The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 5 | Hester at Her Needle

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 5 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 5 : Hester at Her Needle | Summary

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Summary

Because her term in prison has ended, Hester is free. She decides not to leave Boston. Instead she moves to an isolated part of the community and supports herself and her daughter as a seamstress. Over time her needlework becomes much in demand (to everyone but brides), but Hester is still a social outcast. Sometimes she feels relief when someone stares at her, because she feels the person shares her pain. Hester develops the ability to sense the secret sins of those around her, including those of clergymen.

Analysis

Why does Hester stay in Boston when she could go anywhere? Boston was "the scene of her guilt," and she thought it fitting it be "the scene of her earthly punishment." She also holds out the hope that in accepting that punishment, she could "purge her soul" and gain "another purity than that which she had lost." Hester's decision to remain develops the themes of sin and guilt and also of personal and public truth. Her relationship to her actions and the punishment is complex.

While at times the narrator says that Hester did not see her actions as sinful, she accepts the reality that the townspeople see them as such. While she may appear somewhat defiant in her embrace of the scarlet letter, she also sees her suffering as a way to absolution. In this view of her punishment, Hester is at odds with Puritan teaching. The Calvinist Puritans believed that only God's grace could save a human soul from sin—and he would not save all humanity but only "the elect," those predestined by God for salvation.

Hawthorne uses verbal irony when he emphasizes that Hester is an outcast, yet her work is much in demand. He notes that "her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion." People shun and mock her, yet they want to wear the beautiful clothing she creates. This admiration for her work foreshadows the positive view that the townspeople come to develop for her character.

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