The Scarlet Letter Chapter 2 Summary

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

Hawthorne continues to introduce the major themes of the novel, including human fragility, repentance, sin, and nature versus religion and law, in the second chapter. Read on for a summary of chapter two of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter.''

What Led to Chapter Two?

In chapter one, The Prison Door, Hawthorne describes the setting for the story in both historical and physical terms. The setting is Boston, during the mid-seventeenth century, in the throes of Puritan rule over the area. Puritans are presented as priggish, cruel, cold, and spiritually ugly. Puritans, unlike the happy Thanksgiving pilgrim image that is familiar in American media every November, were not kind and loving and welcoming as a sect. They categorized intentional beauty as vain and a sin and took a very dim view of a multitude of other acts, behaviors, and ways of being they considered to be far from godly. Punishments were meted out swiftly and without mercy. It is in this type of community that Hawthorne sets the story.

The Prison Door Opens

Hester Prynne and Pearl
Hester Prynne and Pearl

When chapter two begins, Hester Prynne has been found guilty of adultery. She has born a child of this liaison and is in prison with the baby, something horrifying by today's standards. As part of her punishment, she must stand on the scaffolding and be viewed by the townspeople, shamed for her sin. She wears a scarlet letter 'A' embroidered on her dress, the red a stark contrast with the darker, plain colors of not only her clothing but that of the other townspeople. Instead of plain and simple, the 'A' that Hester has embroidered on her dress is elaborate and vibrant, something the women viewing her punishment find shameful.

Hester's Sins

Hester walks to the scaffold with grace, holding her daughter Pearl as if she were on a stroll through town. The women viewing her walk discuss her sin, one wondering how ashamed Reverend Dimmesdale (Hester's minister) must be that someone from his congregation has committed such a heinous sin, and others believing she should be executed for her sin and the punishment was too lenient.

Hester has not only been found guilty of adultery, but her very appearance is an affront to Puritan standards and religious laws. She is proud and beautiful; she has embellished her punishment, the letter on her dress, so that it is not plain but rather extravagant; she approaches her public shaming with dignity and grace; and she does not succumb to the stares and quiet approbation of the crowd gathered to look at her.

In the eyes of the audience, she has committed sin upon sin and, more than her own personal shame, she has visited shame on the reverend and on the community of godly folk around her.

The Puritanical Gaze

Though Hester is quiet on the scaffold, her inner thoughts are in turmoil. She thinks about her childhood and young adulthood in England where she grew up poor but loved. She thinks of her husband, described as a misshapen scholar, whom she has not seen in many years. She is so lost in thought that she hugs her baby too tight and Pearl screams, which snaps Hester out of her memories. She becomes aware of the stares of the crowd and it becomes much more difficult to maintain her calm. She wants to scream at them and leap to the ground, but manages to keep herself still and soothe her daughter.

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