How would you describe Hester’s place in the community over the years covered in the novel?The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the novel The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we first find Hester Prynne being hissed at by her fellow settlers while she stands at the scaffold being accused of adultery.

Much later after that we see her again in Chapter 5, when she finally walks from confinement. Hester chooses not to flee to England, nor anywhere else. She simply returns to the settlement and lives alone with Pearl miles away from the center of it. However, Hester is far from living in total isolation. The story tells us how her talent for art, namely needlework, makes her a center of attention amongst the ladies who loved a good handmade piece. Although Hester is not always rewarded socially for what she does (people, even children, continue to jeer at her in the streets), she develops an underground following of people who admire her services.

Lonely as was Hester's situation, and without a friend on earth who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of want. She possessed an art that sufficed, even in a land that afforded comparatively little scope for its exercise, to supply food for her thriving infant and herself. It was the art, then, as now, almost the only one within a woman's grasp--of needle-work. She bore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill, of which the dames of a court might gladly have availed themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual adornment of human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk and gold.

It must have been quite interesting for Hester to see how such a Puritanical settlement who avows by the canons of poverty, simplicity, and resourcefulness has developed a sudden taste for the good life. Hester must have wondered about the origin of this delight for material things. Moreover, she must have wondered how these same individuals, coming to her for vanities, have the nerve to still make her remember her own unique mistake by wearing the scarlet letter.

Here, indeed, in the sable simplicity that generally characterised the Puritanical modes of dress, there might be an infrequent call for the finer productions of her handiwork. Yet the taste of the age, demanding whatever was elaborate in compositions of this kind, did not fail to extend its influence over our stern progenitors, who had cast behind them so many fashions which it might seem harder to dispense with.

In addition to the sudden changes in her immediate society, one can perceive a sense of want for morbidity when we realize that Hester becomes a sort of dark celebrity in a circle of vain people who find her to be "the fashion."

By degrees, not very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant;

All this makes us conclude that Hester was necessary in the town. Could her "sin" have moved the stagnant mentalities of many of the settlers in favor of a life with less rules? Could her resilience be the cause for the settler's sudden rebellious need for vanity? One thing is clear: Hester is a need in her community. Both her and her art seem to give life to an otherwise dead place.


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The Scarlet Letter

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