The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.

Chapter 5 Summary

Brief Summary

This chapter describes Hester's daily life after being released from prison. Although Hester can leave the settlement if she wants to, she stays, possibly for several reasons, but most likely because she is tied to the place so strongly that she is not able to leave, and feels that to properly perform penance she must stay.

She makes a living for herself doing needlework for ceremonies and other special functions. She earns just enough to maintain her existence and offer a few luxuries for her daughter Pearl. She also uses her gift for those less fortunate, sewing simple clothes for the poor living in the settlement.

The community still does not accept her, but do accept the work that she does for them. The people she works for scorn her, as do the poor who accept her charity. She is used constantly by clergymen as an example of what happens as a result of sin, and children in the street taunt her. Rumors develop as to the nature of the letter; many say that it is a mark of the spirit world, and glows red in the night.

Detailed Summary

This chapter describes Hester's daily life after being released from prison. It is possibly more difficult for her to walk through the prison door into the sunshine the second time, rather than the first, as she goes out into the world to live the life that she will be living from that day forward. She is now the symbol that everyone would point to when they wanted to demonstrate how not to live, and it is this daily torture that she needs to learn to endure. The question of why she chooses to stay, when she could move to any other place in the world and start anew, is explored. The conclusion is that she stays because she is tied to the place and feels the need to pay penance, which she can only do by staying, and she feels tied to the man with whom she shares the burden of sin.

Her saving grace is her skill in needlework, which makes a place for her within the settlement. Although there is no demand for fancy clothes for the Puritans daily lives, there is enough need and desire for her work to keep her busy. There are ceremonial garments to make, which do require the exquisite design and detail she can offer, and there are other, plainer, but just as necessary occasions which require her services, such as births and deaths.

She only earned enough to live plainly and maintain existence, rather than to gain wealth, or live in excess. The only luxuries she allows are for her baby, who she clothes in the finest garments her skilled hands can create. Hester also used her abilities to help those less fortunate, even when they scorned the items she gave because of the mark she was forced to wear.

The community's response to Hester demonstrates the Puritans' unfaltering strictness and their refusal to make allowance for human frailty. Clergyman continue to use her as an example when they pass her in the street, people who accept her services scorn her in and out of her presence and children taunt her in the street even though they do not understand the reason for the letter. The letter seems to have given her an extra sensitivity to the sin of others, which confuses and saddens her. Rumors and stories develop around her, claiming the letter to be not of cloth, but a mark from another world, which Hawthorne suggests is not so far from the truth when one considers the emotional pain that the letter causes Hester.

Chapter 6 Summary

Brief Summary

This chapter describes Pearl, Hester's daughter, in more detail. She is beautiful and radiant, which becomes all the more evident when she wears the magnificent clothes that Hester makes for her. Being so different, she does not get along with other children very well. She suffers from her mother's isolation, but her own uniqueness sets her apart.

Without other children to play with, Pearl must use her imagination, which supplies her with plenty of material for entertaining herself. She plays in and around her house, in the woods and on the beach. Much to Hester's dismay, Pearl expresses the most interest in the "A" that is on her mother's dress.

One day, Hester and Pearl are outside and Pearl is throwing wildflowers at the letter, when Hester starts a conversation with Pearl about her origins. Hester attempts to get Pearl to accept that she was sent by a Heavenly Father, which Pearl rejects. This leads Hester to think about what the townspeople say about Pearl's otherworldly origins and causes Hester to consider it as a possibility.

Detailed Summary

This chapter describes Pearl, Hester's daughter, in more detail. Although she is the result of Hester's great sin, she is a gift to Hester, hence her name, which signifies her preciousness. She is beautiful and radiant, which becomes all the more evident when she wears the magnificent clothes that Hester makes for her. Her changing outward appearance reflects her changing nature. Her capriciousness and otherworldliness, especially, are emphasized.

Being so different, she does not get along with other children very well. She suffers from her mother's isolation, but her own uniqueness sets her apart. She does not approach them, and if they approach her, she defends herself well. Because she is so special, rumors develop about her much in the same manner as the rumors about her mother's letter, and some, including Hester herself occasionally, thought that the sin that caused to her to be left some mark in her nature.

Without other children to play with, Pearl must use her imagination, which supplies her with plenty of material for entertaining herself. She plays in and around her house, in the woods and on the beach. Much to Hester's dismay, Pearl expresses the most interest in the "A" that is on her mother's dress. It is the first thing that she notices as an infant and she grows up with an intense fascination for it, touching it, pointing to it, adorning it with flowers and leaves that she collects from the forest.

One day, Hester and Pearl are outside and Pearl is throwing wildflowers at the letter, when Hester starts a conversation with Pearl about her origins. Hester attempts to get Pearl to accept that she was sent by a Heavenly Father, which Pearl rejects. This leads Hester to think about what the townspeople say about Pearl's otherworldly origins and causes Hester to consider it as a possibility.

Chapter 5-6 Analysis

Hester is released from prison and begins her daily life. The narrator suggests that at the beginning this is even more difficult than suffering the public shame of sitting on the scaffold. The narrator considers why she would continue to live in the settlement where she is isolated when she has the opportunity to go wherever she likes and start anew. The narrator considers that part of the reason is that she is tied to the place since she experienced a life-altering situation, and is thus unable to remove herself from the place where she suffers from an irreversible, unavoidable doom. She has felt pain and sadness that would make all other experiences seem false by comparison. It is like the bond she feels to Dimmesdale, and this too forces her to stay. Their physical union resulted in a spiritual one that neither is able to deny, though they might try. At this time, Hester is able to convince herself that she is staying because it is where she sinned, so it is where she must perform her penance to purge herself of her guilt. She, unlike Dimmesdale, who attempts to purge his guilt in secret, attempts to purge her guilt by sacrificing herself to the Puritanical code which she does not believe in.

Her relationship with the community is explored in more detail, including the inconsistent way she is treated by the people who interact with her. As in the beginning, at the scene of her public shame, most members of the community have no wish to see her reformed, or consider forgiveness a quality to be revered. People who use her services scorn her and feel superior to her even though they have as much potential to be in her situation as her. The theme that everyone has the potential for good and evil is continued, as the people around her continue to focus on her sin without considering their own. Her isolation and constant dwelling on the subject of sin and guilt develops in her an ability to sense the hidden sin in the people around her. She comes to understand that no one is blameless, and therefore no one is more superior than another. This sensitivity saddens and shocks her, partially because it makes the injustice of her own situation more evident, and demonstrates the great extent to which the people around her lie to themselves and to their own nature.

Pearl, on the other hand, is completely true to herself. Her nature is deep and varied, but she acts the same toward everyone. Hester is unable to discipline her--nothing works; Pearl answers only to herself and her impulses. She does not fit the Puritan idea of a well-behaved child, and so she, like Hester, must remain on the outside of society. The narrator describes Puritan children as being at the height of intolerance, and therefore where even more merciless than their parents. Pearl, on the occasions when she is confronted, defends herself well, which mirrors her mother's will and strength of character as she defends herself against the silent aggression of the adult community. Hester seems to fear that this suggests that Pearl has inherited whatever evil lay in her own heart, but on the contrary, the passion that they both share, especially with regard to hypocrisy, is one of the most positive characteristics of any character in the novel.

As the product of her sin with Dimmesdale, Hester fears that Pearl's nature must be affected by it, and that nothing good could come of such an act. Sometimes, she fears that Pearl is not of this earth, and in fact, Pearl's actions often suggest this. This places her apart from all the other characters, and places her in a position to have an understanding that comes from being outside the situation. She is fascinated by the "A" on her mother's dress, and continually causes her mother to consider her situation further. Pearl does not let Hester ignore the truth of her position, and challenges her to confront it. When Hester asks her who sent her to Hester, Pearl refuses to acknowledge her Heavenly Father, thus challenging Hester to be honest about her earthly father. Often, Hester seems to delude herself into thinking that Pearl was sent only by her Heavenly Father, but Pearl reminds her that there is another who was involved, that she must consider. Hester can sometimes see him in Pearl's eyes, and she will not let the matter rest until Hester is completely honest with herself about her responsibility to Dimmesdale and his responsibility to her.

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