The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 2 | The Market-Place

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 2 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 2 : The Market-Place | Summary

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Summary

Some of the women waiting outside the prison viciously discuss the prisoner, Hester, who has been found guilty of adultery and will be punished by public humiliation. Hester comes out of the jail, carrying her three-month-old daughter, Pearl. Hester is beautiful, "tall, with a figure of perfect elegance" and with "dark and abundant hair" that is "glossy." More than simply beautiful, she has "a certain state and dignity." In her appearance and her bearing, Hester is isolated from the drab, cruel people around her. With her child clutched to her breast, Hawthorne says, she would have suggested the Virgin Mary to a Catholic witnessing the scene: a "sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world." That characterization conjures a religion of love and mercy, a sharp contrast to the stern Puritan morality judging Hester.

Hester walks to the scaffold where the pillory is located and the people have gathered. On her dress she wears a scarlet letter A, representing her crime and punishment. The A is not plain, as the Puritans would have likely required. Rather, it is elaborately embroidered. As she stands on the scaffold in front of the hostile crowd, Hester briefly escapes the jeering crowd as she reviews her life back in England and her marriage to a much older "misshapen scholar" whom she did not love.

Analysis

Hester has committed the sin of adultery, consensual sexual relations between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse. Because adultery was forbidden by the seventh commandment, the Puritans considered it punishable by the death of both parties. In sparing Hester's life, the colony's leaders believe they are acting with justice and mercy. They likely considered that she thought her husband was dead and that her partner, who chose not to reveal his identity, should share part of the responsibility.

That Hester has exquisitely embroidered the A shows her defiance of the scornful judgments. She makes the A something of beauty (as she believes her love to have been) rather than a thing of shame.

Often symbols can be interpreted in different ways, and the scaffold is a case in point. Most obviously the scaffold, a raised wooden platform used for the punishment of criminals, symbolizes the public punishment of sin. In addition, it shows that Hester is better than the people who are judging her, as, once she is on the scaffold, she stands higher than the people around her. Because the scaffold is immediately adjacent to the church, the possible interpretations multiply.

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