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.
Comment 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. )