What does the reader learn about Hester's childhood?  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter 2, as Hester is standing on the scaffolding, we get an outline of her childhood. I will first quote the entire passage, then unpack the important points:

Standing on that miserable eminence, 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 saw her father’s face, with its bald brow, and reverend white beard, that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother’s, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her daughter’s pathway. She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it. There she beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many ponderous books. Yet those same bleared optics had strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner’s purpose to read the human soul. This figure of the study and the cloister, as Hester Prynne’s womanly fancy failed not to recall, was slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right. Next rose before her, in memory’s picture-gallery, the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, gray houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date and quaint in architecture, of a Continental city; where a new life had awaited her, still in connection with the misshapen scholar; a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall. Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne.

Significantly, Hester comes from a wider world than the "rude marketplace" of a Puritan settlement. She grew up in England in a family of ancient gentility, a family important enough to have once been granted a coat of arms. In other words, by birthright she is an upperclass Englishwoman. Her family has fallen on hard times, and it is implied, if not stated outright, that poverty reduced Hester's marriage options, so that she married an older man who was not particularly sexually attractive to her: she remembers him as  deformed with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. He is a scholar and his eyes are bleary from study, but he apparently has a certain charisma of a somewhat eerie kind as his eyes can penetrate, Hester believes, into her soul. The couple leaves England after they marry, going to continental Europe, to an ancient city with grand cathedrals, tall buildings and narrow streets. So, by the time Hester arrives in New England, she has seen at least two other parts of the world and has the pride of coming from an ancient English family. The text implies that this background helps give her the courage and fortitude to resist being broken by the people of a provincial backwater village.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Almost nothing is known of Hester Prynne's childhood.  The only history that the reader learns of Hester is the time period during which she was married to Roger Chillingworth. In Chapter 4 of The Scarlet Letter in which Chillingworth, who has seen her on the scaffold, comes to administer to her distraught child.  While they are in private, her husband talks with Hester of the past.  He tells Hester that from the moment that they came down the church-steps together, he

"might have beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!"

Hester is hurt by his remark and retorts,

"thou knowest that I was frank with thee.  I felt no love, nor feigned any."

Chillingworth, then, admits his folly in hoping that his heart was "a habitation large enough for many guests," and his love could compensate for Hester's lack. He tells her that they have wronged each other:

"Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.....But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both!  Who is he?"

Probably only in her teens--"the child of honourable parents"--when she married Chillingworth, Hester sought true love after he became missing and lived with the Indians for years.

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The Scarlet Letter

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