Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Chapter 5

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 5

Hester at Her Needle

  • Hester is released from prison. Woohoo! Time to start a new life!
  • Not so fast. She may have done her time, but that's not enough for these crazy Puritans. She'll be wearing that letter for the rest of her life, becoming a symbol of female passion and frailty for the entire town.
  • Tough job, but someone's got to do it.
  • The narrator gets a bit long-winded as he wonders why a woman would remain at the scene of her public humiliation. He philosophizes that humans are drawn to the places where "some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime," and dark events are even more "irresistible" (5.2).
  • You know, the way a criminal always returns to the scene of a crime. Or the way we secretly still like to go to Chuck-E-Cheese's.
  • Hester, meanwhile, settles down in a small cottage on the outskirts of town and makes a living doing needlework and frightening small children.
  • Well, frightening small children is actually just a side effect of being totally shunned by the town—unless someone needs some embroidery done.
  • She's such a good seamstress that her work becomes fashionable. She embroiders all sorts of clothes, especially for powerful men, like the Massachusetts Bay governor, military men, ministers, and so on. (Men wore some pretty fancy clothes back then.)
  • Obviously, she's never asked to make or to embroider a single wedding gown for fear of symbolically staining the bride's purity.
  • Hester also makes a lot of clothing for the poor. They're happy to accept the charity, but they still look down on her.
  • Basically, Hester just can't catch a break. If she enters a church, she may be the subject of the sermon. As she goes about town, children mock her. Young women glance at the scarlet letter and then haughtily glance away.
  • Not fun.
  • Hester is bummed about all this, but she also can't help wondering whether many more people shouldn't have scarlet letters attached to their clothes.
  • Like, doesn't the Bible say something about not judging people?
  • At the same time, a part of her believes that there is no greater sinner than herself.

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