The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Tereasa Jacob
Chapter 5-6

Summary—Chapter 5: Hester at Her Needle

After a few months in prison, Hester is released and free to go where she likes. She chooses to stay in Boston, albeit at the edge of town and the fringes of society. She and Pearl live in a small abandoned cabin. They are ignored by everyone, including of course the town fathers but also people such as many women, children, beggars, and strangers. The town leaders use her as a cautionary tale for women, as she is a “fallen woman.” It is Hester’s wonderful talent at needlework that makes her able to support her child and herself despite her status as an outcast. She creates lovely embroidery. People use her work for things such as officials’ robes, christening gowns, and burial shrouds. The only important garment that Hester is not allowed to work on is that of a wedding gown for “virtuous” brides. Although Hester is able to maintain this livelihood, she is very lonely and strongly feels her extreme isolation. She is not able to find any sympathy or companionship, despite her best efforts. She is very charitable and does a lot of needlework for the less fortunate, but she finds herself frequently insulated. She also finds it demoralizing to have to work with rough cloth instead of fine fabric when she does this work.  She isn’t able to make full use of her talents. Several years pass in this way.

Summary—Chapter 6: Pearl

Pearl is her mother’s daughter: she is rebellious, independent, moody, and defiant. Hester loves her daughter very much, and she worries about her. Pearl, like her mother, is an outcast in the society in which they live. Hester worries about Pearl, her only joy and consolation. One of the reasons why little Pearl is such an outcast is because the people around her object to very existence: they feel she should never have been born. They see her as being only a result and consequence of her mother’s sin.

Like her mother, Pearl is socially isolated. Other children treat her badly and reinforce the idea that she and her mother are completely alone. Pearl develops a vivid imagination, creating imaginary people for friends. Pearl sees how cruel the townspeople are to her mother, and this gives her all too much insight into what their position is. Pearl is seen as an “imp of evil, emblem of product of sin; she has no right among christened infants.” Pearl believes that she has “no Heavenly Father.”

It is Pearl’s level of insight and wisdom for one so young that makes Hester sometimes wonder whether it could be true that she is a demon-child, as the townspeople believe. The little girl stares at her mother’s scarlet “A”, and she likes to touch and examine it. One day, she touches it with wildflowers and Hester responds by saying, “Child, what art thou?”. Hester asks her mother about what she is and what their origins are.


This chapter addresses a common question: why would Hester want to stay where she is when she can take her daughter and leave? We are not sure what the answer is, as the narrator offers a number of different possible explanations. When thinking over the issue herself, Hester believes that she is staying because she feels that her punishment should take place at the scene of her crime. It is also possible that the effects of the events that have occurred in Hester’s life in this location have been too profound for her to leave. Another possible facet to her motivations include the fact that Pearl father is still in in Boston. Perhaps she does not want to leave him. We should also recognize that Hester probably doesn’t want to leave the area because she resists the idea of running away. She is courageous and srrong. She refuses to allow society to control her actions. She is asserting her right to self-determination.

The fact that Pearl was born is proof that treasure can result from sin. Also, the beautiful needlework evident in Hester’s “A” demonstrates that beauty can come from public disgrace. While Hester loves Pearl and is happy she has her, it’s true that she has to think about the choices she has made every time she looks at her. Her adultery comes to mind every time she sees her child, and she is forced to reflect on her alienation and isolation. Hester and Pearl live in a state of exile, and it’s impossible to forget that.

Pearl is fascinated by the “A” on her mother’s chest, and wonders why it is there. It also calls for us to reflect on its existence and what it means. There is a strange synchronicity in the fact that the “A” fascinates Pearl, as her existence resulted from the act that led to her mother wearing the scarlet letter.

Hester watches Pearl closely, wondering how her child sees her. Both mother and child know how the townspeople and their children feel about them. Pearl and Hester are mocked and excluded, by adults and children alike. The children of the townspeople simply reflect the views and ideas of their parents, who derive enjoyment from treating Hester and her daughter badly. It makes them feel superior and boosts their sense of self-importance at the expense of a powerless mother and daughter. The Puritan community shows their hypocrisy in many ways, not least of which is their propensity to pretend that they are scalping Native Americans. The townspeople’s children also pretend they are practicing witchcraft.

It is important to remember that when we use the term “romance” with respect to The Scarlet Letter, we are referring to a genre of novel in which the unrealistic (for example, the supernatural or magical and/or times far in the past) are focussed on instead of commonplace reality. The cottage in which Hester and Pearl live is at the margins of everyday life, and the mother and daughter therefore function outside of what the town sees as “reality”. While Hester and Pearl are oppressed by the town by way of their social exclusion, their very marginalization limits the amount of authority the town fathers and townspeople can exert over them. The forest near their cottage represents the wilderness and a more profound sense of freedom. Hester and Pearl seem to inhabit a world that is in the realm of magic, in between the real world and the mysterious unknown. Pearl has many of the characteristics of a changeling; she is quite surreal, and not like other children. Hester and Pearl have the advantage of being able to access a world that transcends the petty concerns of narrow-minded Puritan society. It is in this way that they have the freedom to be more truly human.

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