Last Updated on April 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1807
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 2
When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her towns-people and neighbors. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
Hester Prynne, an English colonist of seventeenth-century Boston, has been found guilty of adultery, evidenced by the birth of her child, Pearl. Rather than have her submit to the severe consequences required by Puritan law (i.e., death), the authorities have given her a measure of mercy, due to the unknown fate of her husband, and have required that she simply wear the letter “A” upon her breast for the rest of her life. Having served at least three months in prison, Hester is now brought before the entire community, along with her baby, to stand upon the scaffold for several hours, subject to the shame and taunts of the community.
At first, Hester displays shame for the scarlet letter and tries to shield it from view by drawing Pearl closely to her. Realizing that Pearl herself could be considered a living “scarlet letter” and evidence of her sin, Hester lowers her child and almost proudly displays the letter. Having embroidered the letter herself, she has made the most of it, sewing with a richness that was characteristic of Elizabethan fashion but definitely contrary to the Puritan practice of simplicity of dress.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 5
It might be, too,—doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole,—it might be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe—what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England—was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.
After her release from prison and punishment on the scaffold, Hester takes up residence in a run-down cottage outside of town. There, she makes a living as a seamstress and becomes quite well known for her needlework. Although she is free to leave Boston, she has decided to stay, despite having to continue the wearing of the scarlet letter as well as facing rejection and rumors.
The narrator speculates on the possible reasons why she has not relocated. First, the father of her child, Arthur Dimmesdale, remains in Boston. Although he has not confessed that he is the father of Pearl, Dimmesdale is still the object of love for Hester. She knows that it is impossible that they will be married in this world, but she believes—or hopes—that they might possibly be allowed to be joined in Heaven, forgiven at last for their sin. Yet to herself, Hester says that she remains for one simple reason: because Boston was the scene of her crime, it will be the scene of her punishment. She hopes that the shame that she must endure daily from the Puritans will somehow cleanse her soul.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter 13
Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled. A tendency to speculation, though it may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her. As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated. A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise of thought. They are not to be solved, or only in one way. If her heart chance to come uppermost, they vanish. Thus, Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.
The scarlet letter had not done its office.
Hester contemplates whether or not Pearl, who has become an almost uncontrollable child, should have been allowed to be born. From this thought, she is led to question her own existence and, what is more, the existence of women as a whole. Was it worthwhile for a woman to exist? Can she have a good life? Hester has decided that she cannot. The problem lies in two areas. First, women are second-class citizens, thus necessitating the restructuring of society as a whole. Women must be seen as the equals of men. Until that time, it is little difference how a woman sees herself. Secondly, a woman is by nature more spiritually introspective than a man, which often leads her to an emotional chasm. It is this point that Hester has now reached. She has nowhere to go to escape, for she must take Pearl, the living reminder of her sin and her womanhood, with her. Perhaps it is better, Hester thinks, that Pearl should die, and then Hester herself can end her own life. As the narrator points out, the scarlet letter, which was intended to heal her soul and bring her back to a righteous life, has done the opposite.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Hester Prynne is viewed primarily as a woman faced with the consequences of her sin of adultery. Yet it is not the sin itself that Hawthorne focuses on, but the consequences of that sin within the context of the society in which Hester finds herself. Her partner in adultery, Arthur Dimmesdale, faces daily his own sins, both adultery and hypocrisy for not confessing, but Hester has moved beyond that to face life on her own.
Initially, Hester does not know what to do with the shame that is handed to her. Although she tries to hide the scarlet letter as she emerges from the jail to stand on the scaffold, she knows this is fruitless and thus continues with the pledge that she made to herself while in prison—to wear her shame proudly. The elaborate design of the scarlet letter is symbolic of Hester’s determination to refuse to hide from what she has done. Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter remains hidden until the end, at the time of his confession, but Hester’s is before her and before the community.
It is also for this reason that Hester remains in Boston. Although escape could be easily accomplished, allowing her to return to a life of honor and societal acceptance, she chooses to stay at the place of her sin, to accept the consequences. However, it is not necessarily out of pride in her sin that she remains. She accepts that what she did—having a relationship with a man not her husband—was wrong, but she knows that she cannot go back to change what happened: now that she has Pearl, all the world can see the result of her sin. Knowing that no true marriage is available to her, she still has some feelings for Dimmesdale, despite the impossible nature of their situation.
Hester’s thoughts eventually turn to the realization that her place as a woman in that society was predetermined. She cannot change herself without changing society. While Dimmesdale has effectively hidden his sin, a benefit of being a man, Hester as a woman cannot do that. She alone bears the disgrace and has no intention of forcing Dimmesdale’s confession out of him.
Later, as she and Dimmesdale make plans for escape, she still realizes, as she sees him marching in the Election Day procession, that nothing will change. She resents Dimmesdale for being a man and thus having the ability to appear other than what he really is. Although the three ultimately do not escape together, Hester has some measure of redemption, through the deaths of both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, as well as the escape of herself and Pearl to Europe, where Pearl grows up to be in the highest levels of society. It is through this knowledge that she eventually returns to Boston, resumes the wearing of the scarlet letter, and is content to live the life that she has created for herself.