The Scarlet Letter Close Reading

New Edition: Page 479 – 480

In the following exert from ‘The Scarlet Letter”, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, introduces Hester Prynne as she is put before a crowd with her child, to be ridiculed by the crowd and to publicly and forcefully accept the full consequences for her mistake through public shame. Hester Prynne uses her baby, ‘one token of her shame’ to conceal another. Hester is not solely protecting her baby but is using the baby, a symbol that shows her shame, to protect another from being publicly exposed. Hester is not acting off her motherly love but is acting disgracefully. She is ashamed of her actions but does not show this to the crowd when ‘she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.’ She does so because she comes to understand that ‘one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another’. We then see the first reference to Hester’s literal mark of shame, ‘On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A’. It can be inferred that this letter A signifies adultery just as the baby itself signifies adultery as well. Hester is condemned for her action because she lives in a Puritan society where the law and religion run hand in hand. Adultery is a law in the church as goes again Puritan teachings. The artfulness and vibrancy that ‘was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy’ made it be easily see by all and, ‘it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore’. The effect of it vibrancy is to show the public what type of person Hester is and the actions she has taken part in, publicly humiliating her. Also, the apparel she wore was ‘greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.’ This mean what she wore was not permitted by the society she lived in.

When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

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