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Essential Quotes by Character: Hester Prynne

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 townspeople and neighbours. 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 splendour 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, unrecognised 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....

(The entire section is 1,803 words.)