Chapter 1: Hester Prynne has committed adultery. Two years ago her husband in Europe sent her on ahead to America while he settled some business affairs. Alone in the small town of Boston, Hester has shocked and angered her neighbors by secretly taking a lover and bringing forth a girl child. The Puritans of Boston are shocked that she has done this thing. They are angry because she will not reveal the name of the father of the child. Although the usual penalty for adultery is death, the Puritan judges (called magistrates) have decided to be merciful to her, declaring that Hester’s punishment will be to stand for several hours on the scaffold (a high platform near the market-place) in full view of everyone. She will hold her infant in her arms and will be wearing on the breast of her dress a piece of scarlet cloth formed into the letter “A.” Part of her punishment is that she will continue to wear this letter on her breast for the rest of her life.
As the story opens in the month of June, in 1642, a group of Puritan men and women gather in front of the door of the prison waiting for Hester to make her appearance. The early settlers felt it necessary to build a prison and to set aside a cemetery as stern reminders of life and death. The gloomy building looks out on a grass plot covered with “unsightly vegetation” except for one, wild rose-bush which blossoms near the threshold of the prison. The “fragrance and fragile beauty” of this one simple flower is a “token” (a symbol) that Nature may pity man, even though men may be inhuman to other men. The author wonders about the origin of the rose-bush – as to whether it has perhaps survived the wilderness in which it originally grew, or whether it had “sprung up” in the footsteps of another rebellious woman, who, a few years before, had entered the same prison-door. At the “Threshold” of the story the author picks one of the roses and presents it to the reader “to symbolize” the “moral blossom” (in other words – the happy ending) of this tale of human weakness and sorrow.
The first sentence of the romance introduces a major character, that is, the community. The predominant mood of the tale is established by the words “sad-colored” and “grey.” The word “hoods” suggests the secrecy and hyprocrisy of a leading male character, Arthur Dimmesdale; in contrast, “bareheaded” represents the open repentance of Hester, the main female character who wears the scarlet letter. The setting is Puritan Boston, near the present site of King’s Chapel on Tremont Street. Following the literary principle of “associational psychology” (which connects certain places and historic scenes with current problems and tensions of characters), the introduction of the words “Boston,” “Cornhill,” “King’s Chapel,” and “Anne Hutchinson ” brings to the mind of the reader a picture of historic Boston and early American Puritanism. The title, The Scarlet Letter, has a symbolic word in it. Thus it is suitable that the first chapter should refer to a symbol (a “token”), the red blossom of the “wild rose-bush.” Whereas the scarlet letter is the symbol of Hester’s adultery (the reason why she is wearing the letter “A” on her breast), the rose-bush is symbolic of the sympathetic heart of nature, contrasted with the “unsightly vegetation” of the prison-yard, which represents the hard-hearted Puritans about to stare at and denounce Hester. (She is to stand on a high platform, called a scaffold, in full view of everyone, as a public penance for committing adultery.) Near the end of the chapter, the mention of the name Anne Hutchinson is very interesting, for she was an early feminist (a fighter for women’s rights). Hester Prynne, later on in the story, is in her own way a sort of feminist. There is, in the same sentence mentioning Anne Hutchinson, a fine example of Hawthorne’s use of the indirect method. Using the word “whether” several times in a row, he presents a number of possibilities as to what the answer to a question might be. He allows the thinking reader to make up his own mind about the suitable answer to the question. The theatrical technique of indicating that the reader is at the “threshold” of the tale (in this instance, Hester’s prison-door sill) is a typical Hawthorne device. (This same idea is also used at the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables, the romance which follows The Scarlet Letter.)
The opening chapter establishes the following important points about the story:
1. The tale begins in Puritan Boston, in June, 1642.
2. Hester Prynne has committed adultery. Wearing the scarlet letter, “A,” she is soon to leave the prison with her child. Then she will stand for a few hours on the scaffold for all to see.
3. The Puritans are a very critical group, always ready to punish wrongdoing.
4. Nature, symbolized by a “token” rose-bush, is kind to man, in contrast to man’s inhumanity to man.
Chapter II: “The Market-Place”
Hester Prynne, wearing a scarlet piece of cloth formed into the letter “A,” walks from the prison to the market-place. She carries in her arms a tiny, baby girl – the result of her adultery. She is severely criticized by members of the crowd. When she is on the scaffold platform, she tries to forget the present by remembering the past.
The scene begins in front of the jail in Prison Lane. The Puritans of Boston stare at the door which Hester Prynne will come through. The author mentions the people who may possibly come out of the prison-door on the way to punishment in the market-place. Perhaps a “sluggish bond servant” or an “undutiful child” is to be whipped. Perhaps one of another religious group (or even an Indian) is to be driven out of town. Perhaps there is to be death at the gallows for a witch, like Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham’s sister. Little sympathy is given anyone on the way to the town scaffold. The watchers are very solemn, which is suitable for people for whom religion and law mean practically the same thing. From a group of five women comes the first dialogue in the story. One “hard-featured dame of fifty” feels that Hester Prynne’s sentence is much too slight. Another joins in to suggest that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester’s minister, is disturbed at the “scandal” in his congregation. A third adds that she believes the magistrates (the judges) should brand Hester’s forehead, for she suspects the guilty woman capable of covering up the scarlet letter “A” on her breast with a pin. A fourth woman, a young mother, gently remarks that Hester might cover up the letter, but the pain of it will remain “always in her heart.” The fifth and most cruel of these self-appointed “judges” strongly declares that the laws of both the Bible and the colony demand Hester’s death for adultery. A nearby man finds fault with the small group of women; he points out that the door of the prison is about to be opened. First, there appears an official whose appearance suggests the “whole dismal severity of the Puritan code of law.” Then, he pulls along Hester Prynne, who bears in her arms little Pearl, an infant about three months old. (Even at this moment when she comes through the prison-door, Hester walks with “natural grace and force of character.” This emphasizes her independent spirit.) Blinking, the infant tries to turn its face away from the strong sun. At first, Hester wants to cover her scarlet letter by holding the baby close to her bosom. Deciding that “one token of her shame” (the child) will “poorly hide another” (the scarlet letter “A”), she places the child on her arm and looks around at the townspeople. For the first time, the observers get a good look at Hester’s symbol of adultery. It is the letter “A” on “fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread,” attached to the bodice of her gown. Hester is a woman of large build with an elegant figure. She has very glossy, “dark and abundant hair,” a beautiful face with regular features, a rich complexion, and distinct brows and dark eyes. Her womanly qualities, emphasizing “state and dignity,” shine even at the moment when she leaves the jail. Her dress, made when she was in the prison, appears to express the spirit and the “desperate recklessness of her mood.” (She dares to express her independence only in the matter of her clothing.) The scarlet token awes the townspeople. Again, three of the women criticize Hester, this time pointing out her dress. The third of the trio asks for charity toward the fallen woman. The official announces that Hester is to show her letter on the scaffold in the market-place until one hour past noon. Then he cries out a blessing that in the “righteous” Massachusetts Bay Colony sin is “dragged out into the sunshine.” Hester, followed by a crowd of “stern-browed men,” “unkindly visaged women,” and “curious school-boys,” begins the walk from the jail to the market-place. Through her manner seems proud, she is in agony, as if her heart were being tramped on by the accusing Puritans. She finally arrives at a scaffold erected almost beneath the eaves of a church. This scaffold is the platform of a pillory (a device used to hold tightly the neck and wrists of a victii). Hester is not to be placed in this machine, but she is to stand for a certain length of time on the platform (which is “about the height of a man’s shoulder above the street”), displaying two tokens of her adultery – the scarlet letter and her child. A Papist (Roman Catholic) would perhaps be reminded of “the image of Divine Maternity” (the Virgin Mary) by this picture of Hester and her infant. However, the unhappy Puritan mother does not represent “the sacred image of sinless motherhood.” On a balcony of the meeting-house, overlooking the pillory platform, are seen standing the most important personages of the colony: the Governor, several of his counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town. To lessen her intense mental suffering, Hester’s mind and memory turn back to her past in Europe, as she pictures “scenes” and faces much contrasted with the rough town streets and inhabitants of the Boston colony. She reviews happenings from her infancy, as well as from her school days. Also, recollections of things of more recent years fly through her mind like events in a “play.” Because she tries to lose herself in memories of the past, she is able to endure the humiliation of the moment. From the “point of view” of the scaffold, Hester summarizes the important places and people in her life since the days of her infancy. She visualizes her native village in Old England and her parents’ poor home. She thinks again of her father and mother, recalling their love and concern for her welfare. She remembers her own youthful face. She examines a face, “well stricken in years, a pale, thin scholar-like visage.” Her reminiscence stays with this elderly scholar: she recalls that his eyes, dim and weary from reading books, once in a while would attempt to analyze the “human soul.” She further pictures his figure, “slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right.” Next, Hester’s mind wanders to the scene of a continental European city to which she went as the wife of this “misshapen scholar.” She in her youth was “like a tuft of green moss;” he in his old age resembled the “crumbling wall” to which she in her poverty-stricken “green” youth had to cling. Hester’s mind then jumps ahead several years. She is rudely brought back to where she is on the scaffold. In amazement, she clutches the child to her breast and looks down. Then, having difficulty in believing that she is standing where she is, she places her finger on the scarlet letter.
The Puritans believed in a theocratic state (a situation where the Church and State share authority). This is based on the social order pictured in the Old Testament, and it is explained by scholarly clergymen (such as John Wilson and Arthur Dimmesdale, English university graduates). Emphasis is placed on the Biblical Covenant which promises obedience to elected leaders (“magistrates” in the Puritan colony) who may easily be replaced because of poor leadership. The Puritan theocracy, with the Church and State having equal responsibility for keeping law and order in the colony, is always in the background of the story, The Scarlet Letter. It helps explain the different professions represented by the characters assembled on the balcony overlooking the scaffold (the Governor, a military man, and the ministers). The Scriptures demand death for adultery, and the Puritan laws closely follow the Biblical pattern. The Puritan “fathers” stress fidelity in marriage and the sacredness of the family. Thus, Hester’s crime of adultery is punishable by death. Since her husband (Dr. Prynne) is reported to be dead, the magistrates extend to her what they consider to be “great mercy.” Hester is a typical nineteenth-century woman of ill repute (as far as literature goes), for she has dark hair, and is of a passionate nature. Hawthorne describes many of the scenes as if they were seen by a spectator from a theatre seat: that is, as if the setting, the characters, and the action were all viewed on the picture frame stage of the movies or the Broadway theatre. The “dusky mirror” is the first of Hawthorne’s many shiny surfaces used for literary purposes in this story. In this case, Hester is rapidly reviewing her past life in the gloomy “mirror” of introspection, that is, she analyzes her own previous life before coming to Boston. (Most of the other mirrors in this book have physical surfaces; they are not reflections of the imagination. See later comments.) Hester remembers that the prying eyes of her husband, Dr. Prynne, were once capable of analyzing people. This is a subtle foreshadowing (looking ahead toward) the horrors to come later in the tale, when the scientist Chillingworth (actually Dr. Prynne) attempts in revenge to examine the soul of the guilty and hypocritical Dimmesdale.
In this chapter the following things happen:
1. Female spectators severely criticize Hester for her adultery. The harsh, Puritanical point of view is noted in the unfriendly attitude of the townspeople toward Hester.
2. Hester leaves the jail with her child. She is unhappy, but she is not a broken woman. She is very attractive. On the breast of her unusual dress, she wears a scarlet letter “A.”
3. The scaffold and the pillory are described. (It is important to have a good picture in one’s mind of this setting, for many of the key scenes of the tale take place on this spot.)
4. Members of the Boston Theocracy (the Governor, his staff, and the ministers) stand on the balcony overlooking the scaffold.
5. Hester remembers places and people from her past in the “dusky mirror” of her imagination.
Chapter III. “The Recognition”
Hester Prynne is observed on the scaffold by a man who recognizes her. The “stranger” learns her story from a townsman. Reverend Wilson, Governor Bellingham, and Reverend Dimmesdale all speak to Hester, each concerned that she should tell the name of her lover. When Dimmesdale asks her and she refuses to tell, the minister is greatly relieved.
Hester sees an Indian at the edge of the crowd watching her. Beside him is the “figure” of a “white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume.” He is short, has a wrinkled face, and reveals “a remarkable intelligence in his features.” When she notes that one of his shoulders is higher than the other, she instinctively presses the infant to her bosom. At first, “the stranger” casually observes Hester. Suddenly, he recognizes her. Noting that Hester is staring at him, also in recognition, he deliberately raises his finger to his lips in a gesture of secrecy. Casually questioning a townsman in general terms as to Hester’s identity and the nature of her crime, he responds to this information with an account of his own “grievous mishaps by sea and land,” and of his being held in captivity by Indians in the south. He has been brought to Boston to be ransomed. The “stranger” is given a detailed description by the townsman of Hester Prynne’s husband (whom the reader suspects to be the questioner himself). He finds himself pictured as a “learned man, English by birth,” who, after living for a long time in Amsterdam, had decided to come to the New World to join the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Remaining in Holland to settle some “necessary affairs,” he had sent his wife (Hester Prynne) ahead. Over a period of two years, nothing has been heard of him, and his wife has brought forth a child. Smiling bitterly, “the stranger” asks the name of the fanher of the child. He is told that “Madam Hester absolutely refuseth to speak” and that “the guilty one” may be watching her at this very moment. Because Hester is “youthful and fair,” because she was probably “strongly tempted to her fall,” and also because “her husband may be at the bottom of the sea,” the magistrates have not given her the penalty of death. She has been sentenced to stand for “three hours on the platform of the pillory” and then, for the rest of her life, to wear on her bosom the scarlet letter “A,” signifying adultery or adultress. Considering this a “wise sentence,” “the stranger” regrets that the name is not known of the father of the child. Three times he says: “. . . he will be known!” Then he leaves. Hester has been almost overwhelmed at the sight of Roger Prynne and is glad to see him in the presence of the “thousand witnesses,” rather than “to greet him, face to face, they two alone.” She dreads the moment when the two of them will be together alone. All at once, she hears a voice behind her, coming from the balcony attached to the meeting-house. She looks up to see Governor Bellingham, surrounded by four sergeants and some very dignified members of the Puritan community. The speaker, “a man of kind and genial spirit,” is the famous scholar John Wilson, the oldest clergyman in Boston. Familiar with “the shaded light of his study,” he seems unsuitable to be one dealing “with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.” He tells Hester that his youthful fellow clergyman, her own pastor (the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale), should force her to tell the name of the father of the child. He explains Dimmesdale’s point of view that it is “wronging the very nature of woman to force her to lay open eer heart’s secrets in such broad daylight, and in presence of so great a multitude.” At this point, Governor Bellingham declares Dimmesdale responsible for obtaining Hester’s “repentance” and “confession.” All eyes turn to observe the young minister. He has a “very striking aspect,” with a high forehead, large, brown eyes, and a “tremulous” mouth. He has a “half-frightened look” and is evidently a person who likes to be alone. Reverend Wilson pleads with him to speak. Dimmesdale begins by looking steadily into her eyes and telling her that she must understand that he, as her pastor, is accountable for her behavior. If she feels that for her “soul’s peace” she should confess the name of her “fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer,” then she should “speak out the name.” Her sin has been revealed, and she will “work out an open triumph over the evil” within herself. But, he continues, the father of the child may not have the “courage” to confess and must therefore “add hypocrisy to sin.” All of the listeners think the young minister’s touching speech will cause Hester to confess. Even the infant looks toward the speaker. But, Hester will not speak the name. Reverend Wilson suggests that confession would help remove the scarlet letter from her bosom. Hester refuses again, saying that she wishes she might endure the “agony” of the father of the child. A cold and stern voice from the crowd (Dr. Prynne’s voice) demands she speak. Again she refuses. Arthur Dimmesdale, in a dramatic aside, murmurs: “She will not speak!” Then, for over an hour, Reverend Wilson speaks to the crowd about various kinds of sin, making many references to the scarlet letter on Hester’s breast. Exhausted, Hester stands on the scaffold, occasionally and mechanically attempting to hush the wails and screams of the infant in her arms. Finally, she is returned to the darkness of the prison.
Note that over and over again, both in the dialogue and in Hawthorne’s descriptive passages, the white man who stands on the edge of the crowd is called the “stranger.” This is Hawthorne’s bow to a literary convention of his day, that is, the introduction of an “unknown” character,, often called the “stranger.” (Both Hawthorne and his literary contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper, borrow this artistic device from the English novelist, Sir Walter Scott.) Each of Hawthorne’s romances features an “unknown” character, as well as many of the tales. It is ironical that the “stranger” (actually Dr. Prynne in disguise) must hear his own story retold by a townsman, but this is a fine device for allowing the reader to gain more knowledge of Hester’s past. The placing of the clergy and the magistrates together on the balcony points to the fact that in a theocracy (a state ruled by God) the state is the arm of the church, charged with enforcing its edicts.) Reverend Wilson’s comments about his fellow clergyman, Dimmesdale, allows the reader to have a good picture in his mind of the young minister before he speaks. (Compare the effect of this speech by Dimmesdale with that of his Election Day Sermon in Chapter XXII, The Procession.”) Dimmesdale describes how he feels about his own involvement in Hester’s sin, but the members of the audience, of course, do not realize that he is telling of his own suffering. When he urges Hester to speak and she still refuses, the young clergyman murmurs an “aside”: “Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!” An aside is made up of lines spoken privately by an actor and supposed to be heard by the audience but not by the other actors.) This use of the “aside” shows the influence of the theatre on Hawthorne, as well as his use of melodramatic, Gothic writing techniques of his own day, emphasizing artificial, theatrical devices.
In this chapter the following things happen:
1. Hester’s husband, Dr. Prynne, appears on the edge of the crowd observing her. He signals that she is not to publicly recognize him. Through a conversation between a townsman and him (he is called the “stranger”), we learn that he has been detained in the wilderness by the Indians, and we get his displeased reaction to the fact that Hester will not name the father of her child.
2. The power of the Boston Puritan theocracy is emphasized, as Governor Bellingham, his military aides, and the Reverends Wilson and Dimmesdale are seen sitting on the balcony high above Hester’s scaffold of penance.
3. One after another, Reverend Wilson, Governor Bellingham, and Reverend Dimmesdale speak to Hester, urging her to name the father of her child. Dimmesdale’s speech mentioning her “fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer” is filled with irony (saying one thing and meaning another). In speaking of Hester’s lover, he is referring to himself – but only Hester and he know this fact. (Hawthorne has not named him as the father of the child, but the reader begins to suspect this to be so.) Hester establishes her love for Arthur Dimmesdale when she says that she wishes she “might endure his agony” as well as her own.
Chapter IV: “The Interview”
Hester and her baby, Pearl, both need medical attention, so a physician named Roger Chillingworth is brought to them in the prison. He is the “stranger” (actually, Dr. Prynne, her husband). After giving them medical care, Chillingworth discusses Hester’s situation, demanding to know the name of her lover. She refuses to tell him. Back in the prison, Hester Prynne is found to be “in a state of nervous excitement,” so much so that the jailer, Master Brackett, thinks it best to bring in a doctor. The infant also seems to be in deep distress. Master Brackett brings into Hester’s cell “the stranger” who earlier that day was so very much interested in her case. (For the purpose of convenience, he is living in the prison until his ransom has been arranged with the Indians.) The physician is introduced as Roger Chillingworth. He asks to see Hester alone, claiming that he will cause her to be more ready to accept “just authority” than she has been thus far. First, he cares for the child, by preparing some simple remedy. Hester thinks he wishes to poison the baby, but he assures her that the medicine will be good for it. Shortly, the infant sleeps. After looking intently for a while at Hester, he mixes a drink to help calm her. She questions him as to whether or not the medicine will kill her. He explains that he wishes for her to live, so that the “burning shame” (the scarlet letter “A”) will continue to “blaze” upon her bosom. At this point, he touches the letter, and it seems to “scorch into Hester’s breast,” as if it were “red-hot.” She drinks the medicine and seats herself on the bed, with him in a chair beside her. He begins to talk, blaming himself for marrying a girl of her youth and beauty. He says that he should have known from the beginning that she would someday be wearing a scarlet letter. Hester quietly replies: “I was frank with you. I felt no love.” He admits that she had not deceived him in this respect. He remarks that his life had been lonely and “cheerless” before he had married her. She had brought “warmth” into his existence. At this time, Hester murmurs that she has “wronged” him. He answers that they “have wronged each other” and that his was “the first wrong” because he, an old man, should never have married a “budding youth.” Thus, Chillingworth says: “I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me the scale hangs fairly balanced.” Then, he demands to know the name of Hester’s lover. She replies: “Ask me not! That thou shalt never know!” He tells her that few things remain “hidden from the man who devotes himself” to the “solution of a mystery.” All others may be deceived as to the man’s name, but he will not be. He declares: “I shall seek this man.” He feels that he will find him, for there will exist a certain bond of sympathy between the lover and himself when he comes near him. Hester’s lover will “tremble,” and Chillingworth will “shudder” in response. Then, Hester’s husband cries out: “Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!” Chillingworth realizes that Hester’s lover will wear “no letter of infamy wrought into his garment,” but he claims he will be able to read the letter on the guilty man’s heart. He will not betray him to the law, threaten his life, or even damage his reputation. Also, the unknown lover may even “hide himself in outward honor.” Chillingworth then asks Hester to do but one thing, and that is to keep secret the fact that he, himself, is Dr. Prynne, her husband. Even though she is not to be known as his wife, he still feels a closeness of connection with her and intends to stay in the town where she, her child, and her lover live. Hester asks why he does not publicly reveal her identity as his wife and cast her off. He explains that it might be that he does not care to be known as the husband of a “faithless woman.” Then Hester swears an oath that as far as the rest of the world is concerned her husband (Dr. Prynne) is dead. Above all, she is not to tell the secret of her husband’s identity to her lover. Chillingworth smiles as he leaves Hester. She asks if he is “like the Black Man that haunts the forest.” She wonders if he has led her into a “bond that will prove the ruin “of her soul. He says: “Not the soul, no not thine!” Thus Chillingworth’s cold and devilish revenge begins.
Throughout the romance, Pearl is seen as a token, a living representation, of her mother’s sin of adultery. In this chapter the child’s “convulsions of pain” physically parallel the “moral agony” endured the day by the unhappy mother. When the doctor, Roger Chillingworth, prepares to sooth the child by some medicine, Hester is afraid that he wishes to kill her; but he has no such object in mind. When Hester asks him whether he is giving her a poisonous drink, he explains to her that he does not desire her death, for he wishes her to live, and seeks “no vengeance” against her. But he establishes here the point that he does seek revenge on Hester’s lover. Thus, one of the main threads of the plot begins here: Chillingworth’s search for, and revenge upon, the father of Pearl. He indicates that he intends to “ruin” the soul of his victim. Often, Hawthorne tells us about his characters through elaborate descriptions of their actions and thoughts. Note that in this chapter the intimate conversation between Hester and her husband reveals much about their past actions, and helps us anticipate their future patterns of action.
The developments in this chapter are as follows:
1. Hester, alone except for her child, finally meets face to face her husband, Dr. Prynne, when he comes to the jail to give them medical attention. He has adopted the pseudonym, (fictitious name), Roger Chillingworth. At first, she fears that he wishes them bodily harm, but he assures her that he wishes her to live – to live in shame. His object is to have revenge on her lover, whose name he expects her to reveal to him. When she refuses to tell him the identity of the father of the child, he explains that he will persist until he eventually learns the ma