What is Nathaniel Hawthorne's tone towards Hester in Chapter One of The Scarlet Letter?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne actually introduces Hester Prynne to us in chapter two of The Scarlet Letter. The chapter is titled "The Marketplace," and that is where everyone has gathered to watch Hester emerge from the prison and make her shameful walk to the scaffold where she will be the object of scorn for the entire town to see.

Before Hester ever appears, we learn what the townspeople, or at least the town's women, think of her. The majority opinion seems to be that Hester is not being punished severely enough to satisfy them. One wishes she and four of her other "mature" (older) friends had been the ones to determine her fate, as they would not have gone as easy on her as they feel the magistrates did. Another thinks Hester should have had the letter A branded on her forehead rather than simply wearing a scarlet letter, as she can adorn it or cover it up if she is just wearing it. 

The harshest comment of all is that she should have forfeited her life for the sin she committed. One quiet voice speaks on Hester's behalf, but the majority want Hester's punishment to be more oppressive and onerous.

It is against this backdrop that Hawthorne presents Hester Prynne, and the first thing she does is shrug off the hand of the beadle from her shoulder, "an action marked with natural dignity and force of character." Before we learn anything more about her, we learn that she is a strong and independent woman. Hawthorne's view of Hester is a sharp contrast to how most of the her fellow citizens view her.

Though her first instinct is to cover the letter embroidered on her breast with the child she is carrying, "wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another," Hester relaxes her hold on the child and walks boldly forth into the hostile crowd. 

Though the "A" is spectacularly ornamental,

[t]hose who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. 

Hawthorne's view of Hester is most revealed in his comparison of her to the Madonna, to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though Hester is far from an unsullied virgin, there is something about Hester holding her child which reminds him of this saintly and sacred image.

Hester's temperament is strong, and Hawthorne is clearly sympathetic to the plight of this strong woman in the midst of this awful punishment. 

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. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and herself the object.

Hawthorne clearly admires Hester Prynne. While he does not glorify or condone her sin, his tone is one of reverence and respect for this woman who bears what she must in the face of insults and hatred. He also seems to connect with her, as if he would feel the same way she does if it were him on the scaffold that day. 

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The Scarlet Letter

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