Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Isolation

By Nathaniel Hawthorne


Chapter 2

Measured by the prisoner's experience, however, it might reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanor was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung in the street for them all to spurn and trample upon. (2.17)

Ouch. Talk about isolation: the entire town has turned out to see Hester paraded through the streets like a criminal. (Well, she is a criminal.) Surrounded by people, she's totally alone.

Chapter 3

While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on her pedestal, still with a fixed gaze toward the stranger; so fixed a gaze, that, at moments of intense absorption, all other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her. (3.14)

For Chillingworth, it might as well just be him, Hester, and Dimmesdale. The rest of the town can go to… well, anywhere else, for all he cares. He's got a morality/revenge play to act out.

Dreadful as it was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these thousands of witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so many betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face to face, they two alone. (3.14)

Sometimes there's safety in numbers. Chillingworth can't exactly confront her while she's standing up on stage in front of "thousands" of townspeople—not if he wants to carry out his insane revenge plan, anyway.

From the intense consciousness of being the object of severe and universal observation, the wearer of the scarlet letter was at length relieved, by discerning on the outskirts of the crowd a figure which irresistibly took possession of her thoughts. (3.1)

Hester and Dimmesdale aren't the only ones who are isolated: Chillingworth is all alone, too. Fittingly, he shows up on the outskirts of town.

Chapter 4
Roger Chillingworth

"It was my folly! I have said it. But up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one!" (4.18)

Aw. We could almost feel sorry for poor, lonely Chillingworth—except that he's about to prove himself a psycho-stalker.

“Here on this wild outskirt of earth, I shall pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom and myself there exist the closest ligaments.” (4.26)

Chillingworth and Hester do have some things in common, after all. Both hold a secret. Both are unhappy. Both have a very desirable skill (Chillingworth is a doctor and Hester is an amazing sewer). And both live on the outskirts of this Puritan society. You'd think they'd have a happier marriage.

As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger on the scarlet letter, which forwith seemed to scortch into Hester’s breast, as if it had been red-hot. He noticed her involuntary gesture, and smiled. “Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women—in the eyes of him thou didst call thy husband—in the eyes of yonder child! And, that thou mayst live, take off this draught.” (4.13)

Does Chillingworth remind anybody else of the evil Queen in Snow White or of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove? The interesting thing is that instead of killing people, Chillingworth keeps them alive. He wants Hester and Dimmesdale to be as healthy as can be so they can feel their punishment and the judgment of others as fully as possible. Even though he’s constantly being called the Devil in this story, Chillingworth is all about life and health.

Chapter 5

On the outskirts of 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 toward the west. (5.4)

Well, obviously Hester lives on the "outskirts" of town. (Hawthorne must love that word.) She's an outcast; she can't exactly pop over the neighbors every time she wants to borrow a cup of sugar or gossip about that adulteress at the end of the block.

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. (5.8)

Hester may be an outcast, but she's not entirely isolated. She manages to win a place for herself by sheer hard work—although we're not 100% sure why she even bothers. Why would you want to be a part of the community that had cast you out?

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 had inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs than the rest of human kind. (5.8)

So, Hester, how's that re-integration working out for you? She may have a job and some charity work to keep her busy, but she's not exactly winning any friends. In fact, the Puritans are so busy making sure she knows that she's not part of their little clique that we're surprised they have time to read their Bibles.

Chapter 17
Hester Prynne

Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backwards to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step! until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth? (17.46)

NEWS FLASH! Massachusetts Bay Colony is not, we repeat not, the center of the universe. There is a whole entire world out there, one in which Hester and Dimmesdale could live freely, without guilt, and among people who accept them. Hester seems truly enlightened at this moment. She has the big-picture perspective. Years of being rejected as an outcast have allowed her to realize how ridiculous the rules are in her community—at least at this moment.

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