How is Hester different in physical appearance from other women in The Scarlet Letter?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In chapter 2 of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses homely names to describe the typical women of the village. He subtlety implies by using names as "matronly", and "ruddy", and by describing them as 

 ...the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition

that they are essentially women of little sophistication, more rudimentary origins, and perhaps even less attractive than Hester. We know this because the author juxtaposes Hester's description by using much more complementing and less primitive words.  

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes.

Hester, who is an expatriate from England, and relatively new to the village, still possessed the "old world charm" that presumably captivated Dimmesdale. Moreover, she obviously never shared the customs and traditions of the typical Puritans. Her husband, Roger Prynne (a.k.a. Chillingworth) was more of a leading scholar than a puritanical blind follower in a flock. This is what leads many to assume that neither he nor Hester were actual Puritans. 

To add salt to the ego wound Hawthorne dents on the villager women, he also adds that Hester was "lady-like" and that she had "feminine gentility", that set her apart from the rest. It is precisely in her beauty that lays the irony of her misfortune, and the eyes of the other villagers presumably agree that she is, indeed, an enigmatic, and stunning woman compared to the rest. This is also part of the reason why the "goodwives" are so catty and mean in their references to Hester. It is clear that there is something in the sad lady that they either wished they had, or know that they will never be able to accomplish. 

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