Notes to Ch 5, Hester at Her Needle
The Scarlet Letter

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 breast ...sl05.html#g01
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 torture ...sl05.html#g01
Because of this "perhaps" qualifier, we are forced again to supply our own suppositions. If the term of "confinement" 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 lifetime ...sl05.html#g01
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 her ...sl05.html#g01
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 passion ...sl05.html#g01
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 ...sl05.html#g01
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 her ...sl05.html#g02
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 her ...sl05.html#g03
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 . . . ...sl05.html#g06
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.
the child's attire ...sl05.html#g06
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 ...sl05.html#g07
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 nature ...sl05.html#g07
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 Cain ...sl05.html#g08
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 bosom ...sl05.html#g08
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? ...sl05.html#g09
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 the truth?
perhaps there was more truth in the rumor ...sl05.html#g12
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 deeper?


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 cannot deny.

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.

Summary. 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, HTML code and text.
Use as in ?Help? page citation guide.

Eldred, Eric. <cite>Notes to Ch. 5, The Scarlet Letter.</cite> <br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;1999. 23 Sep. 1999. <br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &lt;<a href=""></a>&gt;

(<a href="">Eldred</a>)

Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 5, The Scarlet Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.


Please send your own contributions or corrections:
Last updated: Fri Sep 24 01:15:54 EDT 1999
©Copyright 1999 Eric Eldred - see license
From Eldritch Press's Nathaniel Hawthorne Home Page -