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STUDY GUIDE SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER 2: The Market-Place
A number of people gathered in front of the prison door are eagerly waiting for the appearance of Hester Prynne. Through the gossip of some of the women, the reader learns about Hester, to whom they refer as a "hussy". She has committed the sin of adultery and has been punished to a sentence of wearing the letter "A" on her dress as a symbol of her sin. It is also through their discussion that Reverend Master Dimmesdale, the pastor of Hester's church, is introduced.
As the prison door is thrown open, Hester is led out by a prison official. She is described as a tall, young, proud, and beautiful woman with good features. As she steps out of the prison clutching her three-month-old baby to her, she appears dignified and protective of her daughter. What attracts the attention of the crowd is the letter "A", now elaborately embroidered in gold thread and attached to her dress. Hester has obviously steeled herself for this public encounter, for the condemnation and humiliation do not seem to have any affect on her.
(First Scaffold Scene) From the prison, Hester is led through the unsympathetic crowd to the market place. There, she is placed on a scaffold in order to disgrace her and to reveal the letter "A" on her dress. The Governor, his counselors, a judge, a general, and the ministers are amongst the assembled crowd, which has turned "somber and grave". Hester strengthens herself to bear her disgrace.
As Hester remains on the platform under full and contemptuous public gaze, her mind turns to her childhood, to her life with her parents, and to her life with her husband (who is only physically described as a misshapen scholar without any reference to his name or current status with Hester). As the "exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms" flit before her mind's eye, Hester brings herself back to the reality of her child and her shame.
As the chapter unfolds, further details are presented about the Puritanical outlook. The crowd who condemns Hester is harsh, stern, and cruel. The "goodwives" feel that she should be more seriously punished. A lone voice speaks in support of Hester's painful suffering. Hawthorne is obviously critical of the crowd. The author, however, depicts Hester in sympathetic terms. She is proud, beautiful, and in control - a picture of "Madonna and Child" as she stands clutching her daughter. She seems to have "made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped." Hawthorne also gives additional details of her physical appearance and her background, and hints at her strength and defiance, having embroidered the Letter "A" in gold thread, as if to turn something ugly into something beautiful and as if to call attention to her shame.