Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

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Upon her release from prison, Hester realizes that her entire life will henceforth be lived under the infamy and the shame of the scarlet letter. She will be mocked daily. Ridiculed. Treated with contempt in her own home—and yet she doesn’t leave Boston. She chooses to stay, in part because Dimmesdale is there and she wants to be close to him. She moves into a small, abandoned cottage on the edge of town, where she does good business as a seamstress. She sews everything from gloves to dresses to baby linens—but never wedding veils.

Though Hester herself wears plain, simple garments, she dresses Pearl in “fanciful” clothes displaying her ingenuity as a seamstress. This costs her little, however, and whatever she has leftover she gives to charity. These two acts (sewing and charitable giving) seem to comfort her. Her life has for the most part been stripped of passion, but she’s able to take pleasure in her work. Still, life is hard, and Hester has no friends in town. She’s treated with the utmost contempt, and she can’t walk down the street without someone lecturing her, making fun of her, or looking at her with distrust.

Every once in awhile, Hester entertains the notion that there are others like her in Boston—sinners and adulterers who, though they don’t bear the red mark, are guilty of the same sin. She imagines a fellow adulteress looking upon her with sympathy and understanding; but no one comes forward to befriend or comfort her. In fact, the rumor spreads through town that the scarlet letter is itself a sort of fire and that it can be seen to glow in the dark. This is, of course, untrue.


There are several examples of alliteration in this chapter, including “familiar fireside” and “morbid meddling.”


Cain. In the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy. He’s frustrated because God prefers Abel’s offerings to his. When God learns of the fratricide, he marks Cain as a murderer and banishes him, dooming him to roam the earth for the rest of his life. This mark of Cain is compared to the scarlet letter, which seems far worse to Hester than the mark of Cain.


Hawthorne uses metaphor and nature imagery when he writes that Hester’s sin and ignominy “were the roots which she had struck into the soil.” In effect, her sin is the foundation of her new life, and were she to leave Boston she would be uprooted, so to speak, and have little on which to found her life. Her decision to remain in Boston makes more sense when you consider the psychological and emotional damage caused by her predicament. She doesn’t have the strength to break away.


Hawthorne uses a simile when he writes that all the gossip about and condescension toward Hester “fell upon the sufferer’s defenseless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound.” This simile likens the abstract sentiments of the townsfolk to real, physical attacks on Hester’s person.

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Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis