The Scarlet Letter HTML version

5. Hester At Her Needle
Hester Prynne's term of confinement was now at an end. Her prison-door was thrown
open, and she came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed, to her sick
and morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her
breast. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her first unattended footsteps from the
threshold of the prison than even in the procession and spectacle that have been
described, where she was made the common infamy, at which all mankind was
summoned to point its finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatural tension of the
nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert
the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a separate and insulated event, to
occur but once in her lifetime, and to meet which, therefore, reckless of economy, she
might call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many quiet years. The very
law that condemned her--a giant of stem featured but with vigour to support, as well as to
annihilate, in his iron arm--had held her up through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy.
But now, with this unattended walk from her prison door, began the daily custom; and
she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or
sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the
present grief. Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so
would the next: each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably
grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still with the same
burden for her to take up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the
accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame.
Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol
at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and
embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure
would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the
child of honourable parents--at her, the mother of a babe that would hereafter be a
woman--at her, who had once been innocent--as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.
And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.
It may seem marvellous that, with the world before her--kept by no restrictive clause of
her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure--
free to return to her birth-place, or to any other European land, and there hide her
character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another
state of being--and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her,
where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and
life were alien from the law that had condemned her--it may seem marvellous that this
woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be
the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has
the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and
haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the colour to
their lifetime; and, still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin,
her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It was as if a new birth,