- legitimate action of his own
- Hester knows that her husband Chillingworth is out to
revenge himself on the father of Pearl, but at this point she
cannot be sure except through intuition that Chillingworth
really knows that Dimmesdale is the adulterer. The evidence of
Dimmesdale's weakness leads her to believe that
Chillingworth is poisoning the pastor and that Dimmesdale needs
her help, if only because of his appeal to her for help. She
cannot believe that his guilty conscience is causing all these
physical changes. Notice that all this is said to be
Hester's own belief, and is not necessarily the
narrator's nor what we readers should believe. In fact, we
have no reason to be certain that Hester was aware that
Dimmesdale's decline started before Chillingworth's
- a terrible
machinery had been brought to bear
- This seems to refer to Chillingworth's evil science.
The mechanistic view brings in some criticism of technology
as well, as materialistic as opposed to art and love,
and might be an allusion to the Puritan's belief
in predestination. For another exposition of this topic,
see "Artist of the
Beautiful." The use of the word "machinery"
calls up another of its meanings, an instrument of torture.
- from society, to measure her ideas of
right and wrong ...sl13.html#g01
- It seems odd for Hester to respond to a sense of right and
wrong here, rather than of emotional love. And this oddity is
compounded by the statement that this was a bond of criminals.
Criminals are bound together by more than a mutual crime--they
generally threaten violence to each other to keep the bond, and
to keep their crime secret. Here there is no threat of violence to each
other, only from the outside. Why should Hester care whether or
not Dimmesdale dies--it would not affect her part of the
crime; indeed, it would only be to her benefit if Dimmesdale
confessed. This reference might of course imply that Hester
believed she had seduced Dimmesdale, but we have no other
evidence of that--Hester Prynne is always depicted as prim.
But we are asked to accept that Hester's isolation has made
her adopt new standards of her own of right and wrong. First, the
isolation is not convincing--she has worked in the community and
followed all its other standards as far as we know. Second, we
have no evidence that she has grounds for different standards,
other than her adultery, which she is not asserting was right. It
can only be by implication that she is confronting a severe law
with a different law, one of love. But what is this love? It
seems to be a general one, not aimed at a particular human being.
Hawthorne states that it is a moral virtue, because it is
disinterested. This might be necessary for the plot, but makes it
harder for us to get a good picture of Hester's
We have to think too of Hawthorne's mother. She was isolated
like Hester, but she did not adopt the approach of being a nurse
to mankind. Still, it would seem that the emotional energy of
Hawthorne's long attempt at a characterization here must have
come from his mother, who had died just before he wrote this.
- the cross on a nun's
- We see that the scarlet letter is changing its significance
with time and with Hester's good works. Instead of being a
scarlet woman Mary Magdalene, she reminds us of the Mary, mother
of God, that was foreshadowed by her physical appearance earlier.
Again, this would be a Roman Catholic symbol not appropriate for
Puritans but perhaps meaningful as a sort of pre-Raphaelite
reaction against Victorian materialism for Hawthorne in 1850.
Earlier we remarked that Hester was not allowed to interpret
the text of the scarlet letter herself, in any way other than
what the authorities defined it. Here we see that it is not
Hester who is doing the interpreting of the letter, but its
readers among her patients and clients who do it, yet it is
Hester's good works that make possible their new
interpretation, for example "Able." In a way this is
subversive, but is it voluntary? Another factor to consider is
that it was the men who forced the original interpretation--now
the women, or at least a woman's strength--are responsible
for the new interpretation.
Instead of being an emblem of
evil, it now becomes a symbol of good, even to the
"report" of its fending off an Indian's
arrow--surely an act of God intervening to protect a martyr.
This type of martyrdom is one of women. Hawthorne's
daughter Rose, after his
death, separated from her alcoholic husband, George Parsons
Lathrop, and founded an order of Catholic nuns in New York City
to nurse disfigured cancer victims.
- there seemed to be
no longer anything in Hester's face ...sl13.html#g06
- If we have been following the story closely, we wonder just
what the author is referring to, since he never really came out
and said before that Hester was beautiful nor fully described her
features. We wonder, for example, whether her hair was
originally red but has now turned gray? (We might think that
Pearl's hair ought to be red but it is described as brown.)
In any case, he now states that she has lost her feminine beauty.
But maybe she can get it back if she just had a man around to get
the juices flowing? Perhaps Hawthorne realizes that the previous
generalized love or agape is a little hard for readers to take at
this point, and has to interject something more practical. The
touch about her hair being up (it must be inside her cap, not
shorn) foreshadows the beautiful moment at the brook, soon, when
she lets down her long hair.
We wonder also just what causes her austerity. No doubt much can
be explained by the idea that the scarlet letter repels and
embarrasses other people. We wonder, for example, whether this
would have happened if she had named the father but still
continued to live in the town. But unspoken is the idea that the
scarlet letter might attract men who seek casual sexual
encounters, and perhaps Hester has had to adopt an aloofness
in order to fend them off.
We see that Hester in spite of her tendency to philosophical
thinking is really still an emotional woman and represents the
power of love as opposed to the stern Puritan logic. Hawthorne
is explaining that Hester, just as with his mother, really did
have the love deep down inside but it was not ordinarily as
visible as the scarlet letter. And the letter is just that, in
the end, in spite of the author's playing with lights coming
out of it and so on--it is not really living and its
signification is not fixed except by humans who read it.
- the marble coldness
- In what way is this coldness different from the coldness of
It seems that Hester might be justified in responding this way to
her harsh treatment. But is she being true to herself? Is not her
central problem really the same as Arthur's, the need to confess
publicly, repent, and seek God's grace? Where have we seen
any indication that Hester is repentent, other than her
willingness to do good deeds? We can talk all we want about her
being a strong character and a feminist and a leader of other
women, but until she gets things straight inside how can that
happen? Perhaps these other thoughts are just ways to avoid
confronting her real problems?
"Marble" reminds one of a statue. But Hester is not a
statue, a picture, an emblem, a token, an allegory, a symbol--she
is a living human being, subject to change, and to the laws of
the heart as well as logic. She is more than the scarlet letter.
- It was an age... ...sl13.html#g07
- Hawthorne draws an analogy between the age of the Puritans
and the age of 1850. In the earlier time, scientists such as
Newton were overturning old ideas about the world, and science
and new ideas were challenging religion--which in turn was
changing under the new debates of Protestantism. In civil
government, King Charles I was overthrown, the
Parliaments and Oliver Cromwell ruled, so many Puritans saw a
type of government they could live with. But then the Puritans
lost power too. The New World immensely changed men's
conception of themselves, and threatened the old order in
In turn, in 1850 readers would be confronted with many new
developments that continued the old debates. Women in the U.S. had publicly
called for nondiscrimination and started organizing feminist
movements. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 in Europe first caused
revolutionary socialist ferment but then conservative
backlashes and repression. Religion as of the old
Congregational-Puritan form was being confronted by Unitarianism.
The Democratic party of Jefferson and Jackson was fighting
against the authoritarian conservatives of the Whig party,
which had thrown Hawthorne out of office. Industrialization was
proceeding rapidly in the United States and was vastly changing
rural home life.
Hawthorne himself was central to some of these struggles. His
marriage brought new ideas from his wife's family--his
sister-in-law Elizabeth Palmer Peabody founded the
Transcendentalist journal The Dial and Hawthorne
worked at the Utopian experimental Brook Farm. There must have
been feminist ferment at home. All these ideas were new but
familiar to Hawthorne. Here he brings them up to richen the
character of Hester, without necessarily committing himself or
her to believing in them. However, critics have a field day in
exploring all the ramifications of these simple sentences, which
apparently can be read in many different ways. Note that
Hawthorne is a male writer whose readers were for the most part
female. Bringing all this up might have been as provocative as
his earlier attacks on Whigs in the Custom House.
- Ann Hutchinson ...sl13.html#g08
Hutchinson did, with others, start religious revival
meetings in her home in Boston. These ended up being condemned
as heresy by the Puritan clerics, and she was banished in
1637 to Rhode Island. Hester has often been compared with
Anne Hutchinson, but here Hawthorne is careful to draw only
a partial analogy--he states that if things had been different,
Hester might have been a foundress of a religious sect, a
prophetess, or a martyr--but things were different, and she was
not. This does not make Hester a Hutchinson. And, anyway, it is
not really true that Hutchinson was a martyr. Hawthorne knew that
she had been killed by Indians in New York (the Hutchinson
River Parkway is a main highway today) but that did not
make her a martyr to religion.
Still, the inevitable comparisons will be made. Antinomianism
distinguishes itself from mainstream Puritanism by its emphasis
on the power of love, and the direct grace of God without the
Church as intermediary. Those ideas might have been attractive to
Hester, but nowhere do we hear that she did accept them.
Unspoken here is the name of Margaret Fuller. Hawthorne had a
complex relationship with this early feminist, and many critics
have seen her as Hester's model. In any case, we would not
go wrong in thinking that Hawthorne treated Hester as ironically
as he did Fuller.
- There was wild and
ghastly scenery all around her
- Hawthorne is using visual imagery here to paint a mood.
The influence of the sense of the "sublime and the
picturesque" in Romantic scenery aesthetics on his writings, right
from the first, has been noted by several critics. It also
helps the author get away with being very nonspecific about the
details of what Hester thought and felt.
- The scarlet letter had not done its
- This paragraph, summing up the preceding ones, has provoked
immense controversy among critics. We can all read into
Hester's character what we wish, and we can try to
extrapolate from that what we think Hawthorne really felt about
women in 1850. We can never be completely sure what he meant by
"its office" here, but on the face of it he refers
simply to the fact that the scarlet letter was intended to
punish Hester, but now it has made her a rebel or plotter of
rebellion. She is beginning to have thoughts of her own, new
interpretations of the text that she was not supposed to
interpret. But the thinking is clearly diffused by an emotional
cast--she is depressed and even thinks of killing herself. It is
only Pearl who gets her through the day and the fact that she has
to take care of Pearl prevents her from being a revolutionary.
But on the other side of the account, Hawthorne seems to be
ironic at the same time, slanting the characterization of Hester
from a conservative or pessimistic angle--presumably, the author
and narrator are the same here. Hawthorne always distrusts the
reformer, the one who has a simple answer to things--he always
sees the other side, the dark side too.
More mundanely, Hawthorne left the utopian experiment at Brook
Farm to get married, and the fact that he now has children to
support has forced him to write this book and appeal to his
readers in some way that reaches them. He cannot sit around and
dream, as he might tend to do otherwise.
- retired part of the peninsula
- "In fine" means "in short," "in
the end," from the Latin finis.
Boston is situated on a peninsula, between the Charles River
to the west and the harbor to the east. Originally, it was
composed of a set of hills of debris left over from the
last glacier, which then were more or less surrounded when
the water level rose. Most of the low areas between the hills
have now been filled in. In 1649 the entire land area was not
occupied by houses and it would be possible to walk along
the shore (muddy, no beaches) or find herbs in unoccupied
Summary. From here until the end of the book
we expect you to write your own summaries, following the models
of preceding chapters. E-mail to EricEldred@usa.net
your summary (after reading the chapter carefully). You will
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may then compare with your own to see if you have understood
the chapter. Use "Ch. 13 SL Summary" as the Subject:
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1999. 23 Sep. 1999. <br />
Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 13, The Scarlet
Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.
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