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The Scarlet Letter

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Hester sought not to acquire any thing beyond a subsistence, of the plainest and most ascetic description, for herself, and a simple abundance for her child. Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most sombre hue; with only that one ornament,—the scarlet letter,—which it was her doom to wear. The child’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fanciful, or, we might rather say, a fantastic ingenuity, which served, indeed, to heighten the airy charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl, but which appeared to have also a deeper meaning. We may speak further of it hereafter. Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her infant, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them. Much of the time, which she might readily have applied to the better efforts of her art, she employed in making coarse garments for the poor. It is probable that there was an idea of penance in this mode of occupation, and that she offered up a real sacrifice of enjoyment, in devoting so many hours to such rude handiwork. She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic,—a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite productions of her needle, found nothing else, in all the possibilities of her life, to exercise itself upon. Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle. To Hester Prynne it might have been a mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life. Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin. This morbid meddling of conscience with an immaterial matter betokened, it is to be feared, no genuine and stedfast penitence, but something doubtful, something that might be deeply wrong, beneath. Hester never sought to earn anything beyond subsistence for herself and a simple abundance for her child. Her own clothing was made of rough materials in somber colors, with only the one decoration—the scarlet letter—which she was doomed to wear. The child’s clothing, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fantastic ingenuity. Her whimsical dress heightened the lively charm the young girl developed early on, but it appeared to have a deeper meaning too. I’ll tell you more about that later. Aside from the small expense used to dress her child, Hester gave all of her disposable income to charity. She gave to wretches who were happier than she was and who often insulted the hand that fed them. She spent a great deal of time making crude garments for the poor, though she could have easily spent it practicing and perfecting her art. It’s likely that Hester viewed this dull, unfulfilling of work as a sort of penance, sacrificing hours that could otherwise be spent in enjoyment. She had a taste for the rich and elaborate, the gorgeously beautiful, which she could only satisfy in her exquisite needlework. Women derive a pleasure, unimaginable to men, from the delicate work of their needles. To Hester Prynne it might have been a way of expressing, and therefore of calming, the passions of her life. But like all other joys, she rejected it as sin. Rather than demonstrating true repentance, this cheerless blending of morality with insignificant matters, I’m afraid, exposed something deeply wrong with her conscience.
In this manner, Hester Prynne came to have a part to perform in the world. With her native energy of character, and rare capacity, it could not entirely cast her off, although it had set a mark upon her, more intolerable to a woman’s heart than that which branded the brow of Cain. In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance. These emotions, in fact, and its bitterest scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained in the universal heart. It was not an age of delicacy; and her position, although she understood it well, and was in little danger of forgetting it, was often brought before her vivid self-perception, like a new anguish, by the rudest touch upon the tenderest spot. The poor, as we have already said, whom she sought out to be the objects of her bounty, often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them. Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtile poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound. Hester had schooled herself long and well; she never responded to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson that rose irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsided into the depths of her bosom. She was patient,—a martyr, indeed,—but she forbore to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse. Through her work, Hester Prynne found her role in the world. With her energy and abilities, the world could not entirely cast her away, even though it had set a mark upon her more awful for a woman than the mark of

Cain

In the Bible, the first murderer, branded by God as a warning to others.

Cain
. In all her interactions with society, Hester never felt as though she belonged. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those she met reminded her that she was banished, as removed from the community as if she lived on another planet. She was like a ghost that haunts a familiar fireside, unable to make itself seen or felt, unable to smile at the joys of everyday life nor mourn its sorrow. And when the ghost manages to display its forbidden feelings, it only produces terror and repugnance in others. This horror, along with bitter scorn, seemed to be the only feeling the world had left for her. This was not a gentle era. Though Hester never forgot her position in society, she often felt its pain anew. As I said, the poor she tried to help often rejected the hand she extended to help them. The well-to-do ladies, whose houses she entered in the course of her work, had the habit of slyly insulting her, concocting insults out of slight matters in the way that women can. Other times, they would attack her more directly, their harsh words hitting her defenseless breast like a rough blow upon an open wound. But Hester had trained herself well. She never responded to these attacks, except that her cheeks would slowly turn red before the blush faded into the depths of her heart. She was patient—a true martyr. Yet she kept herself from praying for her enemies for fear that, despite her best intentions, her words of forgiveness might twist themselves into a curse.
Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she feel the innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan tribunal. Clergymen paused in the street to address words of exhortation, that brought a crowd, with its mingled grin and frown, around the poor, sinful woman. If she entered a church, trusting to share the Sabbath smile of the Universal Father, it was often her mishap to find herself the text of the discourse. She grew to have a dread of children; for they had imbibed from their parents a vague idea of something horrible in this dreary woman, gliding silently through the town, with never any companion but one only child. Therefore, first allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a distance with shrill cries, and the utterance of a word that had no distinct purport to their own minds, but was none the less terrible to her, as proceeding from lips that babbled it unconsciously. It seemed to argue so wide a diffusion of her shame, that all nature knew of it; it could have caused her no deeper pang, had the leaves of the trees whispered the dark story among themselves,—had the summer breeze murmured about it,—had the wintry blast shrieked it aloud! Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of a new eye. When strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter,—and none ever failed to do so,—they branded it afresh into Hester’s soul; so that, oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand. But then, again, an accustomed eye had likewise its own anguish to inflict. Its cool stare of familiarity was intolerable. From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture. Over and over, in a thousand different ways, Hester felt the innumerable throbs of pain that had been so cleverly devised for her by the all-encompassing sentence of the Puritan authorities. Ministers stopped in the streets to give speeches that drew a crowd of half-smiling and half-frowning people around the poor, sinful woman. If she entered a church to enjoy the holy day of rest, she often found herself the subject of the sermon. She grew to dread children, since they had learned from their parents that there was something vaguely horrible about this woman who walked silently through town with only her daughter by her side. After allowing her to pass, the children would pursue her with shrill cries, shouting a word that meant nothing to them but was terrible to her. Her shame was so public that it seemed all of nature knew about it. The children’s shouts could have been no worse if they had been the whispers of the leaves, or the murmur of the summer breeze, or the shriek of the wintry wind! Another strange torture came from the gaze of unfamiliar eyes. When strangers peered at the scarlet letter—and they all did—they burned it fresh into Hester’s soul. She often felt that she couldn’t keep herself from covering the symbol with her hand, though she always restrained herself in the end. Familiar eyes brought their own kind of pain. Their cool stares of recognition were intolerable. In short, Hester Prynne always had the dreadful sense of human eyes upon the letter. No callus grew over the spot. Instead, the wound became more sensitive through her daily torture.

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