Page 126. " Elsewhere the token of sin, it was the taper of the sick-chamber "
Illuminated A showing angels in the upper portion and Christ's descent to hell in the lower
Public DomainIlluminated A showing angels in the upper portion and Christ's descent to hell in the lower - Credit: Walters Art Museum (Gift of the William R. Hearst Foundation, 1957)

The scarlet letter’s significance oscillates throughout the novel, betokening now sin, now mercy and virtue. In this, it acts as a microcosm of the whole text, in which moral sympathies are established and then inverted. Furthermore, it’s a direct contradiction to Puritan belief, which held all signs to be immutable. This found its apotheosis in the concept of predestination, according to which all events were determined a priori by God. 


Our Lady of the Taper
Creative Commons AttributionOur Lady of the Taper - Credit: Saracen78

In this instance, the scarlet letter's transformation once more allies Hester with the Virgin Mary. According to medieval chroniclers, a miraculous statue of Mary with her son on her lap and a burning taper in her hand was found on the banks of the River Teifi. Several attempts were made to move it to the parish church but on each occasion it mysteriously returned to the spot at which it had been found. Nor would the candle be extinguished: it apparently burned continuously for a full nine years. This legend gave birth to a lasting association of tapers with Mary's role as the bringer of the light of Christ and embodied the undimming purity conferred by her virginity. Mary of the Taper was the divinity to whom Catholics prayed for protection and recovery from illness. Puritans, of course, viewed the cult of the Virgin Mary as abominable idolatry: Hawthorne is drawing a sly parallel between their rejection of the mother of Christ, supposed to have conceived in a state of grace, and that of Hester, the adulteress, and in doing so calls into question Puritan conceptions of sin and purity. 

Page 126. " She was self-ordained a sister of mercy "

The Sisters of Mercy (1859)
Public DomainThe Sisters of Mercy (1859) - Credit: Henriette Browne
Another link with Catholicism. Founded in 1827 by Catherine Elizabeth McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy began as a congregation of Catholic women in Dublin, Ireland whose vows bound them not just to their faith but also to philanthropic outreach work. They devoted themselves to nursing the sick, instructing the ill-educated and providing succor to the poor, with an especial focus on women and children. Though the organization was not established until well after Hester’s time, by Hawthorne’s it had spread to the United States and Australia. Today, the Sisters of Mercy have around 10,000 members globally.

Page 128. " the scarlet letter had the effect of a cross on a nun’s bosom "
A priest uses a crucifix to expel demons
Public DomainA priest uses a crucifix to expel demons - Credit: Francisco Goya

The crucifix, a representation of the Christian cross suspended from a black cord, is a standard part of a Roman Catholic nun’s habit. As well as representing her consecrated state, it also serves as a talisman protecting the wearer from malign influences. Folklore tells that it has the power to cure the sick and cause demons to disappear. Unsurprisingly, the Puritans regarded the cross as a profane papist gewgaw and expunged it from their worship. 


Cross necklace
Creative Commons AttributionCross necklace - Credit: ja5onlee
Page 129. " Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings "
Masaniello leading the revolt in 1647 (1929-32)
Public DomainMasaniello leading the revolt in 1647 (1929-32) - Credit: Tancredi Scarpelli

With shifts in social consciousness produced by expansionism and growing conflict between the rulers and the ruled, the early seventeenth century witnessed a volley of military and proletarian revolts. During Russia’s Time of Troubles, the Bolotnikov uprising saw an army of feudal underlings, peasants, runaways and vagabonds attempt to overthrow the ruling classes and establish a new social order. In France, there was the Revolt of Languedoc in 1632, in which the lower classes, enraged by extortionate taxation, joined in Gaston d’Orleans' and Henri II de Montmorency's doomed bid to overthrow Cardinal Richelieu. This was followed in 1636 by the Croquants' revolt, a reaction against the doubling of taxation supposed to fund a war against Spain. In Naples, illiterate fisherman Masaniello led an extraordinary rebellion against King Philip III that led to the brief establishment of the Neapolitan Republic from October 1647 to April 1648.

Page 129. " a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic "
Public Domain"Experiment on a Bird with an Air Pump" (1768) captures the spirit of the Enlightenment - Credit: Joseph Wright
Public Domain"Dare to know" was the motto of the Enlightenment - Credit: Francis Cotes

The mid seventeenth century marked the beginning of the European Enlightenment, a wide-ranging cultural and intellectual movement which emphasized rationality and reason over faith and tradition. It touched every area of life, from religion to politics, economics to social structures. The Enlightenment brought with it the scientific method and a lifting of restrictions imposed by the state and the church on education, personal liberty, free speech and trade. America too experienced its own Enlightenment, but this would not take place until the mid to late eighteenth century.

Page 129. " She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess "
Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller (1846)
Public DomainDaguerreotype of Margaret Fuller (1846) - Credit: John Plumbe

Is Hawthorne here thinking of his friend, Margaret Fuller? The prominent and highly intelligent women’s rights activist, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) garnered her the title of America’s first major feminist, was frequently referred to as a “prophetess” by her contemporaries. In looking towards a future when women would achieve equality with men through intellectual and spiritual advancement, the reclamation of their self-reliance and the retraction of male dominance, Fuller herself invokes a prophetess: “And will she not soon appear? The woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain?” (p. 168). Such parallels, together with the fact that she had recently caused a great scandal by giving birth to an illegitimate child, have caused many critics to speculate that Hawthorne drew on Margaret Fuller for his portrayal of Hester.

Page 130. " The very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position "
Satirical photograph of the unfeminine
Public DomainSatirical photograph of the unfeminine "New Woman" (c.1901) - Credit: Underwood & Underwood

Here, Hawthorne uses Hester’s introspections as a proxy for his misgivings about Margaret Fuller’s visions for the emancipation of the female sex. Though, as The Scarlet Letter shows, he was deeply sympathetic to the plight of a woman who did not conform to patriarchal expectations, he was unsettled by Fuller’s attacks on the foundations of these norms. She argued that “Male and female..are perpetually passing into one another... There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman… [Nature] sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother” (p. 108). Hawthorne is not the misogynist some have painted him but the idea of gender as a mobile quality was deeply troubling to him. His works repeatedly evince a romantic attachment to a delicate, ethereal “femininity” and his private writings are rather harsh about Fuller’s lack of this property. However, in aligning Hester’s situation with that of a prominent and highly respected nineteenth century feminist, he equates Puritan oppression with the restrictions of patriarchal Victorian society as a means of critiquing the latter. As so often in Hawthorne, progressive idealism and sentimental conservatism run in tandem.

Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, was one of Fuller's favorite female archetypes
Public DomainMinerva, goddess of wisdom and war, was one of Fuller's favorite female archetypes - Credit: Elihu Vedder
Public Domain"Domestic Happiness" (1849) epitomizes the Victorian feminine ideal - Credit: Lily Martin Spencer
Page 132. " Forth peeped out of the pool, with dark, glistening curls around her head, and an elf-smile in her eyes, the image of a little maid "
Water nymphs (1909)
Public DomainWater nymphs (1909) - Credit: Henrietta Ray

Adding to the pantheon of fairy folk to whom Pearl has already been compared, she now takes on the form of one of the elusive, mysterious water nymphs with which myth is so replete. These beings are typically depicted as alluring girls or young women who entice humans to join them in their watery homes. They are usually joyful creatures, fond of singing and dancing and, like Pearl, are impervious to insult and emotional pain. However, it is well to be wary of them: the Ancient Greeks warned against gazing upon your reflection in the water as the nymphs would pull it — and thereby your soul — down amongst them, leaving your body to perish.

A water nymph makes a leap towards her own reflection
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA water nymph makes a leap towards her own reflectiion
Page 133. " there came a glare of red light out of his eyes "
Hell hound
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHell hound - Credit: VenomD95
This fetching stained glass window shows the devil with red eyes
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThis fetching stained glass window shows the devil with red eyes - Credit: Ecelan

A well-known attribute of the devil: he has been portrayed as a red-eyed demon in Christian art since the eleventh century. Folklore commonly gives him this characteristic in his manifestation as a phantom black dog, a fearsome being that guards the mouth of hell. Interestingly, this was one of his favorite guises for visiting witches, and their animal familiars are often identified as black dogs, too. 

Page 134. " That he now breathes, and creeps about on earth, is owing all to me! "

This striking exclamation carries echoes of the Creation as relayed in the Book of Genesis: 

And God made..every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind… And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion..over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:25-6)

Chillingworth, who has indeed created Dimmesdale as he currently is, has thus usurped God. This act once more allies him with Satan who, as Lucifer, attempted to overthrow the Lord of Heaven and install himself in his place. 

Elohim creating Adam (c.1805)
Public DomainElohim creating Adam (c.1805) - Credit: William Blake
Page 137. " looking with a half-fantastic curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early spring would not be blighted beneath him "

Tender grass of early spring
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeTender grass of early spring - Credit: Gregory Williams
Grass affected by pythium blight
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeGrass affected by pythium blight - Credit: John E Kaminski
Amongst the many powers which folklore ascribes to the devil is that of blighting grass, plants and flowers. The one day on which he is incapable of this is Good Friday, when Christ's crucifixion is commemorated.

Page 137. " deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane "
Witches brewing up flying ointment and zooming up the chimney
Public DomainWitches brewing up flying ointment and zooming up the chimney - Credit: David Teniers
Deadly nightshade
Creative Commons AttributionDeadly nightshade - Credit: PHOTO g.haas

All three of these plants are associated with witchcraft. Bound together with human or animal fat, each was an essential ingredient in the magical flying ointment witches rubbed on their bodies before taking to the skies to attend their Sabbaths. All too have hallucinatory properties which would have aided the perception that this was actually happening. In particular, deadly nightshade can confer the sensation of spiraling into the sky or of metamorphosing into an animal, as well as producing powerful sexual hallucinations. This plant is sacred to witch-goddess Hecate and is said to be tended by the devil, while henbane is known colloquially as the “devil’s eye.” Dogwood, meanwhile, populates a haunted copse in Virgil’s Aeneid: when the hero Aeneas breaks off a branch to adorn an altar, it drips black blood. 

Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHenbane - Credit: Eva Ekeblad

You can find a selection of recipes for flying ointment here, though you are strongly advised not to brew up any of these toxic concoctions!

Page 137. " would he spread bat’s wings and flee away "

Once more Hawthorne is likening Chillingworth to Lucifer. In his first incarnation, Satan was the highest of the angels but was marred by a fatal arrogance that led him to try to vanquish God. For this sin, he and the army he had raised were expelled from heaven and cast down to hell. As Lucifer, he is portrayed as a beautiful young man, differing from the other angels only in the black bat-like wings that betoken his sinful nature. Once installed as the ruler of hell, however, he begins to take on different characteristics. Christian art typically ascribes to him a bestial appearance, replete with tail, horns and cloven feet; sometimes his black wings remain to signify the state from which he has fallen.

Satan before the Lord (c.1750)
Public DomainSatan before the Lord (c.1750) - Credit: Corrado Giaquinto
Page 138. " She seized a live horseshoe by the tail, and made prize of several five-fingers "
Three views of an Atlantic horseshoe crab
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThree views of an Atlantic horseshoe crab - Credit: Didier Descouens

Despite their name, horseshoe crabs are in fact more closely related to spiders and scorpions than crabs. With their hard domed shells, they are remarkably primordial-looking creatures, reflecting the fact that they roamed the earth 100 million years before dinosaurs. A long, sword-like tail protrudes from the horseshoe crab’s rear end: this is not a weapon but serves as a rudder in water and a means by which the crab can right itself if it happens to get turned upside down while on land. The Atlantic variety, limulus polyphemus, can be found from Maine down to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, taking up residence in shallow ocean waters where the waves are shallow and the shores sandy.


Common starfish
GNU Free Documentation LicenseCommon starfish - Credit: Herbythyme

Five-fingers, like sea-star, is another name for a starfish. This well-known marine animal comes in an array of colors and forms, with North America’s most populous variety, the common starfish, radiating five spiny, tentacle-like arms from its central core. They are extremely robust and, if one happens to lose an arm, is able to grow it back. They’re also highly efficient predators, though their table manner is one of the most repulsive in the animal kingdom: alighting on an appetizing clam, oyster or other shellfish, the starfish will use its powerful muscles to lever it open, extrude its stomach from the mouth in the centre of its body, insert it into the shell and dissolve its prey into a digestible gloop. 

Page 139. " Pearl took some eel-grass "
Public DomainEel-grass - Credit: C. A. M. Lindman
Eel-grass and egg cases
Creative Commons AttributionEel-grass and egg cases - Credit: Luke McGuff

Technically known as zostera marina, eel-grass is a flowering sea-plant with vivid, ribbon-like leaves. Growing up to four feet long, it likes shallow water around bays and estuaries and reproduces so prolifically that it often forms dense sea meadows. These provide invaluable shelter for a host of marine life, including starfish, anemones, sea urchins, crabs, numerous fish and birds, and even mammals such as seals.

Page 139. " the letter A,—but freshly green, instead of scarlet "

Whereas scarlet figures passion and sexuality and is a biblical cipher for sin, the color green has a much more positive register of associations. It stands for hope, nature, youth and freshness. In the Bible, it is linked with blessed forms of sexual love (the Song of Solomon sees the narrator woo his darling with the line, “Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green” (1:16)). Pearl’s recreation of the scarlet letter in this color is at once an unkind taunt to her mother that reinforces its censorious role and a transformative act that reverses its meaning.

Page 139. " Thou hast taught it me in the horn-book "

Assorted horn-books
Public DomainAssorted horn-books - Credit: From Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book, 1896
Horn-books were single sheets of parchment inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, sometimes accompanied by pictures or a religious verse. These were mounted on wood, leather or some other substantial material and covered with a transparent layer of horn or mica. A handle enabled the young scholar to carry the horn-book around or attach it to her waist with her girdle.

Page 140. " the waywardness of an April breeze; which spends its time in airy sport "
GNU Free Documentation LicenseAurai - Credit: Periquitoloco

Once more, Pearl reveals her sprite-like nature, this time claiming kinship with the aurae, the Greek nymphs of the breezes. These wild, elusive creatures appear fleetingly in legend as swift-winged beings, as incapable of emotional hurt as the rest of nymph-kind and indeed as Pearl herself. Their parentage is rather ambiguous: some claim they are the offspring of the cardinal winds, Boreas (the wintery north wind), Zephyrus (the spring-bearing west wind), Eurus (the unlucky east wind) and Notus (the scorching south wind). Others say they were fathered by Oceanus, the divine embodiment of the world ocean which girdles the planet, and are sister to the Oceanides and Naiads.  

Wild and capricious nymphs desport themselves (c.1923)
Public DomainWild and capricious nymphs desport themselves (c.1923) - Credit: Ferdinand Leeke
Page 143. " he had gone, the day before, to visit the Apostle Eliot, among his Indian converts "

John Eliot (1604-90), originally from Hertfordshire, England, was part of the 1630 expedition to Boston and served as a minister at the First Church at Roxbury. One of the guiding forces leading to the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the desire to spread the word of God to non-Christian societies. Early settlers were too occupied in battling against the American wilderness to engage in missionary activity, but Eliot applied himself to it in earnest. He patiently taught himself Algonquian from captives seized during the Pequot War, enabling him to preach to Native American tribespeople in their own language. Though he lamented that many showed only superficial interest, he was successful in converting significant numbers, including Waban, the first Native American Christian and later a close friend of Eliot’s. The converts divorced themselves from their “pagan” backgrounds and set up villages known as “Praying Towns” where they could devote themselves to the study of Christian theology and establish laws based on Scripture. Eliot was once more instrumental in these efforts, painstakingly translating the Bible into Algonquian and publishing his work in 1663 as Up-Biblum God. His work earned him the sobriquet “the apostle to the Indians.”

Page 143. " the mystery of the primeval forest "

Little Red Riding Hood venturing into the forest
Public DomainLittle Red Riding Hood venturing into the forest - Credit: Julius von Klever
Through fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel and medieval verse romances such as Sir Orfeo, the idea of the forest as a place of lawlessness and primal passions, disorientingly removed from the religious, legal and social trammels of the civilized world, has become ingrained in literature. Hawthorne draws on this tradition in The Scarlet Letter, where the forest — the domain of the Native Americans, the gathering place of witches and playground of pagan fancy — is beyond the reach of Puritan law.  

Native Americans in the forest
Public DomainNative Americans in the forest - Credit: Auguste François Biard
Page 144. " she had not the disease of sadness, which almost all children, in these latter days, inherit, with the scrofula "
Boy with scrofula
Public DomainBoy with scrofula - Credit: National Institutes of Health

Scrofula is a form of tuberculosis which affects the lymph nodes in the neck, causing them to swell into painless but extremely unsightly abscesses that grow steadily over time, rupturing the skin. It is perhaps from the appearance of these lesions that scrofula gets its name — the word means “little pigs” in Latin. It is also known as “the King’s Evil,” owing to an ancient belief that it could be cured by the touch of the reigning monarch. Despite what Hawthorne says here, scrofula is not genetically inherited but results from breathing in air contaminated by microbacteria. Children are especially prone to it.

Page 145. " “Once in my life I met the Black Man!” said her mother. “This scarlet letter is his mark!” "

Examination of a Witch (1853)
Public DomainExamination of a Witch (1853) - Credit: Tompkins H. Matteson
This outburst is especially interesting as it identifies Dimmesdale as the devil, or at least his associate, and shatters our notions that he is a benign, albeit cowardly and ineffectual, personality. The idea that the devil puts his mark on those whom he tempts over to his side was a standard piece of witch lore. A witch’s initiation ceremony was formalized when she received his brand on her flesh, delivered either by a hot iron or by his licking or clawing her. At witch trials, inquisitors would perform a thorough and deeply intrusive search of the suspect’s body for such a mark with an ardor that led to innocent blemishes, such as moles, birthmarks and scars, being interpreted as incontrovertible proof of guilt.

Page 147. " gathering violets and wood-anemones, and some scarlet columbines "
Woodland violets
Creative Commons AttributionWoodland violets - Credit: light2shine

Violets are delicate, shade-loving plants with bluish-purple flowers and heart-shaped leaves. For the ancient Greeks, they were a symbol of love and fertility and were often incorporated into love potions. Folklore associates them with shyness and modesty, giving rise to the expression “shrinking violet.”


Creative Commons AttributionAnemone - Credit: LimeGreen

Putting forth their star-shaped flowers in March and April, wood-anemones are a herald of spring, forming carpets of nodding white heads in ancient woodland glades. Their name comes from the Greek word for wind (ánemos), owing to an old superstition that they wouldn’t open until the wind blew.


Scarlet columbine
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeScarlet columbine - Credit: Monteregina

Columbines come in a vast number of colors so it is significant that those which Pearl picks match the letter her mother wears, especially in light of the fact that they serve both as symbols of cuckoldry and of fidelity.

A hummingbird feeds from these columbine flowers
Creative Commons AttributionA hummingbird feeds from these columbine flowers - Credit: Eyesplash
Page 148. " Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his hand, chill as death, and touched the chill hand of Hester Prynne "

The repetition of the word chill conjures up an association with Chillingworth, making him a phantom presence inhabiting the bodies of his victims.

Page 149. " Were I an atheist,—a man devoid of conscience "
The Atheist of Pilgrim's Progress
Public DomainThe Atheist of Pilgrim's Progress - Credit: Frederick Barnard et al

1922 cartoon
Public Domain1922 cartoon - Credit: E. J. Pace
Though openly discussed by European philosophers and intellectuals since the early eighteenth century, atheism was still practically unknown on American shores during Hawthorne’s lifetime, let alone Hester’s. Lack of contending theories, limited scientific knowledge and ubiquitous faith meant that denials of God were seen in much the same light as denials of gravity would be today. They indicated not merely a lack of morality but a lack of reason. Despite this, accusations of atheism proliferated wildly in Puritan New England, with the liberal Christian Thomas Morton, the founder of the colony at Merrymount, being exiled to the Isle of Shoals in 1628 for his supposed irreligion. As the colony became more established, the punishment was upgraded to execution. It was not until the late nineteenth century — after the Civil War and the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) — that atheism became a concept worthy of true consideration in the United States. Learn more about its history here.

Page 149. " as if a tongue of Pentecost were speaking "

Again, this is a reference to the biblical passage in which the Holy Spirit descends on the Twelve Apostles, allowing them to speak fluently in languages previously unknown to them. See Acts 2:1-4.