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CHAPTER 5: Hester At Her Needle
After her release from confinement in prison, Hester is free to go anywhere she chooses, but she decides to remain near Boston. She begins to lead a secluded life on the outskirts of town. She moves, with her daughter, into an abandoned cottage set on infertile land near the ocean. She rarely goes into town and avoids contact with the outside world; in her seclusion, "she stood apart --- like a ghost." The author suggests that Hester may have decided to remain near Boston so that the "scene of the guilt" remains "the scene of her earthly punishment," or perhaps she wants to be near Pearl's father.
Hester lives an austere existence, spending little money to survive. Ironically, she tries to give something out of her meager existence to charitable causes. Her ability to provide for Pearl and herself depends solely on the needle-work that she does for the rich as well as the poor. Although many wealthy people employ her to sew for important occasions, no one has asked her to work on a wedding gown, as if she might taint it. Hester's banishment from the world of humans, although she interacts with them for her livelihood, is an extension of her imprisonment. She is treated like an outcast and made to endure constant insults. She suffers daily when someone stares upon her scarlet letter, but she accepts the humiliation like a "martyr".
As Hester suffers, her lover remains free of public humiliation. His freedom makes her realize that other honorable people in town may have committed adultery without others knowing about it. She begins to feel that her scarlet letter "gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts". This loss of belief in others is, to Hawthorne, "the saddest results of sin".
This chapter presents Hester's alienation and her intense suffering, both self-inflicted and imposed by a society that shuns her. Her isolation is both physical and emotional. In her penitential mood and in her little tokens of philanthropy, Hester emerges as a saint-like figure. By comparing her to a "martyr", the author bestows upon Hester a place of honor in spite of her sin. He also creates a sympathetic attitude towards her on the part of the reader.
Even though her life is hard and miserable, Hester retains her sense of charity, making contributions to worthwhile causes. She also begins to understand the sin hidden among others who brand her a sinner though they are equally sinful. But Hester is compassionate and forgives them their hidden sins. She also forgives her lover for hiding his sin.
It is important to note the picture of strength that Hester presents in this chapter. Although she is free to leave the Boston area, she chooses to remain and face her accusers. She finds a small thatched cottage and fixes it up for Pearl and herself. In order to earn a living, she does sewing for other people, whom she must shamefully face; she works hard and her products are finely crafted and in demand. She also sews for little Pearl, always dressing her in bright and colorful clothing, as if to attract attention to her child and to state there is no reason for shame. She herself dresses in dark colored clothing made out of the plainest and roughest cloth. It is another example of self- deprivation; but she does not want to attract attention to herself or her letter "A".
It is also important to note that several months have passed. As a result,
Hawthorne uses this chapter to summarize what has been going on. He does
not go into great detail about this period of Hester's life; neither does
he use dialogue between the characters to advance the plot as he did in
the last chapter.