Chapter 1 – The Prison Door, and Chapter 2 – The Market Place
It is 17th Century Massachusetts and a crowd of Puritans dressed in dreary clothes gathers outside the wooden prison.
In front of the jail stands an unsightly plot of weeds in which grows a wild
rose bush, which is strangely out of place amongst the drab colors.
Hester Prynne is brought out of the prison and faces the hostility of the
self-righteous Puritan women. She stands in contrast to them, being proud and beautiful and she wears an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’, which represents ‘adultery’ on her breast.
“The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large
scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam.”
She holds her three-month old baby in her arms. She is unceremoniously
brought to the scaffold as part of her current punishment.
There she has to stand and face the insults of those around her. She passes the time by recalling her past life in Old England, trying to shut out the stern faces that look at her. However, she is forced to face her punishment and shame.
The reader should appreciate that there is one overshadowing character in
this novel and that is the Puritan society. The members of this society provide differing facets of this character.
The main players of this novel are referred to in these chapters, being
Hester; Pearl, her infant; Dimmesdale, her minister; and Chillingworth, her husband.
The reader quickly realizes the inflexibility of this Puritan society, which
makes the members appear gloomy and drab.
Amongst this dreary scene, Hawthorne uses the symbol of a rose bush, which
symbolizes nature and beauty, something that the Puritan society would like to crush.
The symbolism is further made, by describing the rose as among the weeds or thorns, just as Hester is a symbol of beauty and freedom amongst the austere Puritans.
Hawthorne makes reference to the fact that the colony ensured that land was
set aside for the cemetery and the prison, therefore showing that they realized that there would be sin that required punishment, and that they were mortal and would require a cemetery.
At an early stage, Hawthorne provides the four main players with obvious
He shows Hester as being beautiful and despite her shame, full of pride. Her daughter, Pearl, being a product of a sinful act of love, possesses a similar nature to her mother. She cries out when Hester holds her close towards the end of Chapter 2. Although Dimmesdale and Chillingworth have not as yet appeared in person, they are referred to in the action. We will learn that Dimmesdale’s parishioners feel he has taken “it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation”.
Hester recalls her husband who assumes the alias of Roger Chillingworth when
making her recollections of the past.
He is a scholar who is deformed and she believes he is lost at sea. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne is dismissive of the Puritan society and specific examples of this appear in Chapter 2.
Hester appears like a light amongst the dark, grim members of the crowd, and
the focal point of her appearance is the scarlet letter A on her dress. This is her badge of shame, which has been elaborately decorated in threads of gold.
It is a reminder of the rose bush in the previous Chapter and there will be further such visual parallels later on in the book.
Again, Hawthorne is symbolic in that Hester squeezes Pearl against the
letter, which signifies Pearl’s strong connection to this letter throughout the novel.
There is a certain naivety about Hawthorne’s writing and he constantly uses
images and symbols to represent particular features that the characters have.