Hester is panicked because the husband she hasn’t seen or heard from in about two years just gave her the universal “shh” signal from the crowd onlooking her public punishment. A useful thing I learned from Criminal Minds is that there’s an 85% chance this guy will murder me in my sleep.
We learn that Husband has been going by the pseudonym of Roger CHILLINGWORTH, which is going in my bucket of laziest villain names in literature. (Really Anita, you didn’t believe CRUELLA DE VIL had ulterior motives?)
Good news: Chillingworth is currently in prison (he is contained).
Bad news: Chillingworth is currently in THIS prison (he is contained in close proximity to Hester).
Not because he reeks of immorality, but because the Native Americans are negotiating his ransom. Somehow, he convinces the jail officer that he’s a doctor and claims he has a tonic to calm the nerves of Hester and her screaming baby. The officer escorts him to her cell and then gives them some privacy, which appears to be acceptable protocol.
Hester is terrified when he shows up to her cell. So is the baby, who can’t eat solids but already has a moral compass. Chillingworth offers them the tonic, to which Hester responds how anyone would when their crazy ex slides back into their DMs:
Hester: Are you about to poison me and my newborn? Because it sort of feels like you are. Chillingworth: What could possibly be the reason for doing that? Hester: I cheated on you multiple times and then had someone else’s child out of wedlock, thereby tarnishing your reputation and putting your family to shame. Chillingworth: Oh, that. Nope!
Hester’s not convinced. I’m not either. But Chillingworth’s tonic calms the baby (tg), so Hester agrees to drink it too. It doesn’t appear to have any negative effects.
He rambles a little about how he probably shouldn’t have married her in the first place because her youth and mind were being wasted on his old, dismissive peanut shell of a self. Don’t let this fool you, because his next words are: “Anyway, the real reason you’re in here because I’m foolish and you’re weak. You’re weak because you cheated on me, and I’m foolish because I shoulda seen it coming from A MILE AWAY.”
Don’t make me feel bad for you and then pull the old original sin bait and switch on me, ROGER. I’m so angry about this that my eye is twitching!!1! Hester responds:
“Thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any. Straight up.”
I added that last part. FIGHT THE PATRIARCHY, HESTER!
After a few more unsolicited comments (including that even though he WILL find out who the father is, he definitely won’t seek revenge, oh no no no, definitely not *Nicholas Cage smile*), Hester asks, observantly:
“Why not announce thyself openly, and cast me off at once?”
“It may be,” he replied, “because I will not encounter the dishonor that besmirches the husband of a faithless woman. It may be for other reasons.”
………….WHAT OTHER REASONS? Hester is calm about this but I suspect she has no choice, due to being trapped in a prison cell with a Criminal Minds suspect. The last line she manages before he leaves is, paraphrased: “WHY DO YOU KEEP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT?” We don’t get an answer because the chapter ends here.
Chapter 5: Hester at Her Needle
Hester is finally free to leave the prison, under the condition that she must wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life. In place of getting the hell out of there, she decides to stick around. There are two reasons for this. The first is that she feels her life has been ‘too deeply marked’ by the incident to leave, whatever that means. The second reason is that she doesn’t want to leave her baby daddy (WHOOOO?) on this side of the Atlantic.
Hester earns a living by doing embroidery commissions for the whole town, who first recognized her talent back when she emerged from the jailhouse with the elaborate handmade A on her dress. I having a feeling she did this on purpose (!).
There is virtually no dialogue in this chapter, but that doesn’t stop Nathaniel Hawthorne from telling us in PAINSTAKING detail that Hester has, over the course of a few years, Boo Radley-d herself into a shack in the woods. She’s lonely there. You can’t outsource embroidery work to anthropomorphic field mice in Puritan New England and she has no other friend prospects. Plus, children keep daring each other to peek in her window and get themselves spooked like she’s some kind of witch. Is she a witch? I don’t know.
Hester is strictly forbidden from embroidering wedding veils, because the town harlot doing needlework for chaste brides would be an absolute scandal. The town harlot working on military sashes, ballgowns, funeral garbs, baby clothes, gloves of state officials, and the Governor’s collar doesn’t seem to be a problem, however. I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t the Puritans only wear, like, shapeless black shrouds and repurposed potato sacks? I thought so too.
The next few pages are about the daily torture of wearing the scarlet letter. She’s feeling pretty alienated at this point. Like, clergymen give improvised adultery sermons when she comes to their church and children chuck pebbles in her general direction. This is one of my favorite lines so far because it’s both a beautifully crafted sentence and a summary of Mean Girls:
Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distill drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenseless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound.
It’s feeling like Purgatory, population: ONE over here, but Hester is not the only person in the history of this town who’s cheated on a spouse. She begins to get a sixth sense whenever an adulterer passes her by in the street (CC: Marvel).
Chapter 6: Pearl
The first thing we learn is that Hester names her daughter “Pearl” because she was a “great price,—purchased with all she had,—her mother’s only treasure!” My only treasure is a very specific brand of peanut butter, so heaven help me if I have to give that up to bear children.
Three-year-old Pearl has the “fiery lustre” and warfare of her mother’s spirit. This translates to: throwing temper tantrums, having imaginary friends, and screaming “I have no Heavenly Father!” in public. The town immediately deems her an “imp of evil” for these things, which I think is pretty fair from a Puritan perspective.
One day, Hester gets fed up with Pearl’s antics and asks, “Child, what art thou?” Pearl replies by demanding to know more about her origins. Let me remind you that this child is three. When I was three I threw Cheerios at my sister’s head, took a nap, and called it a day.