Although she has few resources, Hester supports herself and her child through the embroidery that she does. Hawthorne places Hester in the role of an artist through the creativity she exercises with her needle.
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 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 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.