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If we read this chapter carefully, we will see a more measured assessment on Hawthorne's part. Time and again, we find the author treating the Puritans like a coin of doubtful value that he turns over and over in his hand. If one side of the coin comes up dross, the other has gleams of real gold.
Let us turn now to the subject of all this unflattering attention, to Hester Prynne herself. She makes a striking contrast to the grim, joyless crowd of spectators. She walks into their midst with a radiance undimmed by her stay in prison. She carries herself with a stately, natural grace.
Hester is beautiful, of course. And her rich, deep complexion and her glossy black hair suggest a sensuality that-given the occasion-must have struck the self-righteous bystanders as a slap in the face.
Her first gesture on leaving the prison shows extraordinary dignity. Repelling the arm of the beadle (a minor town official), Hester steps of her own free will into the open air. It is the move of a woman who, even in the hands of the law, chooses to be seen in control of her own destiny.
Under the pressure of the moment, a lesser woman might have burst into tears or appealed for mercy, welcome signs to the magistrates, at least, of a lost sheep eager to return to the fold. But all these Puritan worthies get from Hester Prynne is a "burning blush," together with a haughty smile and a glance that refuses to falter in shame.
Hester does not speak. To get at her in this crucial moment of her life, we have to read the signs: her expression, where pride predominates in a mixture of emotions; her clothing, rich beyond the allowance of the colony's laws; and the scarlet letter, sewn by Hester in prison and worn this day by order of the Governor and the ministers.
And what a letter it is! Made not out of simple red flannel used for colds and rheumatism, as one irate woman observes, but elaborately embroidered with threads of gold. A badge of shame that looks more like a sign of defiance, thrown in the magistrates' teeth.
What are we to make of that letter? And its wearer, with her beauty, her daring, and her pride? Is Hester magnificent, a woman bravely standing up to unwarranted punishment? Or is she outrageous, flaunting her shame in the community's face?
Whatever she is, she is extraordinary, as she stands there on the scaffold, the focus of all eyes. And we are compelled to wonder what has brought her to this pass. Hawthorne obliges us with a few precious clues about Hester's past.
She is the daughter of impoverished English gentry, wed as a girl to an old, misshapen scholar who spent his days poring over dusty books. Sent on ahead of her husband to the New World, she found herself neither widow nor wife in a rugged frontier community where a woman alone had no place and no life. When we first encounter Hester, she has spent two years waiting for a man who may never come, a man whose arrival, in any case, cannot be welcome to her.