Notes to Ch 13, Another View of Hester
The Scarlet Letter

legitimate action of his own conscience ...sl13.html#g01
Hester knows that her husband Chillingworth is out to revenge himself on the father of Pearl, but at this point she cannot be sure except through intuition that Chillingworth really knows that Dimmesdale is the adulterer. The evidence of Dimmesdale's weakness leads her to believe that Chillingworth is poisoning the pastor and that Dimmesdale needs her help, if only because of his appeal to her for help. She cannot believe that his guilty conscience is causing all these physical changes. Notice that all this is said to be Hester's own belief, and is not necessarily the narrator's nor what we readers should believe. In fact, we have no reason to be certain that Hester was aware that Dimmesdale's decline started before Chillingworth's intervention.
a terrible machinery had been brought to bear ...sl13.html#g01
This seems to refer to Chillingworth's evil science. The mechanistic view brings in some criticism of technology as well, as materialistic as opposed to art and love, and might be an allusion to the Puritan's belief in predestination. For another exposition of this topic, see "Artist of the Beautiful." The use of the word "machinery" calls up another of its meanings, an instrument of torture.
from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong ...sl13.html#g01
It seems odd for Hester to respond to a sense of right and wrong here, rather than of emotional love. And this oddity is compounded by the statement that this was a bond of criminals. Criminals are bound together by more than a mutual crime--they generally threaten violence to each other to keep the bond, and to keep their crime secret. Here there is no threat of violence to each other, only from the outside. Why should Hester care whether or not Dimmesdale dies--it would not affect her part of the crime; indeed, it would only be to her benefit if Dimmesdale confessed. This reference might of course imply that Hester believed she had seduced Dimmesdale, but we have no other evidence of that--Hester Prynne is always depicted as prim.
But we are asked to accept that Hester's isolation has made her adopt new standards of her own of right and wrong. First, the isolation is not convincing--she has worked in the community and followed all its other standards as far as we know. Second, we have no evidence that she has grounds for different standards, other than her adultery, which she is not asserting was right. It can only be by implication that she is confronting a severe law with a different law, one of love. But what is this love? It seems to be a general one, not aimed at a particular human being. Hawthorne states that it is a moral virtue, because it is disinterested. This might be necessary for the plot, but makes it harder for us to get a good picture of Hester's character.
We have to think too of Hawthorne's mother. She was isolated like Hester, but she did not adopt the approach of being a nurse to mankind. Still, it would seem that the emotional energy of Hawthorne's long attempt at a characterization here must have come from his mother, who had died just before he wrote this.
the cross on a nun's bosom ...sl13.html#g06
We see that the scarlet letter is changing its significance with time and with Hester's good works. Instead of being a scarlet woman Mary Magdalene, she reminds us of the Mary, mother of God, that was foreshadowed by her physical appearance earlier. Again, this would be a Roman Catholic symbol not appropriate for Puritans but perhaps meaningful as a sort of pre-Raphaelite reaction against Victorian materialism for Hawthorne in 1850.
Earlier we remarked that Hester was not allowed to interpret the text of the scarlet letter herself, in any way other than what the authorities defined it. Here we see that it is not Hester who is doing the interpreting of the letter, but its readers among her patients and clients who do it, yet it is Hester's good works that make possible their new interpretation, for example "Able." In a way this is subversive, but is it voluntary? Another factor to consider is that it was the men who forced the original interpretation--now the women, or at least a woman's strength--are responsible for the new interpretation.
Instead of being an emblem of evil, it now becomes a symbol of good, even to the "report" of its fending off an Indian's arrow--surely an act of God intervening to protect a martyr.
This type of martyrdom is one of women. Hawthorne's daughter Rose, after his death, separated from her alcoholic husband, George Parsons Lathrop, and founded an order of Catholic nuns in New York City to nurse disfigured cancer victims.
there seemed to be no longer anything in Hester's face ...sl13.html#g06
If we have been following the story closely, we wonder just what the author is referring to, since he never really came out and said before that Hester was beautiful nor fully described her features. We wonder, for example, whether her hair was originally red but has now turned gray? (We might think that Pearl's hair ought to be red but it is described as brown.) In any case, he now states that she has lost her feminine beauty. But maybe she can get it back if she just had a man around to get the juices flowing? Perhaps Hawthorne realizes that the previous generalized love or agape is a little hard for readers to take at this point, and has to interject something more practical. The touch about her hair being up (it must be inside her cap, not shorn) foreshadows the beautiful moment at the brook, soon, when she lets down her long hair.
We wonder also just what causes her austerity. No doubt much can be explained by the idea that the scarlet letter repels and embarrasses other people. We wonder, for example, whether this would have happened if she had named the father but still continued to live in the town. But unspoken is the idea that the scarlet letter might attract men who seek casual sexual encounters, and perhaps Hester has had to adopt an aloofness in order to fend them off.
We see that Hester in spite of her tendency to philosophical thinking is really still an emotional woman and represents the power of love as opposed to the stern Puritan logic. Hawthorne is explaining that Hester, just as with his mother, really did have the love deep down inside but it was not ordinarily as visible as the scarlet letter. And the letter is just that, in the end, in spite of the author's playing with lights coming out of it and so on--it is not really living and its signification is not fixed except by humans who read it.
the marble coldness of Hester's impression ...sl13.html#g07
In what way is this coldness different from the coldness of Chillingworth?
It seems that Hester might be justified in responding this way to her harsh treatment. But is she being true to herself? Is not her central problem really the same as Arthur's, the need to confess publicly, repent, and seek God's grace? Where have we seen any indication that Hester is repentent, other than her willingness to do good deeds? We can talk all we want about her being a strong character and a feminist and a leader of other women, but until she gets things straight inside how can that happen? Perhaps these other thoughts are just ways to avoid confronting her real problems?
"Marble" reminds one of a statue. But Hester is not a statue, a picture, an emblem, a token, an allegory, a symbol--she is a living human being, subject to change, and to the laws of the heart as well as logic. She is more than the scarlet letter.
It was an age... ...sl13.html#g07
Hawthorne draws an analogy between the age of the Puritans and the age of 1850. In the earlier time, scientists such as Newton were overturning old ideas about the world, and science and new ideas were challenging religion--which in turn was changing under the new debates of Protestantism. In civil government, King Charles I was overthrown, the Parliaments and Oliver Cromwell ruled, so many Puritans saw a type of government they could live with. But then the Puritans lost power too. The New World immensely changed men's conception of themselves, and threatened the old order in Europe.
In turn, in 1850 readers would be confronted with many new developments that continued the old debates. Women in the U.S. had publicly called for nondiscrimination and started organizing feminist movements. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 in Europe first caused revolutionary socialist ferment but then conservative backlashes and repression. Religion as of the old Congregational-Puritan form was being confronted by Unitarianism. The Democratic party of Jefferson and Jackson was fighting against the authoritarian conservatives of the Whig party, which had thrown Hawthorne out of office. Industrialization was proceeding rapidly in the United States and was vastly changing rural home life.
Hawthorne himself was central to some of these struggles. His marriage brought new ideas from his wife's family--his sister-in-law Elizabeth Palmer Peabody founded the Transcendentalist journal The Dial and Hawthorne worked at the Utopian experimental Brook Farm. There must have been feminist ferment at home. All these ideas were new but familiar to Hawthorne. Here he brings them up to richen the character of Hester, without necessarily committing himself or her to believing in them. However, critics have a field day in exploring all the ramifications of these simple sentences, which apparently can be read in many different ways. Note that Hawthorne is a male writer whose readers were for the most part female. Bringing all this up might have been as provocative as his earlier attacks on Whigs in the Custom House.
Ann Hutchinson ...sl13.html#g08
Anne Hutchinson did, with others, start religious revival meetings in her home in Boston. These ended up being condemned as heresy by the Puritan clerics, and she was banished in 1637 to Rhode Island. Hester has often been compared with Anne Hutchinson, but here Hawthorne is careful to draw only a partial analogy--he states that if things had been different, Hester might have been a foundress of a religious sect, a prophetess, or a martyr--but things were different, and she was not. This does not make Hester a Hutchinson. And, anyway, it is not really true that Hutchinson was a martyr. Hawthorne knew that she had been killed by Indians in New York (the Hutchinson River Parkway is a main highway today) but that did not make her a martyr to religion.
Still, the inevitable comparisons will be made. Antinomianism distinguishes itself from mainstream Puritanism by its emphasis on the power of love, and the direct grace of God without the Church as intermediary. Those ideas might have been attractive to Hester, but nowhere do we hear that she did accept them.
Unspoken here is the name of Margaret Fuller. Hawthorne had a complex relationship with this early feminist, and many critics have seen her as Hester's model. In any case, we would not go wrong in thinking that Hawthorne treated Hester as ironically as he did Fuller.
There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her ...sl10.html#g09
Hawthorne is using visual imagery here to paint a mood. The influence of the sense of the "sublime and the picturesque" in Romantic scenery aesthetics on his writings, right from the first, has been noted by several critics. It also helps the author get away with being very nonspecific about the details of what Hester thought and felt.
The scarlet letter had not done its office ...sl10.html#g10
This paragraph, summing up the preceding ones, has provoked immense controversy among critics. We can all read into Hester's character what we wish, and we can try to extrapolate from that what we think Hawthorne really felt about women in 1850. We can never be completely sure what he meant by "its office" here, but on the face of it he refers simply to the fact that the scarlet letter was intended to punish Hester, but now it has made her a rebel or plotter of rebellion. She is beginning to have thoughts of her own, new interpretations of the text that she was not supposed to interpret. But the thinking is clearly diffused by an emotional cast--she is depressed and even thinks of killing herself. It is only Pearl who gets her through the day and the fact that she has to take care of Pearl prevents her from being a revolutionary.
But on the other side of the account, Hawthorne seems to be ironic at the same time, slanting the characterization of Hester from a conservative or pessimistic angle--presumably, the author and narrator are the same here. Hawthorne always distrusts the reformer, the one who has a simple answer to things--he always sees the other side, the dark side too.
More mundanely, Hawthorne left the utopian experiment at Brook Farm to get married, and the fact that he now has children to support has forced him to write this book and appeal to his readers in some way that reaches them. He cannot sit around and dream, as he might tend to do otherwise.
retired part of the peninsula ...sl13.html#g12
"In fine" means "in short," "in the end," from the Latin finis.
Boston is situated on a peninsula, between the Charles River to the west and the harbor to the east. Originally, it was composed of a set of hills of debris left over from the last glacier, which then were more or less surrounded when the water level rose. Most of the low areas between the hills have now been filled in. In 1649 the entire land area was not occupied by houses and it would be possible to walk along the shore (muddy, no beaches) or find herbs in unoccupied areas.

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