The Scarlet Letter Questions and Answers
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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In The Scarlet Letter, what do you learn about Hester’s life before she came to the Puritan settlement?

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As Hester stands on the scaffold in the middle of Boston,

she saw again her native village, in Old England, and her paternal home; a decayed house of gray stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half-obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility.

She recalls her childhood home in England—a home which had, evidently, fallen into some disrepair as a result of a change in her family's finances. Perhaps she was married off to "a man well stricken in years" because he had some money. Hester's family also seems (based on the reference to the old and crumbling coat of arms) to have a pedigree, and this was, perhaps, part of the allure her husband felt in marrying her. He was a scholar with his own money, and she came from an old family with an important name: they each had something to gain from this union. Next, Hester recalls a "Continental city; where a new life had awaited her, still in connection with the misshapen scholar." She must, then, have moved to the European continent with him prior to her immigrating to the colony in New England.

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We are not given a great deal of information about Hester Prynne's life before she came to New England. However, we do know that she arrived in America from Amsterdam, which at that time was a haven for Puritan refugees fleeing persecution in England. Hester comes from quite a respectable family, which makes her subsequent fall from grace all the more shocking. Her genteel background is one of just many things that isolates Hester from her new surroundings. Her long-lost husband, who eventually resurfaces under the name of Roger Chillingworth, has long been thought to be dead, which effectively makes Hester a widow. Moreover, though Hester is a Protestant, she is not actually a Puritan. This makes her feel somewhat out of place in New England, which like the Amsterdam she left behind, is a haven for Puritans fleeing persecution.

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