens" to discover herself again on the scaffold:

Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,—all else had vanished!

Hester's emotional relief, therefore, is brief, and her agony continues.

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The Scarlet Letter

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