Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 - Hester at Her Needle
Her term of imprisonment over, Hester is now free to go anywhere in the world, yet she does not leave Boston; instead, she chooses to move into a small, seaside cottage on the outskirts of town. She supports herself and Pearl through her skill as a seamstress. Her work is in great demand for clothing worn at official ceremonies and among the fashionable women of the town — for every occasion except a wedding.
Despite the popularity of her sewing, however, Hester is a social outcast. The target of vicious abuse by the community, she endures the abuse patiently. Ironically, she begins to believe that the scarlet A allows her to sense sinful and immoral feelings in other people.
Chapter 5 serves the purposes of filling in background information about Hester and Pearl and beginning the development of Hester and the scarlet as two of the major symbols of the romance. By positioning Hester's cottage between the town and the wilderness, physically isolated from the community, the author confirms and builds the image of her that was portrayed in the first scaffold scene — that of an outcast of society being punished for her sin/crime and as a product of nature. Society views her ". . . as the figure, the body, the reality of sin."
Despite Hester's apparent humility and her refusal to strike back at the community, she resents and inwardly rebels against the viciousness of her Puritan persecutors. She becomes a living symbol of sin to the townspeople, who view her not as an individual but as the embodiment of evil in the world. Twice in this chapter, Hawthorne alludes to the community's using Hester's errant behavior as a testament of immorality. For moralists, she represents woman's frailty and sinful passion, and when she attends church, she is often the subject of the preacher's sermon.
Banished by society to live her life forever as an outcast, Hester's skill in needlework is nevertheless in great demand. Hawthorne derisively condemns Boston's Puritan citizens throughout the novel, but here in Chapter 5 his criticism is especially sharp. The very community members most appalled by Hester's past conduct favor her sewing skills, but they deem their demand for her work almost as charity, as if they are doing her the favor in having her sew garments for them. Their small-minded and contemptuous attitudes are best exemplified in their refusal to allow Hester to sew garments for weddings, as if she would contaminate the sacredness of marriage were she to do so.
The irony between the townspeople's condemnation of Hester and her providing garments for them is even greater when we learn that Hester is not overly proud of her work. Although Hester has what Hawthorne terms "a taste for the gorgeously beautiful," she rejects ornamentation as a sin. We must remember that Hester, no matter how much she inwardly rebels against the hypocrisy of Puritan society, still conforms to the moral strictness associated with Puritanism.
The theme of public and private disclosure that so greatly marked Dimmesdale's speech in Chapter 3 is again present in this chapter, but this time the scarlet A on Hester's clothing is associated with the theme. Whereas publicly the letter inflicts scorn on Hester, it also endows her with a new, private sense of others' own sinful thoughts and behavior; she gains a "sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts." The scarlet letter — what it represents — separates Hester from society, but it enables her to recognize sin in the very same society that banishes her. Hawthorne uses this dichotomy to point out the hypocritical nature of Puritanism: Those who condemn Hester are themselves condemnable according to their own set of values. Similar to Hester's becoming a living symbol of immoral behavior, the scarlet A becomes an object with a life seemingly its own: Whenever Hester is in the presence of a person who is masking a personal sin, "the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb."
In the Custom House preface, Hawthorne describes his penchant for mixing fantasy with fact, and this technique is evident in his treatment of the scarlet A. In physical terms, this emblem is only so much fabric and thread. But Hawthorne's use of the symbol at various points in the story adds a dimension of fantasy to factual description. In the Custom House, Hawthorne claims to have "experienced a sensation . . . as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron." Similarly, here in Chapter 5, he suggests that, at least according to some townspeople, the scarlet A literally sears Hester's chest and that, "red-hot with infernal fire," it glows in the dark at night. These accounts create doubt in the reader's mind regarding the true nature and function of the symbol. Hawthornes' imbuing the scarlet A with characteristics that are both fantastical and symbolic is evident throughout the novel — particularly when Chillingworth sees a scarlet A emblazoned on Dimmesdale's bare chest and when townspeople see a giant scarlet A in the sky — and is a technique common to the romance genre.
ordinations regulations, laws.
sumptuary laws laws set up by the colony concerning expenses for personal items like clothing.
plebeian order the commoners.
emolument profit that comes from employment or political office.
a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic the gorgeous, exquisite, exotically beautiful.
contumaciously disobedient stubbornly resisting authority.
talisman anything thought to have magic power; a charm.