Summary: Chapter 5: Hester at Her Needle
The narrator covers the events of several years. After a few months, Hester is released from prison. Although she is free to leave Boston, she chooses not to do so. She settles in an abandoned cabin on a patch of infertile land at the edge of town. Hester remains alienated from everyone, including the town fathers, respected women, beggars, children, and even strangers. She serves as a walking example of a fallen woman, a cautionary tale for everyone to see. Although she is an outcast, Hester remains able to support herself due to her uncommon talent in needlework. Her taste for the beautiful infuses her embroidery, rendering her work fit to be worn by the governor despite its shameful source.
Although the ornate detail of her artistry defies Puritan codes of fashion, it is in demand for burial shrouds, christening gowns, and officials’ robes. In fact, through her work, Hester touches all the major events of life except for marriage—it is deemed inappropriate for chaste brides to wear the product of Hester Prynne’s hands. Despite her success, Hester feels lonely and is constantly aware of her alienation. As shame burns inside of her, she searches for companionship or sympathy, but to no avail. She devotes part of her time to charity work, but even this is more punishment than solace: those she helps frequently insult her, and making garments for the poor out of rough cloth insults her aesthetic sense.
Summary: Chapter 6: Pearl
Hester’s one consolation is her daughter, Pearl, who is described in great detail in this chapter. A beautiful flower growing out of sinful soil, Pearl is so named because she was “purchased with all [Hester] had—her mother’s only treasure!” Because “in giving her existence a great law had been broken,” Pearl’s very being seems to be inherently at odds with the strict rules of Puritan society. Pearl has inherited all of Hester’s moodiness, passion, and defiance, and she constantly makes mischief. Hester loves but worries about her child.
When the narrator describes Pearl as an “outcast,” he understates: Pearl is an “imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.” Pearl herself is aware of her difference from others, and when Hester tries to teach her about God, Pearl says, “I have no Heavenly Father!” Because Pearl is her mother’s constant companion, she, too, is subject to the cruelties of the townspeople. The other children are particularly cruel because they can sense that something is not quite right about Hester and her child. Knowing that she is alone in this world, Pearl creates casts of characters in her imagination to keep her company.
Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter and at times seems to intentionally torture her mother by playing with it. Once, when Pearl is pelting the letter with wildflowers, Hester exclaims in frustration, “Child, what art thou?” Pearl turns the question back on her mother, insisting that Hester tell her of her origins. Surprised at the impudence of a child so young (Pearl is about three at the time), Hester wonders if Pearl might not be the demon-child that many of the townspeople believe her to be.
Analysis: Chapters 5–6
Chapter 5 deals with one of the primary questions of the book: why does Hester choose to stay in Boston when she is free to leave? The narrator offers several explanations. Hester’s explanation to herself is that New England was the scene of her crime; therefore, it should also be the scene of her punishment. The narrator adds that Hester’s life has been too deeply marked by the things that have happened to her here for her to leave. Additionally, he adds, Hester feels bound to Pearl’s father, who presumably continues to live in Boston. But there seems to be more to Hester’s refusal to leave. Were she to escape to Europe or into the wilderness, Hester would be acknowledging society’s power over the course of her life. By staying and facing cruel taunts and alienation, Hester insists, paradoxically, upon her right to self-determination. Hester does not need to flee or to live a life of lies in order to resist the judgment against her.
Each time she interacts with Pearl, Hester is forced to reconsider the life she has chosen for herself. Pearl is both the sign of Hester’s shame and her greatest treasure—she is a punishment and a consolation. Pearl reminds Hester of her transgression, of the act that has left Hester in her current state of alienation. And Pearl’s ostracism by the community recalls Hester’s own feelings of exile. Yet, Pearl’s existence also suggests that out of sin comes treasure. This idea is reinforced by Hester’s needlework: out of necessity born of shame, luxury and beauty are crafted.
It is fitting that Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter, as the child and the emblem are read similarly by society. Like Pearl, the letter inspires a mixture of contempt and strange enchantment. Both also invite contemplation: people—even the narrator, some two hundred years later—feel compelled to tell the story behind the two relics.
The children of the townspeople are as cruel as their parents in their treatment of Hester and Pearl. In their “play,” the underlying attitudes of the community are revealed. The Puritans-in-training make believe they are scalping Native Americans, they mimic the gestures of going to church, and they pretend to engage in witchcraft. They mirror the true preoccupations of their parents, just as Pearl reflects the complex state of her exiled mother. Indeed, Hester frequently uses Pearl as a mirror, watching her own reflection in the child’s eyes.
It is in these chapters that the book’s romance atmosphere emerges. (The term “romance” here refers to an emphasis on the supernatural, the unrealistic, or the magical in order to explore alternatives to the “reality” of human existence.) Hester’s cottage on the edge of the forest functions as a space where the mores of the town do not wield as much authority. As we will see later, the forest itself represents even greater freedom. Pearl seems to be a kind of changeling—a surreal, elfin creature who challenges reality and thrives on fantasy and strangeness. This world of near-magic is, of course, utterly un-Puritan. At times it seems almost un-human. Yet the genius of Hawthorne’s technique here is that he uses the “un-human” elements of Hester and Pearl’s life together to emphasize their very humanness. The text suggests that being fully human means not denying one’s human nature. By indulging in dream, imagination, beauty, and passion, one accesses a world that is more magically transcendent.