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The Scarlet Letter Summary and Analysis

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapters 5-8

Chapter Five: Hester at Her Needle

Summary

Hester is released from prison and finds a cottage in the woods near the outskirts of the city, where she begins to set up her new life. She does not avail herself of the opportunity to escape to a new life without shame in some other city. The narrator remarks that people often are drawn irresistibly to live near the place where a “great and marked event” has occurred. He further comments that even if that is not the reason, Hester may have been inclined to remain in Boston because her secret lover still lived there.

Hester's skill at needlework, earlier shown in the fine way that she displayed the scarlet letter, allows her to maintain a fairly stable lifestyle. Still, her reputation as an outcast and loner causes a negative aura to be cast around her. Thus young children often creep up to her house to spy on her while she worked. In spite of her excellent needlework, she is never called upon to make a bridal gown due to her reputation.

Hester spends time working on projects which bring income, and she devotes the remainder of her working time to creating garments for the poor. She lives simply with the sole exception being that she creates amazing dresses of fine fabrics for Pearl.

Hester's social life is virtually eliminated as a result of her shameful history. She is treated so poorly that often preachers will stop in the street and start to deliver a lecture as she walks by. Hester also begins to hate children, who unconsciously realize there is something different about her and thus start to follow her with "shrill cries" through the city streets.

One of the things which Hester starts to notice is that every once in a while she receives a sympathetic glance and feels like she has a companion in her sin. As the narrator puts it, "it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts." This point is interesting in that many of the people now accused of hypocrisy regarding the scarlet letter include those such as "a venerable minister or magistrate," people who are viewed as models of "piety and justice" but still carry secret sins.

Analysis

Why would Hester stay in Boston rather than start her life anew somewhere else? The narrator argues that it is very difficult to leave the scene of a grave event because one feels the need to indulge in the feelings brought about by the setting. In other words, once Hester is made to stand on the scaffold, she unconsciously believes she must remain in Boston until she is somehow purged of the consequences of her action. To leave Boston out of anger or the desire to banish her past could leave her unsettled for the rest of her life.

The scarlet letter itself becomes an even weightier symbol in these chapters. Whereas at first it represented Hester's adultery and her needlework skills, it now takes on two more meanings. First, the letter begins to represent the hidden shame of the community. Preachers stop in the street and address their fiery words towards Hester, and she becomes a lightning rod for all sin, for all the latent build-up of repressed rage fomented by the strict morals and codes of the society. The more the community unloads its hatred and judgment upon Hester, the more it can use her as an example or deterrent in the name of eradicating sin.

Hester also can sense when people sympathize with her, perhaps because of their own secret sins. Thus the letter serves as a gateway into other people's secret crimes, and it acts as a focal point for the shame of the entire community. The letter thus can be interpreted as a symbol of shame shared by everyone rather than by Hester alone.

The treatment of Hester worsens after she is displayed on the scaffolding. Her friends abandon her, and she must live in an isolated cottage on the outskirts of town. Even though Hester spends time helping to make clothes for the poor, they treat her badly in spite of her good intentions. She is not just an outcast, but also so low in the opinions of others that even children feel encouraged to make fun of her, even though they have not the faintest clue what she has done wrong (probably they are too young to understand).

That Hester chooses to live near the woods, on the border between forest and the town, is a clear and potent metaphor for her place in limbo between the spheres of the moral and immoral. Indeed, Hester seems to be trying to live in both worlds simultaneously, which results in her further degradation and the increasingly clear fact that she will have to make a choice. Either she must assimilate to Puritan tradition and follow their laws to the letter, or she can roam free and follow her passions and instincts while losing her connection to society. Her society barely tolerates someone living in the moral world while having an immoral action in one’s past.

Chapter Six: Pearl

Summary

Hester chose the name “Pearl” to represent something of great value, namely, the cost of her virtue and place in society (see Matthew 13:46, where the pearl costs everything a person has, but it is worth the great price). Hester is afraid that nothing good can come from her sin, however, and thus she fears that Pearl will in some way be retribution for her sinful passion.

Hester spends hours clothing Pearl in the richest garments she can find, even though it seems that Pearl would appear just as beautiful in any garment. Hester's passion exists in the child's demeanor in the form of "flightiness of temper ... and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart."

Pearl turns out to be unmanageable as a child, forcing Hester to let her do what she wants. Pearl has a particular mood where nothing Hester does can persuade the child to change her stance, so eventually Hester is "ultimately compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed by her own impulses."

Pearl is compared to a witch in both the way she interacts with other children and the way she plays. Having been scorned by the other Puritan families all her young life, Pearl is positively wrathful when other children approach her, going so far as to throw stones and scream at them. With toys, Pearl always plays games in which she destroys everything.

The first thing Pearl saw in her infancy was the scarlet letter. As a baby she even reached up and touched the letter, causing her mother intense agony at the shame it generated in her. Pearl later played a game where she threw flowers at her mother and jumped around in glee every time she hit the scarlet letter.

At one point Hester asks Pearl, "Child, what art thou?" to which Pearl replies that she is Hester's little Pearl. Pearl eventually asks who sent her to Hester, to which Hester replies that the Heavenly Father sent her. Pearl responds with, "He did not send me ... I have no Heavenly Father!" Pearl then presses Hester to tell her who her father is, saying, "Tell me! Tell me! It is thou who must tell me!" Hester is unable to answer her question and remains silent, thinking about the fact that some Puritans think Pearl is the child of a demon.

Analysis

Pearl is the living embodiment of her mother's sin. She is a child of passion, wild and unfettered, and as a result she becomes mesmerized by the scarlet letter that her mother must wear. Even before she can speak, she is grasping for it, as if she knows that this holds the secret of her birth, and that its power led to her own creation. Hester does not have the ability to tame her daughter; she simply gives in to the child's inner nature. What is suggested, then, is that as long as Hester herself remains unsure about the moral consequences of her affair, so long as she lives in limbo between passion and duty, we could say, she will never be able to control Pearl. But once she makes peace with her sin, Pearl may truly become her child, a child of love.

In the meantime, however, Pearl seems very much an embodiment of unfettered id. She has no interest in playing with other children and can be violent towards them. She is not protective of her mother either. Psychoanalysts might identify Pearl as a manifestation of rage, an expression of the repressed love and passion that are silenced by puritanical society. After all, if Dimmesdale and Hester still love each other, their love is quelled and silenced by law, while Hester's loveless marriage with Chillingworth is endorsed.

Chapter Seven: The Governor's Hall

Summary

Hester takes Pearl with her to the Governor's Hall in order to deliver some gloves she has sown. Hester's main reason for going is to plead with Governor Bellingham to let her keep Pearl, whom the Governor thinks would be better raised in a more Christian household.

Hester has decorated Pearl in a "crimson velvet tunic" embroidered with gold thread. The narrator comments that "the child's whole appearance ... was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!" When the children in the town try to throw mud at her, Pearl chases them away and appears to resemble "the scarlet fever" in her wrath.

Hester arrives at the Governor's mansion and enters. The mansion contains pictures of the Bellingham ancestors and a new suit of armor for the Governor himself. Pearl plays games by looking into the armor and then goes to look at the garden, from which she demands a red rose. When the Governor approaches, Pearl excitedly falls silent.

Analysis

This narrator does not go in for subtlety; he tends to state his themes quite plainly. In this chapter, particularly, we see the direct link between Pearl and the scarlet letter: "The child's whole appearance ... was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life." Pearl, after all, is consistently referred to as a little "witch" or "elf-child" or "devil-child" because in all appearances, she was born without a father. As long as Hester refuses to name her father, Pearl will remain a child not only of sin but literally of black magic. Notice, then, how Pearl is the one to renew the urgency of naming her father, even more than Chillingworth. Pearl has the most at stake to ensure that her father's identity is revealed.

Inside the mansion, Pearl looks around and sees the shiny metal of the Governor's suit of armor. She then calls her mother's attention to the fact that the scarlet letter is grotesquely magnified by the convex shape of the armor, causing it to appear gigantic. It is a simple foretelling of the fact that in this house of law, this simple embroidered letter will be seen as the ultimate message of sin, perhaps so distorted in its significance that Pearl may lose her mother here after having lost her father. After all, Puritan laws have stripped her of her father, and now Bellingham will try to seize her from Hester as well.

After Hester convinces Pearl to look at the garden, Pearl immediately demands a red rose. This scene hearkens directly back to the first chapter, where Pearl and the rose blossoms become connected for the first time. The rose blossom serves as a "moral blossom" within the story. Pearl demands it as though she sees a link between morality and passion, and she may be the only one to believe in a possibility of reconciling both.

Chapter Eight: The Elf-Child and the Minister

Summary

Governor Bellingham, accompanied by the Reverend John Wilson, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, enters the hall of his mansion. He first sees Pearl, dressed lavishly in her scarlet outfit, standing in front of him. Pearl introduces herself and tells them her name, at which point Wilson states, "Ruby, rather ... or Red Rose, at the very least, judging from thy hue."

The men then see Hester Prynne in the background. Governor Bellingham tells her that he thinks it would be better for the child if Pearl were removed from her mother's care. Hester responds that she can teach the child what she has learned from the scarlet letter, at which point Bellingham sternly indicates that the letter is precisely the reason they want to remove Pearl from her care.

As a test of Pearl's education, Wilson is asked to examine Pearl. He asks her who her maker is, to which Pearl replies that she was plucked off the rose bush that grows by the prison door. The Governor is so shocked by her reply that he is immediately prepared to take Pearl away from Hester.

Hester grabs Pearl and screams that she will die before the men are allowed to take away her daughter. Finally, in desperation, she turns to Arthur Dimmesdale and pleads with him to speak on her behalf. He comes forward with his hand over his heart and argues that God has obviously given Pearl to Hester for some divine reason, and that it would meddle with the ways of the Lord to take Pearl away from her. He then indicates that Pearl is punishment for Hester as well, evidenced by the "garb of the poor child, so forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears [Hester's] bosom."

Bellingham agrees with Dimmesdale's arguments and decides to let matters stand as they currently are. Pearl then goes to Dimmesdale and presses her cheek against his hand, showing a tenderness which is unusual for her demeanor. Hester takes her and leaves.

As Hester is walking home, the sister of Governor Bellingham, Mistress Hibbins, opens her window and calls out. Mistress Hibbins is apparently a witch who steals into the forest late at night to play with the Black Man. She asks Hester to accompany her, but Hester replies that she has to get Pearl home. She then adds that had they taken Pearl away from her, she would have been willing to go into the woods that night. Hibbins says, "We shall have thee there anon!"

Analysis

Much of this chapter is dedicated to drawing stronger parallels between Pearl, the scarlet letter, and the red rose. Thus Pearl is called a "Red Rose" by Wilson when he first sees her. Even stronger is Pearl's response to Wilson's question concerning who made her, when she says that she was plucked off of the rose bush outside the prison door. For all its seeming flippancy and impertinence, Pearl's answer is remarkably astute, for if the bush represents the wildness of passion, then she was indeed plucked off of it as a result of her mother's affair with Dimmesdale. The question remains, however, how this rose can be the “moral blossom” that Hawthorne promises early in the novel.

Hester's appeal to Arthur Dimmesdale marks a turning point in the novel. It is probably the first time she has relied on her relationship with the minister for support, and it makes the other men aware that Dimmesdale knows Hester better than they thought. Dimmesdale steps forward with his hand over his heart, again hiding the scarlet letter which he feels upon his breast. This also is related to Chillingworth's comment that he will recognize Pearl's true father by "reading" his heart. Dimmesdale then correctly associates Pearl with the scarlet letter upon her mother's bosom, and he manages to keep the mother and daughter together. Pearl's response is unique at this juncture, taking the minister's hand and placing her cheek against it. This simple gesture is full of meaning, because it implies that Pearl recognizes Dimmesdale as being connected to her. Dimmesdale responds by kissing her on the forehead, in a sense claiming her as his own child.

The scene in which Mistress Hibbins invites Hester into the woods to meet the Black Man largely acts to foreshadow events, emphasizing that the forest is an ungovernable, amoral wilderness. Thus, when Hester meets with Dimmesdale later in the story, and when both seek redemption, they return to the woods in the hope of finding truth outside the stringency of Puritan codes.

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