The Scarlet Letter - Hester’s Alienation

Throughout his book The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne is preoccupied with

the relationship between the individual and society. Hester’s sin and subsequent

condemnation alienate her. No where is this alienation more apparent than in Chapter 5,

"Hester at her Needle". Condemned by her sin of passion, Hester is separated from her

community, not only physically, as she lives on the edge of the town, and socially, as she

this chapter Hawthorne presents the most profoundly destructive aspect of her

estrangement in her psychological condition. Hester, deemed a social pariah, is left

alone in the world, with only her thoughts to keep her company. In her present condition

it becomes apparent that her outlook on life has changed for the worst.

Hester’s life becomes a pitiful mess as she feels she must reject any happiness

she might gain from her meager subsistence. She does not accept any joy into her life and

she constantly punishes herself for committing her sin. Having been alienated from and

by her community Hester forces herself to live plainly and simply. She "strove to cast

["passionate and desperate joy"] from her." She loves to sew, as women such as herself

"derive a pleasure…from the delicate toil of the needle," but she feels she does not

deserve the gratification. Though sewing could be "soothing, the passion of her

life …Like all other joys, she rejected it as a sin." Hester no longer feels worthy to wear

the finery she is capable of sewing for herself. All of the "gorgeously beautiful" things

she has "a taste for" are sold to others, they "found nothing… in…her life to exercise

[themselves] upon." Instead of applying her time towards "the better efforts of her art",

which she would enjoy, she employs in "making coarse garments for the poor" in order

to repent for her sin. Hester’s "own dress was of the coarsest materials and most sombre

hue." Through her sewing, the wretched outcast makes enough money to live in a good

deal of luxury but she feels she does not deserve it. She sought not to acquire anything

beyond subsistence, of the plainest and most ascetic description." All her "superfluous

means" were "bestowed… in charity," given to wretches unappreciative of her talents,

who "not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them."

Hester’s isolation from others causes her to concoct her own demons that are a

constant haunting reminder of her sin and her punishment. She feels she is bound by

iron chains that surround her heart and soul. "Through the terrible ordeal of her

ignominy," while she was in prison, the "iron arm" of the law "held her up." Unable to

free herself of the guilt, in her heart Hester perceives herself to be trapped by a

"chain…of iron links", which "galling to her inmost soul…could never be broken."

Hester begins to believe "that all nature knew of [her sin]" and her surroundings take

on manifestations of evil. The sunshine, usually accepted as a pleasing omen

"…seemed…as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her

breast." In her tiny house on the edge of the dark forest, "not in close vicinity to any other

habitation" Hester imagines that "the trees whispered the dark story [of her sin] among

themselves" and she wonders if "the wintry blast shrieked [her sin] aloud."

Because of her initial estrangement and disparagement by others Hester develops

an overwhelming paranoia which leads to her hopelessness, loss of faith and further

separation from her community. Though Hester remains physically in the town, she is as

good as invisible to the Puritans and she feels she haunts the town like a ghost. She has

lost faith in her own tangibility. She stands apart " a ghost that…can no longer

make itself seen or felt." Though Hester is not dead, not a spirit, she believes "it is an

inevitable fatality…[of] human beings to linger around and haunt ghostlike, the spot

where some great marked event has given color to their lifetime." She remains like a

phantom, though she is still flesh and blood. Hester’s banishment and constant solitude

cause her to lose confidence in herself. She wants to leave but she cannot. She lacks too

much trust in