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CHAPTER 13: ANOTHER VIEW OF HESTER
In many ways, "Another View of Hester" picks up where "Hester at Her Needle" left off. This second portrait of Hester presents us with many of the same questions as the first. How far has Hester traveled on the road to repentance? To what extent does she now accept the tenets of Puritan religion and law? Have all the years of suffering and good works brought about in Hester the change that the magistrates originally sought?
On the surface, Hester's submission to society has deepened. She lives more than ever in conformity with the rigid Puritan code. With no reputation to lose, Hester has conducted herself with such circumspection that not the busiest gossip in Boston can find a hint of scandal to report. Hester's charity to the poor continues, and she accepts, without complaint, the ill usage she receives at their hands.
What's more, Hester has taken new steps to redeem herself in the eyes of God and man. She has become a self-ordained Sister of Mercy. Her new role is that of tender and competent nurse to the colony's ill and dying.
The scarlet letter has become a sign of Hester's community with people in trouble. In households darkened by sorrow, the red token glimmers with comfort. A grateful, if fickle, public has invested the scarlet letter with a new meaning. The A no longer stands for "Adulteress." It now means "Able."
Had Hester been a Catholic, following the exposure of her guilty love she might have entered a cloister and taken the veil. In fact, she becomes the nearest thing to a nun that Protestant New England allows. She rejects love as firmly as she rejects all other worldly pleasures. In the crucible of fire through which she has passed, her sensuality seems burned away. With her austere dress and her demure cap that hides every strand of rich, luxuriant hair, Hester seems like a marble statue, unlikely as stone to seek or return an embrace.
It is a cold and joyless woman Hawthorne gives us in this chapter, a woman whose life has turned from feeling to thought. An innocent enough pastime, you might suppose, compared with the seduction of saintly ministers? Not in Puritan Boston. Not on your life!
Condemned as an adulteress, Hester has become a free thinker, something far more dangerous in this stuffy, illiberal world. Once she was a dissenter, a person who broke with her society over a single law. Now she is a heretic, a person who questions the basis of every law.