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The Scarlet Letter | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does doing skilled needlework and fanciful embroidery help Hester endure her punishment and isolation in The Scarlet Letter?

Doing needlework and embroidery is central to Hester's ability to survive. Most obviously, Hester's needlework is the way that she earns her living. It enables her to support herself and her daughter. Her skill with a needle is critical on a basic level. Not as obvious but just as important, Hester's needlework feeds her soul. It gives her a socially acceptable (even socially desirable) outlet for her passionate, creative, and imaginative nature. Doing fine needlework is painstaking, difficult work that requires concentration. As a result, it helps time pass, helping relieve Hester's boredom and loneliness as she is absorbed in her task. That the townspeople eagerly buy her products counters the scorn that people heap on her. Her skill gives her an identity other than that of the sinner.

What does Hester's decision to stay in Boston and her reaction to her neighbors' scorn reveal about her character in The Scarlet Letter?

Hester's decision to stay in Boston and endure her neighbors' scorn reveals several of her character traits. First, her decision to stay and face her oppressors with dignity shows that she has great inner strength, determination, and courage. She is willing to accept the consequences of her public truth and her punishment. Daily, she faces great cruelty and hypocrisy—people willingly buy her embroidered goods, yet refuse to socialize with her. Even worse, their children shun and mock her child, Pearl. Her endurance demonstrates the theme of wisdom through suffering. Second, her decision to stay suggests that she is practical. The novel mentions that her mother has died and her father may have died since she left England. There is no mention of her having siblings, so she may not have any family in England, which means that there is nothing for her there. This isolation from other family members reinforces that theme.

In what ways is Hester's daughter, Pearl, both a happiness and a torture to Hester in The Scarlet Letter?

As readers learn in Chapter 6, on one hand Pearl is a delight to Hester because she is a bright, curious child. Pearl likes to play in nature, and because she is so imaginative, she is always dreaming up interesting games. The child's active nature keeps life lively and interesting. Pearl keeps Hester company and relieves her mother's loneliness, sorrow, and sadness. Hester also has fun dressing Pearl in rich, elaborate clothing, making her a miniature A. Creating fanciful outfits for her daughter gives her joy. But Pearl is also a torture. First, Pearl's mischievous nature is often uncontrollable. Subject to wild mood swings, the child seems almost from another world as though she were an imp or a spirit. Hester even finds her laughter disturbing and sometimes responds to it by bursting into tears. Also, Hester doesn't know what trouble her daughter will get into next—her active nature is also a mischievous one. Finally, Pearl tortures Hester because the child is a living reminder of Hester's sin.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Arthur's daughter Pearl is unwilling or unable to follow the clear rules of Puritan society. How is it logical that she acts this way?

Pearl is a product of the violation of one of the basic rules of Puritan society: the seventh commandment. Remember that Puritan society was a theocracy, a society based on the Bible. Born of Hester and her father's passion, it seems fitting that Pearl would be wild and unruly, given to whims and acting out. Further, Pearl's behavior also might be a reaction the extreme loneliness that she and her mother experience, brought about by their isolation from society. Living far from the others, shunned by one and all, they are a unit unto themselves. Finally, Pearl is part magic and part mystery.

In The Scarlet Letter, Pearl reacts strongly to Hester's tears. What do these reactions reveal about Pearl's character?

When Pearl laughs, Hester sometimes bursts into passionate tears. Pearl's reactions to her mother's sudden outbursts are odd. Sometimes she frowns and looks disapprovingly at her mother. Sometimes she laughs even louder, "like a thing incapable and unintelligent of human sorrow." Sometimes she "would be convulsed with a rage of grief, and sob out her love for her mother in broken words, and seem intent on proving that she had a heart, by breaking it." Whatever the response, it passes as quickly as it started. These reactions reveal Pearl's powerful emotional nature, but their fleeting nature reveals her as mercurial as well as passionate.

In The Scarlet Letter, considering Hester's life at the time, what is the significance of the two images reflected in the breastplate of the armor in Governor Bellingham's mansion?

Reflected in the armor, Hester sees, the scarlet letter "in exaggerated and gigantic proportions" such that "she seemed absolutely hidden behind it" while Pearl herself was reflected in the mirror. The letter of course is the symbol of Hester's sin; Pearl is the living embodiment of it. In the armor, both images are distorted into grotesque, huge forms that threaten to overwhelm Hester. This suggests that Hester has lost her individuality and is merely known as the woman with the scarlet letter. Thus the images highlight the theme of her isolation from the rest of Puritan society and her resulting loneliness. The symbols here also reinforce the theme of her sin and guilt and punishment. Pearl's reflection in the armor links her once again to her mother, but her exaggerated smile and elfish intelligence set her apart as well.

Why does Dimmesdale speak so eloquently on Hester's behalf when the town officials want to take Pearl away from Hester in The Scarlet Letter?

Dimmesdale speaks up because his guilt compels him to offer what assistance he can to his lover. At least he can help her keep their child, the only comfort that she has. Tearing the child from her arms would simply be too cruel to endure. Dimmesdale is tormented by the lack of public truth as to his own sin. As a result, Hester has had to shoulder the entire burden of the punishment that should rightly be shared. To make the situation even worse, as the townspeople think less and less of Hester, they come to think more and more of Dimmesdale. Indeed, he becomes saintly in their eyes, which only serves to increase his guilt.

What distinction does Dimmesdale draw between the "sinful mother" and the "sinful father" in The Scarlet Letter?

Dimmesdale claims that Hester, the "sinful mother" is better off than the "sinful father" because she is not hiding anything—she has acknowledged her actions publicly and accepted the punishment. Indeed, her sin is on full display for everyone to see, visible both in the scarlet letter and the living reminder of that sin, Pearl. The "sinful father," in contrast, has not openly admitted or confessed his sin. It is hidden, forcing him to "hide a guilty heart through life" and adding to his account the sin of hypocrisy. Hester has the benefit of a "bitter, but wholesome, cup." The father does not. Dimmesdale also connects the matter to one of moral courage. The father, he says, may not have the courage "to grasp [that cup] for himself." Hester must do so and by implication has the strength to do so.

How has Chillingworth's appearance changed from his first appearance in The Scarlet Letter to his appearance in Chapter 8? What causes this change?

Readers first meet Chillingworth at the edge of the crowd in the town square on the day of Hester's punishment. He is shocked at seeing his wife on the scaffold. He looks at her intelligently with a "keen and penetrative" gaze. Readers get a glimpse of the evil beneath, however, as Hawthorne goes on to say that then, "A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them." While Chillingworth quickly controls the look through an exercise of will, the traditional association of snakes with evil wakens the readers' suspicions about this stranger in the crowd. By Chapter 8 the evil has burst forth, pushed by Chillingworth's relentless desire for revenge. Now the doctor has become ugly, his face darker, and his figure more misshapen. Even though she is terribly upset that she might lose her child, Hester notices the shocking change in her husband's appearance. The passage touches once again on the idea of outward appearance and inner soul. As Hester is both beautiful and good, Chillingworth is ugly and evil.

What function does Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham's sister by marriage, serve in The Scarlet Letter?

Mistress Hibbins is based on a historical figure who was hanged for witchcraft in 1656. This does not mean that she was a witch; rather, it means that she ran afoul of the authorities for acting in a way thought to be unsuitable for a woman. Or she might have made someone in power angry or jealous. In the early part of the novel, she has a symbolic function. Mistress Hibbins provides evidence that Dimmesdale was correct in his belief that Pearl would save Hester from further sin. In Chapter 8, she invites Hester to join her and other witches that night in the forest. Hester declines, saying she must care for her daughter but adds "Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!" Having responsibility for Pearl, then, keeps Hester out of Satan's hands. Her avoidance of this fate touches on the theme of the nature of evil: Hester cannot be evil if she declines to join with Satan's followers.

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