In The Scarlet Letter, how does public shaming impact Hester's mental state?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

After her public shaming, Hester is initially very distraught, but later she gains inner strength and resolve. When she is returned to prison, emotion overcomes her, and both she and the baby become quite ill. Through a coincidence, her husband (using an assumed name) is also held there, and their conversation makes her realize how invested she is in keeping Arthur Dimmesdale’s identity secret. Upon her release, as she accepts that the community will not forgive her, she decides to stay, hoping to purge her soul and try her hardest to be a good mother to Pearl.

Once she is let out of jail, Hester realizes that the public humiliation was not the worst phase of her punishment. She will have to live her daily life knowing that others are gossiping about her. She decides, however, to stay in the city. She will put down roots there, as “the scene of her guilt [becomes] … the scene of her punishment,” and she commits to a kind of long-term martyrdom (chapter 5).

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Scarlet Letter, how does Hester's public shaming affect her mentally?

When she first goes out on the scaffolding with all eyes on her, we are told Hester Prynne finds the ordeal

almost intolerable to be borne .... she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

The humiliation is terrible for her, especially as the crowd is so solemn. Later that day, back in her prison cell,

Hester Prynne was found to be in a state of nervous excitement that demanded constant watchfulness, lest she should perpetrate violence on herself, or do some half-frenzied mischief to the poor babe.

The ordeal, in other words, initially drives her to the brink of suicide or insanity.

However, we also learn from her actions on the scaffold that Hester is a very strong person. She refuses to reveal the name of the man who impregnated her, feeling not only a desire to protect him, but that he should have the moral courage to confess on his own.

Hester also shows her strength of character in not leaving the area and starting her life anew in place where nobody would know who she was. She prefers to stay put and atone for her sin by embracing her role as social outcast and working to live an exemplary life. The humiliation she has undergone does not break her but makes her stronger and a better human being.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on