CHAPTER 4: HESTER AT HER NEEDLE
Hester’s term of confinement was at an end. She came forth into the sunshine, the dancing rays revealing her scarlet letter of shame. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her first unattended footsteps than in the procession.
Now began the daily custom, the accumulating days and years that would pile misery upon her heap of shame. Hester became nothing more than the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point to demonstrate their concept of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. The young and pure would be taught to look at her as the reality of sin. And over her grave, this would be her only monument.
It may seem marvellous that free to return to her birth–place, or any other European land, and there hide under a new exterior, that this woman should still call this place home, where she must always be an outcast.
But her sin and ignominy(1) were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It was as if the forest–land had been converted into Hester’s life–long home.
It might be, too, that another feeling kept her. Here dwelt one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union that, though unrecognized on earth, would still bring them together before the bar of final judgment, which would be their marriage–altar. The tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she seized it.
What, finally, she reasoned upon as her motive for continuing to be a resident of New England was half a truth, half a self–delusion. This place had been the scene of her guilt – it should also be the scene of her earthly punishment. Perhaps the torture of her daily shame would cleanse her soul.
Hester, therefore, did not flee. On the outskirts of town, there was a small cottage. It had been abandoned because of its remoteness and the sterility(2) of its soil. In this dwelling, Hester established herself with her infant.
Lonely as she was, Hester was not hopeless or destitute, for she possessed an art that was sure to provide enough food for herself and her infant: the art of needlework.
Due to the simplicity that characterised Puritanic dresses, one might suppose that there was infrequent call for finer handiwork. Yet public ceremonies were marked by a sombre yet studied magnificence. Deep ruffs and gorgeously embroidered gloves were deemed necessary for men holding the reins of power. In funerals, too, there was a demand. Baby–linen afforded another possibility.
Her handiwork became the fashion. Whether from commiseration (3) for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from morbid(4) curiosity; or because Hester filled a gap which otherwise would have remained vacant; it was certain that the townsfold eagerly bought her little handiworks, and that she, the woman with the scarlet letter, would not be in need of stable employment.
But not in a single instance was she summoned to embroider(5) the white veil that would cover the pure blushes of a bride. This exception indicated the ever-relentless vigour with which society frowned upon her sin.
Hester sought not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence (6) for herself and her child. Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most sombre hue, with only one ornament—the scarlet letter. The child’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fantastic ingenuity(7), which served, indeed, to heighten the airy charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl, but which appeared to have also a deeper meaning.
Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her infant, Hester bestowed (8) all her superfluous (9) means to charity. Much of the time which she might have applied to better her craftsmanship, she employed in making coarse garments for the poor.
Because of this, she slowly became more appreciated by the townsfolk. In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it.
Every gesture, word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied(10), and often expressed, that she was banished.
Hester had schooled herself: she never responded, save by a flush of crimson that rose irrepressibly (11) over her pale cheek, and again subsided into the depths of her bosom.
If she entered a church, hoping to share the Sabbath smile of the Universal Father, she would often find herself become the text of the discourse. She grew to dread children; they had imbibed (12) from their parents a vague idea of something horrible in this woman. First allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a distance with utterances of a word that had no distinc meaning to their own minds, but was nonetheless terrible to her, as proceeding from lips that babbled it unconsciously.
It seemed to convince her that so wide was the diffusion(13) of her shame that all nature knew of it.
Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of new eyes. When strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter they branded it afresh in Hester’s soul; oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain(14), yet always did, from covering up the symbol with her hands. But an accustomed eye’s cool stare of familiarity was also intolerable. The spot seemed to grow more sensitive with daily torture.
But sometimes she felt an eye—a human eye—that seemed to lend momentary relief from pain. The next instant however, back it all rushed again, with a still deeper throb. When these instances occur, Hester wondered to herself whether she was the only creature who had thus sinned, or was she only the only who had been caught.
Her imagination took her to wild places. It appeared to Hester that the scarlet letter had endowed (15) her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe it. Could it really be that the outward guise of purity was a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester’s?
In all her miserable experience, there was nothing more awful than this sense. It perplexed and shocked her by the irreverent (16) inopportuneness (17) of the occasions that brought it into action.
Sometimes the red infamy would give a sympathetic throb as she passed near a respectable minister. “What evil thing is here?” Hester would say to herself.
Other times, a mystic sisterhood would assert itself as she met the frown of a matron. That unsunned snow in the matron’s bosom, and the burning shame on Hester’s—what had the two in common?
Or, once more, the electric thrill would give her warning—“Look Hester, here is a companion!” and, looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter shyly, and then quickly averted (18) her eyes, with a faint crimson in her cheeks as if her purity were sullied (19) by that glance.
Yet Hester struggled to believe that no fellow–mortal was guilty like herself.
The vulgar had a story about the scarlet letter which we might work into a legend. They averred (20) that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, but red–hot infernal fire. It seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumour than we may be inclined to admit.
3/commiseration(n): sympathy for the misfortune of another
6/subsistence(n): the bare necessities necessary to keep oneself alive
7/ingenuity(n): a quality marked by creativity and inventiveness
8/bestow(v): to give, as a gift or as an honor
9/superfluous(adj): additional, extra
10/implied(Adj)-imply(v): hint at
11/irrepressibly(adv): uncontrollably; refers to an action that cannot be suppressed or controlled
12/imbibe(v): to absorb an idea from one’s surroundings and/or environment
13/purport(n): meaning; an implication, an understanding
14/refrain(v): avoid, stop oneself from
15/endow(v): to provide
16/irreverent(adj): disrespectful, to the extent of being outrightly rude
17/inopportuneness(n): bad or inconvenient timing
18/avert(v): to turn away (one’s glance) from something undesirable
19/sully(v): to taint (metaphorically), to dirty
20/averred(v): to assert or allege as truth