University of Virginia Library


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5. V.

Hester Prynne's term of confinement was now at
an end. Her prison-door was thrown open, and she
came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all alike,
seemed, to her sick and morbid heart, as if meant for
no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her
breast. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her
first unattended footsteps from the threshold of the prison,
than even in the procession and spectacle that have
been described, where she was made the common infamy,
at which all mankind was summoned to point its
finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatural
tension of the nerves, and by all the combative energy
of her character, which enabled her to convert the
scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover,
a separate and insulated event, to occur but once in her
lifetime, and to meet which, therefore, reckless of
economy, she might call up the vital strength that
would have sufficed for many quiet years. The very
law that condemned her—a giant of stern features,
but with vigor to support, as well as to annihilate, in
his iron arm—had held her up, through the terrible
ordeal of her ignominy. But now, with this unattended
walk from her prison-door, began the daily custom,


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and she must either sustain and carry it forward by the
ordinary resources of her nature, or sink beneath it.
She could no longer borrow from the future, to help
her through the present grief. To-morrow would bring
its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so
would the next; each its own trial, and yet the very
same that was now so unutterably grievous to be borne.
The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still
with the same burden for her to take up, and bear
along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating
days, and added years, would pile up their
misery upon the heap of shame. Throughout them
all, giving up her individuality, she would become the
general symbol at which the preacher and moralist
might point, and in which they might vivify and embody
their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion.
Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at
her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at
her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the
mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman,—
at her, who had once been innocent,—as the figure,
the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the
infamy that she must carry thither would be her only

It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before
her,—kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation
within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote
and so obscure,—free to return to her birth-place,
or to any other European land, and there hide
her character and identity under a new exterior, as
completely as if emerging into another state of being,—


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and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable
forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature
might assimilate itself with a people whose customs
and life were alien from the law that had condemned
her,—it may seem marvellous, that this woman should
still call that place her home, where, and where only,
she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a
fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it
has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels
human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like,
the spot where some great and marked event
has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more
irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her
sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck
into the soil. It was as if a new birth, with stronger
assimilations than the first, had converted the forestland,
still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and
wanderer, into Hester Prynne's wild and dreary, but
life-long home. All other scenes of earth—even that
village of rural England, where happy infancy and
stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother's
keeping, like garments put off long ago—were foreign
to her, in comparison. The chain that bound her
here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul,
but never could be broken.

It might be, too,—doubtless it was so, although she
hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it
struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole,
—it might be that another feeling kept her within the
scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There
dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she


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deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized
on earth, would bring them together before the
bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar,
for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over
and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this
idea upon Hester's contemplation, and laughed at the
passionate and desperate joy with which she seized, and
then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the
idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon.
What she compelled herself to believe,—what, finally,
she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident
of New England,—was half a truth, and half a
self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the
scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her
earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of
her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and
work out another purity than that which she had lost;
more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.

Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee. On the outskirts
of the 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, towards the west. A
clump of scrubby trees, such as alone grew on the
peninsula, did not so much conceal the cottage from
view, as seem to denote that here was some object


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which would fain have been, or at least ought to be,
concealed. In this little, lonesome dwelling, with some
slender means that she possessed, and by the license of
the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch
over her, Hester established herself, with her infant
child. A mystic shadow of suspicion immediately attached
itself to the spot. Children, too young to comprehend
wherefore this woman should be shut out from
the sphere of human charities, would creep nigh enough
to behold her plying her needle at the cottage-window,
or standing in the door-way, or laboring in her little
garden, or coming forth along the pathway that led
townward; and, discerning the scarlet letter on her
breast, would scamper off, with a strange, contagious

Lonely as was Hester's situation, and without a friend
on earth who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred
no risk of want. She possessed an art that sufficed,
even in a land that afforded comparatively little
scope for its exercise, to supply food for her thriving infant
and herself. It was the art—then, as now, almost
the only one within a woman's grasp—of needle-work.
She bore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered
letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill,
of which the dames of a court might gladly have
availed themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual
adornment of human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk
and gold. Here, indeed, in the sable simplicity that
generally characterized the Puritanic modes of dress,
there might be an infrequent call for the finer productions
of her handiwork. Yet the taste of the age, demanding


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whatever was elaborate in compositions of
this kind, did not fail to extend its influence over our
stern progenitors, who had cast behind them so many
fashions which it might seem harder to dispense with.
Public ceremonies, such as ordinations, the installation
of magistrates, and all that could give majesty to the
forms in which a new government manifested itself to
the people, were, as a matter of policy, marked by a
stately and well-conducted ceremonial, and a sombre,
but yet a studied magnificence. Deep ruffs, painfully
wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves,
were all deemed necessary to the official state of men
assuming the reins of power; and were readily allowed
to individuals dignified by rank or wealth, even
while sumptuary laws forbade these and similar extravagances
to the plebeian order. In the array of
funerals, too,—whether for the apparel of the dead
body, or to typify, by manifold emblematic devices of
sable cloth and snowy lawn, the sorrow of the survivors,—there
was a frequent and characteristic demand
for such labor as Hester Prynne could supply.
Baby-linen—for babies then wore robes of state—
afforded still another possibility of toil and emolument.

By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became
what would now be termed the fashion. Whether
from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a
destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a
fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or
by whatever other intangible circumstance was then,
as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what
others might seek in vain; or because Hester really


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filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant;
it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited
employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy
with her needle. Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify
itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state,
the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands.
Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor;
military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister
on his band; it decked the baby's little cap; it was
shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the
coffins of the dead. But it is not recorded that, in a
single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider
the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of
a bride. The exception indicated the ever relentless
vigor with which society frowned upon her sin.

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,


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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.

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


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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.


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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


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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.

But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in
many months, she felt an eye—a human eye—upon
the ignominious brand, that seemed to give a momentary
relief, as if half of her agony were shared. The
next instant, back it all rushed again, with still a deeper
throb of pain; for, in that brief interval, she had sinned
anew. Had Hester sinned alone?

Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had
she been of a softer moral and intellectual fibre, would
have been still more so, by the strange and solitary
anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with those
lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was
outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to Hester,—if
altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent
to be resisted,—she felt or fancied, then, that the
scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She
shuddered tobelieve, yet could not help believing, that
it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin
in other hearts. She was terror-stricken by the revelations
that were thus made. What were they? Could
they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad
angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling
woman, as yet only half his victim, that the outward
guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were
everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze
forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's? Or,


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must she receive those intimations—so obscure, yet so
distinct—as truth? In all her miserable experience,
there was nothing else so awful and so loathsome as
this sense. It perplexed, as well as shocked her, by
the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that
brought it into vivid action. Sometimes, the red infamy
upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she
passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, the
model of piety and justice, to whom that age of antique
reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship
with angels. “What evil thing is at hand?” would
Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes, there
would be nothing human within the scope of view, save
the form of this earthly saint! Again, a mystic sisterhood
would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the
sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the
rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her
bosom throughout life. That unsunned snow in the
matron's bosom, and the burning shame on Hester
Prynne's,—what had the two in common? Or, once
more, the electric thrill would give her warning,—
“Behold, Hester, here is a companion!”—and, looking
up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden
glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and
quickly averted, with a faint, chill crimosn in her
cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that
momentary glance. O Fiend, whose talisman was
that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether
in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?—Such
loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin.
Be it accepted as a proof that all was not corrupt in this


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poor victim of her own frailty, and man's hard law,
that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal
was guilty like herself.

The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were
always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested
their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet
letter which we might readily work up into a terrific
legend. They averred, that the symbol was not mere
scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot
with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all
alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the
night-time. And we must needs say, it seared Hester's
bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more
truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be
inclined to admit.