In The Scarlet Letter what is the public view of Hester's sin as expressed by the women outside the prison?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapter II of The Scarlet Letter, titled "The Marketplace", the goodwives standing outside the prison door where Hester Prynne was being held were pretty harsh when it came to their opinion of the woman. They were angry at her crime because, as Puritans, Hester had committed the sin of adultery, which is a crime of shame and impurity.

The women were not happy that Hester received a minimal punishment (in their view) for this shame. They were mad that the magistrates "merely" made her wear a token of shame, which Hester (in turn) made look flashy and extravagant. They were also both shocked and in awe of Hester's daring persona. This is why they angrily demanded that Hester received a painful and shameful punishment, including corporal punishment if needed. In not so many words. The ladies were quite catty. 

I’ll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne.[...] If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!”

Second, Hester had bore a child from that adulterous relationship. Anyone could be the father of Hester's child, since the woman refuses to tell the name of her daughter's father. The goodwives were not only repelled by this idea, but perhaps even annoyed, jealous and piqued at the possibility that their own husbands, or someone close enough, could have fathered Hester's child. They wanted Hester gone out of the village. They even wished her dead!

What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book

Notice that Hawthorne describes the wives in an unflattering way, both physically and behaviorally. Hester would eventually come out of the prison toward the scaffold looking "tall", and "striking", and short of glamorous in comparison. Are the wives just jealous? Do they feel that their husbands would have fallen for Hester? While this is never clear, what is obvious is that they feel supposedly ashamed of Hester, and presumably believe that Hester's sin will mark every woman in the village with the same badge of shame.

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The Scarlet Letter

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