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The Scarlet Letter

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Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee. On the outskirts of the town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation, there was a small thatched cottage. It had been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned, because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation, while its comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the emigrants. It stood on the shore, looking across a basin of the sea at the forest-covered hills, towards the west. A clump of scrubby trees, such as alone grew on the peninsula, did not so much conceal the cottage from view, as seem to denote that here was some object which would fain have been, or at least ought to be, concealed. In this little, lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and by the license of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her, Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot. Children, too young to comprehend wherefore this woman should be shut out from the sphere of human charities, would creep nigh enough to behold her plying her needle at the cottage-window, or standing in the door-way, or laboring in her little garden, or coming forth along the pathway that led townward; and, discerning the scarlet letter on her breast, would scamper off, with a strange, contagious fear. So Hester Prynne did not leave. On the outskirts of town, far from other houses, sat a small cottage. It had been built by an earlier settler but was abandoned because the surrounding soil was too sterile for planting and it was too remote. It stood on the shore, looking across the water at the forest-covered hills to the west. A clump of scrubby trees did not so much conceal the cottage as suggest that it was meant to be hidden. The magistrates granted Hester a license—though they kept close watch on her—and so she took what money she had and settled with her infant child in this lonesome little home. A shadow of mystery and suspicion immediately descended on the cottage. Children would creep close enough to watch Hester sewing, or standing in the doorway, or working in her little garden, or walking along the path to town. Though they were too young to understand why this woman had been shunned, they would run off with a strange fear when they saw the scarlet letter on her breast.
Lonely as was Hester’s situation, and without a friend on earth who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of want. She possessed an art that sufficed, even in a land that afforded comparatively little scope for its exercise, to supply food for her thriving infant and herself. It was the art—then, as now, almost the only one within a woman’s grasp—of needle-work. She bore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill, of which the dames of a court might gladly have availed themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual adornment of human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk and gold. Here, indeed, in the sable simplicity that generally characterized the Puritanic modes of dress, there might be an infrequent call for the finer productions of her handiwork. Yet the taste of the age, demanding whatever was elaborate in compositions of this kind, did not fail to extend its influence over our stern progenitors, who had cast behind them so many fashions which it might seem harder to dispense with. Public ceremonies, such as ordinations, the installation of magistrates, and all that could give majesty to the forms in which a new government manifested itself to the people, were, as a matter of policy, marked by a stately and well-conducted ceremonial, and a sombre, but yet a studied magnificence. Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves, were all deemed necessary to the official state of men assuming the reins of power; and were readily allowed to individuals dignified by rank or wealth, even while sumptuary laws forbade these and similar extravagances to the plebeian order. In the array of funerals, too,—whether for the apparel of the dead body, or to typify, by manifold emblematic devices of sable cloth and snowy lawn, the sorrow of the survivors,—there was a frequent and characteristic demand for such labor as Hester Prynne could supply. Baby-linen—for babies then wore robes of state—afforded still another possibility of toil and emolument. Though Hester was lonely, without a friend on Earth who dared visit her, she was never in danger of going hungry. She possessed a skill that allowed her to feed her growing baby and herself, though there was less demand in New England for her work than there might have been in her homeland. Her profession was—and still is—almost the only art available to women: needlework. The intricately embroidered letter that Hester wore on her breast was an example of her delicate and imaginative skill. Ladies at court would have gladly added such a testament of human creativity to their gold and silver garments. The drab simplicity that often characterized Puritan clothing might have reduced the demand for such fine handiwork, but even here the taste of the age produced a desire for elaborate decoration on some occasions. Our Puritan ancestors, who had done away with more essential luxuries, had trouble resisting. Public ceremonies, such as the ordination of ministers or the installation of magistrates, were customarily characterized by a serious yet deliberate magnificence. Ruffled collars, delicately made armbands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves were viewed as necessary accessories when men assumed positions of power. These luxuries were permitted to those with status or wealth, even though strict laws kept such extravagances from lesser folk. At funerals, too, there was great demand for work of Hester Prynne’s sort. The dead body had to be dressed, and the sorrow of the mourners had to be demonstrated through emblems of black cloth and white embroidery. Baby clothes—since babies were dressed like royalty back then—offered another opportunity for Hester to ply her trade.
By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle. Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands. Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby’s little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the coffins of the dead. But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride. The exception indicated the ever relentless vigor with which society frowned upon her sin. By degrees, Hester’s handiwork quickly became fashionable. Perhaps people felt sorry for her, or enjoyed the morbid curiosity that her work inspired. Or perhaps they patronized her for some other reason entirely. Perhaps Hester really did fill a need in the marketplace. Maybe the vain chose to degrade themselves by wearing garments made by sinful hands on those occasions when they enjoyed the greatest recognition. Whatever the reason, she had well-paying work for as many hours as she cared to labor. Hester’s needlework was seen on the collar of the Governor; military men wore it on their sashes; the minister on his armband. It decorated babies’ caps and was buried with the dead. But there is no record of Hester ever making a white veil to cover the pure blushes of a bride. This exception indicated the relentless condemnation society reserved for her sin.

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