The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Tereasa Jacob

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Chapter 1-2
Summary

Chapter 1 is preoccupied with setting out some of the symbols that will be significant in the story, as well as setting the scene and establishing the setting. It begins outside a door of a seventeenth-century Boston prison, where there is a crowd of people with dreary expressions. There are iron spikes studding the door, making it appear that the prison was designed to protect the community from dangerous criminals. Strangely, there is a rosebush next to the door, perhaps symbolizing that Nature forgives the forsaken among us. It reflects the narrator’s assertion that the story will offer a “sweet moral blossom”. While there will be a great deal of sorrow, there will be a glimmer of hope.

A young woman holding an infant steps out from the prison door as the crowd looks on. This is Hester Prynne. She begins walking to the town scaffold (this is a raised platform), the place where she will be publicly shamed. There is a scarlet “A” with gold stitching on the dress of Hester’s dress. We learn that Hester has committed adultery from things said by women in the crowd as well as Hester’s memories. The child she carries is a result of the affair. As we can guess, the “A” she wears marks her as an adulterer.

We are privy to scenes and memories that come into Hester’s mind, including her parents in England and her husband, an unattractive scholar advanced in age. Her husband had sent her to Boston and he was to follow, but he never arrived and eventually it was assumed that he was lost at sea. As this happens, the beadle summons Hester to the scaffold as the crowd gawks and people jeer. Hester is terrified and holds her infant tightly.

Analysis

The themes of sin and the social order are introduced in this chapter. We are also introduced to certain symbols and gain insight into how they connect to the world in which Hester Prynne lives. We see the contradictions and hypocrisy present in Puritan society. Despite how much Puritans want to believe that they are freer of sin than others, their world is “fallen”. Even though the Puritans who settled in Boston wanted to have a Utopia, they were quick to build a prison as well as a cemetery. This shows they know that evil and misbehavior are as inevitable as death. These ideas actually fit in with the Puritan emphasis on the concept of original sin: the idea that Adam and Eve’s sins in the Garden of Eden mean that all human beings are sinners at birth.

The imagery presented in chapters 1 and 2 relate to the Puritan belief that sin must be exposed and punished in order to address its continuing prevalence in our world. Some of these images are the town scaffold and the prison with its public gatherings outside. The beadle says that he and the town leaders are providing “a blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine.” The pretext that all of this is done for the good of the sinner and the community as a whole is false. The ugly reality is that people in the crowd and the town leaders enjoy indulging in feelings of self-righteousness when judging Hester. When the townspeople condemn Hester, they feel they are making themselves appear more pious. They feel that their own sins are somehow canceled out or made insignificant compared to Hester’s actions.

The most significant way in which Hester differs from the townspeople is in her acceptance of her humanity. She acknowledges and embraces the qualities that others might consider weaknesses, and she doesn’t regret what she did. Hester was the one who embroidered her own scarlet letter, and she is subject to criticism from the women of the town for adding gold thread and making it too ornate. They say this means that she is too proud and does not accept that she has done wrong. The truth, however, is that Hester just wants to accept what has happened and move on with her life with her daughter.

The narrator ponders over the existence of the rosebush outside the prison door, wondering how it was able to survive. He wonders if there could be a meaning attached to it at first, but he decides that there is no way to determine this. The rosebush and Hester, however, do fall outside of any kind of fixed interpretation that is able to be associated with religion.

It is clear that Hester can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. She defies the wish of others to define her only in terms of her “sin”. She is a multifaceted person who has had many different experiences in her life in different places, including Europe and the New World. Pearl’s existence is evidence of Hester’s actions, and Hester accepts this fully. Despite what the community wants, the scarlet letter “A” she wears cannot and does not devastate her. The community is frustrated in its attempts to punish Hester, as she seems to transcend everything it does. The narrow-mindedness and unkindness of the townspeople is reflected in the fact that they overlook the positive results of Hester’s actions (Pearl), and only want to focus on her public shame as encapsulated in the scarlet letter.

When Hester stands on the town scaffold, her physical and social isolation from the community is symbolized. While Hester has always been a unique human being, she becomes fully set apart from the community in which she lives when she has Pearl, is publicly shamed, and begins to wear the scarlet letter. She and Pearl are outcasts, living at the margins of society. Hester is beautiful but not just conventionally so. She is tall and there is a sense of elegance in her demeanor. She stands out from all the other women around her.

Scenes involving the scaffold are important in this book. There are three crucial scenes involving this symbol. These scenes embody characters beginning the journey towards a greater sense of independence and self-reliance. This is especially significant because Emersonian self-reliance was a significant aspect of the ideology America adopted after the dominance of Puritan thinking. Hester is able to find out who she really is, and to embrace reality despite Puritan focus on the world beyond and dismissal of our present reality as insignificant because pervaded by sin. We see that Hester is now outside of the society in which she lives.

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