Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:
Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson
(courtesy of Greenwood Press)
In "The Scarlet Letter" (p. 74) Pennell contrasts Hester's drab outfits
with Pearl's blood red clothes, suggesting that Pearl "is a living version of
the letter." Like Johnson, Pennell demonstrates how the "A" has multiple interpretations.
"When she first appears, Hester Prynne is described as an attractive young woman. She is tall, with luxuriant hair that surrounds a face 'beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion' (163). Her movements reflect a natural dignity and personal strength. Standing on the scaffold, holding Pearl, she is likened to an 'image of Divine Maternity' (166). Her early appearance conveys vitality and individuality, yet as Hester enters into her long period of isolation, her appearance becomes more subdued. She dresses in coarse material and drab colors, her carriage losing its buoyancy and grace. Hawthorne suggests that as Hester becomes more introspective, her life energies are withdrawn.
Taking up residence on the edge of town after her imprisonment, Hester finds that she no longer feels a part of the community. In the early years of her isolation, she is singled out for verbal abuse and scorn by the clergy, the townspeople, even the children. Those around her see Hester only in terms of the scarlet A she wears on her gown. She has richly embroidered the letter, revealing her artistic ability, which further incenses some who wish to see her punished. Because the birth of her child makes Hester's sin public, she openly proclaims her fault in this way, as if to own the symbol of her fall and redefine it. She also dresses Pearl in rich shades of red, reinforcing the impression that her child is a living version of the letter. Hester's ability in needlework and her quiet way of life ultimately lead to a reappraisal by the townsfolk. Her acts of charity as a 'self-ordained ... Sister of Mercy' (257) cause many in the community to reinterpret the letter, 'that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength'" (257).