- sunshine ...sl05.html#g01
- Throughout the text, Hawthorne uses imagery of light as
metaphors of the emotions of the characters. Here, sunshine gives a
cheery and democratic tone to the story, in contrast to the dusky darkness of
other parts, such as inside the jail.
- reveal the scarlet letter on her
- But every speculation or observation the author makes
is soon qualified--surely there was more reason for the
sunshine that day than just to reveal this letter
(which was visible because of its bright color in the
reflected light--or so Hester might think--not because
of any inner light this time).
- perhaps there was a more real
- Because of this "perhaps" qualifier, we are
forced again to supply our own suppositions. If the term
was short, then the current torture of shame would have
piled on top of the earlier exposure on the scaffold. But if
the prison term had been long, then the earlier episode
would have faded and the new public exposure would be
more significant. The ambiguity allows both, and so
intensifies the emotional connection. The reason for
the confinement (which we assume refers to jail time and
not maternity leave) is not explained, but might be as
simple as that there was no other place for Hester and
the child to stay--that was Chillingworth's reason for
residing there, remember.
- to occur but once in her
- Hester was given only one chance to name the father.
After this refusal, she was thereafter forced to wear the
scarlet letter. Although it would seem that doing so would
signal predatory men to take advantage of her, it would more
likely warn their accompanying women to keep the men away.
If she again committed adultery, the unspoken threat is that
she would be put to death. Here, the author indicates that
Hester is no longer defiant as on the scaffold.
- the very law that condemned
- A magnificent metaphor marks the turning point--the
mother is now definitely on her own without the protection
of the Father (the law, the patriarchal society, her
husband, perhaps even God as in the Garden of Eden and later
predestination, Uncle Sam's eagle over the Custom House, or
the King). In just the same way, Hawthorne's mother was on
her own when her husband died. The metaphor of the giant with
an iron arm might show that the author had a balanced view of
the Puritans, and certainly not a simple feminist perspective.
Hester, as with most criminals in jail, had little choice but to
do what she was told, but when released is suddenly faced
with a startling freedom--under the new law, not the old.
She therefore assumes a new identity as a whole person
who can form her life (and her child's) for good or ill.
She is a democrat, hers the unknown future of the United
States, or of Eve leaving the Garden of Eden.
- its own trial ...sl05.html#g01
- The judge of these daily trials would not be the Puritan
magistrates, but Providence; the accuser would be Hester's
own guilt as well as the prospect of more public shaming.
It is essential to the story to add the guilt to the shame,
since Hester internalizes it and really agrees with the
punishment; if it were only a matter of shame she might be
able to isolate herself or move away. Also, her neighbors,
we will see, tend to forget to apply the shame, while her
guilt continues and so she leaves the scarlet letter on.
- woman's frailty and sinful
- This is the image of women set by the male preachers,
that their (Eve's) passion caused sexual sins, and that they were
emotionally unstable and weak and therefore prone to sin.
The rhetorical basis is the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden
(the reference in the following paragraph to the serpent
carries the image along), but the psychological basis is
not unique to the Puritans, who did not have strong female
leaders in church or elsewhere. Hawthorne recognizes it but
here he does not voice it himself, ascribing it to others.
- her only monument
- That is, her bad name or adultery would be all that people
would remember of her after she died. As a metaphor, the phrase
refers to the conclusion of the story, where the scarlet letter
is placed on her tombstone, but not (necessarily) to represent
her bad name, since the occasion for it had long been forgotten
by humans. Consequently, the author is placing this poor
prospect inside Hester's thinking, not doing the thinking for us.
- with the world before
- Hester does not try to escape. If she did escape, what would
happen to our story? So the author has to try to provide two
explanations for her staying. Both seem flimsy. One is that she
had a sense of "fatality" or predestination or guilty
self-punishment. The other is that this day was the start of
years in which she deluded herself that the father of her child
might love her and would step forward and help her. At this
point in the story no doubt Hester was grasping at straws, and
the author's portrayal of her confusion is appropriate. But
as the story continues the reader might, unless distracted by complications,
start to require more direct evidence from the author as to what
is going on. No doubt there are other considerations, more
banal--perhaps a single woman with a child could not easily move away
or return home--but neither is so romantic a reason as the others.
- having also the passes of the dark,
inscrutable forest open ...sl05.html#g02
- It would be no escape to travel to the woods outside the town,
even though her punishers neither ordered that nor forbade it.
The dark forest might be evil, the wilderness as sinful as the
wildness within her. More significantly, it would be difficult
for Hester to make a home within that community of Native Americans--the
text of the trees is "inscrutable"--since no person can
escape from her own identity and character formed as she grows up.
It does not immediately occur to us that Chillingworth, we have been told, has managed
to adapt in his Indian captivity, but our inference has to be that
his adaptation must have been a form of evil, its text written in the
inscrutable book kept by the Black Man there, and his identity
therefore as perilous as Faust's, and with the same incapacity
for love. But even Boston is not safe from the Devil--when
Hester anticipates seeing Dimmesdale recognize her, she is
being tempted by the Devil, she thinks--at least, according to this story.
- as if a new birth ...sl05.html#g02
- Hester's recognition of her adultery is almost a conversion
experience, a new birth of the soul. This sanctifies her
presence in Boston--only there can she redeem herself--the
chains could never be broken. It is as if Eve does not leave,
but the Garden of Eden is transformed, through her good works.
Likewise, once Hawthorne recognized finally that he was fired
from the Custom House, he was able to stay on in Salem and write
his book. After that, he could leave, just as Hester could leave
once Dimmesdale had resolved his fate. Likewise, the young
United States could have "a new birth in freedom,"
an expression that would be appropriate for Hawthorne's readers.
- another feeling kept
- We start off reading this paragraph thinking it is simply
Hester's thinking about the chance that Dimmesdale will love her.
It soon becomes complicated. It seems that the most that Hester
can hope for is that she might stay near Dimmesdale and be
united with him somehow after their deaths. But finally (in
this paragraph, at least) she recognizes that this is a delusion
and that she can only try to redeem her sin by quiet martrydom
of good works at the scene of her crime. Even by the end of the
book, we are not clear about what Hester "really" thinks,
or what "really" happens. Partly this is a
theological puzzle--can good works alone redeem sin, or
is justification by grace alone required? Is a soul's
fate predestined, or can free will make up for sin through
good works? Is it only man's sinful life on earth that matters
for his soul's destiny, or is there a life after death
in which the story might continue?
- their marriage-altar ...sl05.html#g03
- Of course, both Hester and Dimmesdale realize by now
that Hester is still married and that there can be no
marriage on earth--in order for the marriage to be
meaningful here, it really would have had to happen before
Pearl was born.
- emigrants ...sl05.html#g04
- That is, the adult residents of Boston were all people who had
emigrated from England--only a few children had been born
in the new land by this time. Not all the emigrants were
prepared for the harsh life and some went home or died.
- dames of a court ...sl05.html#g05
- The ladies around a king (who still theoretically ruled over
the Puritans in New England) would wish to express their class
distinction by means of fancy dress or other means. But the
Puritan leaders themselves were not immune from this conspicuous
consumption. On the one hand, the ministers dressed in black
as simple Christians (in later times, they wore fashionable wigs
too). On the other hand, the military and political
leaders constituted an upper class in the society, though it was
a merchant or gentry class rather than a developed aristocracy.
Hester's trade as a needle worker would be appropriate for this
time when industry had not grown beyond the cottage trades
or small water mills.
- it was not recorded . .
- The women's remembrance of Hester's adultery would make
them less likely to have her sew bridal clothing--many
people are still superstitious about weddings today--not
because anyone thought she was particularly wicked or
a bad seamstress.
- It's hard to know what to make of Hawthorne's
elaboration of Pearl's elaborate dress when in a
previous paragraph he noted that "babies then wore
robes of state." What seems to be different about
Pearl's clothing is this "airy charm," which
seems hard to picture other than as an essential quality
of strangeness. We will confront this later.
- a fantastic ingenuity
- The word "fantastic" not only distances
Hester from the community, but like "airy" suggests a devilish
or supernatural component to her needlework.
- she had in her
- The author has so far avoided any possible reference
to Hester's sexuality, though we suppose that Pearl was
not brought by the stork. Now he is able to symbolize
it by means of Hester's work, to which she has transferred
her passion. He uses the word "Oriental"
to describe it, but perhaps that meant more Turkish or
Persian than Chinese or Japanese, since trade with
those countries and America had not yet begun then.
- Like all other joys, she rejected it
as sin. ...sl05.html#g07
- Hester seems to be swinging to the other pole,
rejecting all pleasure as sinful, when earlier she had
apparently seen pleasure as natural. The author points
out that this too "might be deeply wrong."
Simply going through extreme motions of penitence is
not being true to oneself and not really even penitence
anyway, since it is pertaining to matters that are not
of importance to the original problem.
- that which branded the brow of
- The scarlet letter, or the adultery it signified,
marked Hester to other women--although she was not
formally banished, she was distanced from the
community, in a manner that would not be tolerable
to any woman. God marked Cain on the forehead when
banishing him after Cain killed Abel--the two brothers
were the children of Adam and Eve after they left the Garden.
- in the depths of her
- By the use of the words "heart," "breast,"
"bosom," "crimson," the author is able
to make symbolic reference to the scarlet letter without
actually mentioning it. It is as if by self-consciously
refusing to refer directly to some obvious war injury,
a person who meets a veteran and stares at the wound ends up
nervously calling attention to it all the more. Such
veterans quickly learn to break the ice and make a small
joke about it to help their friends along. No doubt
the dames of elevated rank were malicious, and the
poor who received her bounty heartless, but her good works
did not make friends of them either, and their malice was
quite small and perhaps understandable.
- From first to last, ...sl05.html#g09
- The scarlet letter is dehumanizing poor Hester.
Everyone seems to see the scarlet letter rather than her--there
is no way for her to form her own new identity. She transfers
the social pain of having to show the scarlet letter to a place
internal, to her own heart or mental agony. If the letter
only found some sympathetic reader, there would be relief,
but almost every reader finds something bad in it.
- Had Hester sinned alone?
- But even when someone seems to sympathize with her
pain, she only suspects that that person is just another
sinner who has secretly committed adultery--then she is
again reminded of her own sin. And the realization that
there is so much sin, and so many sinners, around us can
be very depressing. Look what happened to poor
"Young Goodman Brown."
As the author notes below, the result is a loss of faith.
- the bad angel ...sl05.html#g11
- She begins to think it is the action of the Devil
at work that makes the letter (and her heart) more
sensitive to the sinners around her--or is it really
- perhaps there was more truth in the
- All in the same paragraph the author adds some
supernatural romantic overtones to the chapter,
and sums up the reaction of the community to the
woman with her scarlet letter--the letter now becomes
a symbol of something that cannot be discussed openly,
powerful sexual passion that can lead to adultery.
By attempting to suppress the adultery, the community
has only transmuted it into a symbol that stares
everyone in the face every day--the text cannot be
banned, but remains to be read by our free democrats.
Of course, if anyone spread the rumor given here, it
was our author, not the "vulgar" community,
so why doesn't he confirm or deny it? Is he only
teasing us to come up with our own attempts at an
answer to these eternal questions of faith and sin?
Or is it only fanciful entertainment with nothing
Except for one short thought at the end, there
is no dialog, no quotation in this chapter. The
narrator hardly allows us to enter Hester's mind
directly, but reports generalities, often secondhand.
But, in addition, we learn some possible
motives for Hester's behavior, and we learn how the
scarlet letter is perceived by everyone around her,
in ways that we might not expect. Though we might
not agree with the author's interpretations of her
thoughts (which, admittedly, are confused), we are
told of her emotional reaction to events, which we
Several complicated themes are interwoven in
this chapter about needlework. We are confronted
with Goodman Brown's paradox of the everpresence
of sin, but in a more abstract and compressed manner,
given the absence of concrete dialog (many readers will
prefer the short story as unimprovable). This especially
moves the story to a more romantic, allegorical level.
The chapter has to carry Hester for several years,
from the prison to the time when Pearl starts talking.
Each time we seem to learn something definite the
narrator smudges the impression and raises the
possibility of doubt--we will do well to remember
these occasions later.
Thus we see that Truth is not consistent with
Art, Beauty, and Love. The harsh truth revealed
in the scarlet letter hardens Hester's heart and
if she is to redeem herself in good works through
love, that will have to be done with an unsmiling,
professional face, without the expectation of
anything in return. Since we see sin everywhere
around us if we look with sharp eyes, perhaps it
is better to give up a little of the truth in
return for getting along with people better. But
then the "vulgar rumor" takes over to
distort the truth, and the community still does
not accept us. The lot of a needleworker or
novelist is not an easy one.
What makes us think that Hester is beautiful?
Our imagination no doubt supplies that belief--that
we want to believe of a character in a book.
But is that supported by the text? It is of
considerable significance that artists who have
attempted to paint Hester have given her a face
that has to reveal conflicting emotions of
attractive sexual love and repulsive stern anger.
Is that the truth about Hester?
Knowing that Hawthorne's father died when
the author was young makes us look into Hester's
psychological development in this chapter and
see many resemblances. Hawthorne's mother was
not condemned to wear a scarlet letter, but her
grief was as compelling as Hester's guilt, and
certainly is behind Hawthorne's impassioned
portrayal of Hester here. He justifies her
behavior in withdrawing from society, her inability
to make herself accepted by her husband's relatives,
her inability to do good to others, and her
concentration on her children, who felt isolated
as well from other children and the community.
The parallel is not exact, though (Pearl is not
young Hawthorne), and so the
author has to introduce a few other complications
to carry forward the emotional undertones. For
example, Hester is able to assert her identity
through her embroidery, and she does not have
a son who could write a novel to justify her.
Hester leaves jail with mixed emotions. She is now
free and could escape and so stop wearing the
scarlet letter. But she cannot escape her fate.
Through her needlework she supports herself while
living an ascetic life in Boston and working as an
unpaid visiting nurse. But she cannot become a
real part of her community--the scarlet letter
distances her from all others, the good and all
fellow sinners alike.
Suggested MLA citations to this web page,
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Use as in ?Help? page citation guide.
Eldred, Eric. <cite>Notes to Ch. 5, The Scarlet
Letter.</cite> <br />
1999. 23 Sep. 1999. <br />
Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 5, The Scarlet
Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.
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