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This first chapter contains little in the way of action, instead setting the scene and introducing the first of many symbols that will come to dominate the story. A crowd of somber, dreary-looking people has gathered outside the door of a prison in seventeenth-century Boston. The building’s heavy oak door is studded with iron spikes, and the prison appears to have been constructed to hold dangerous criminals. No matter how optimistic the founders of new colonies may be, the narrator tells us, they invariably provide for a prison and a cemetery almost immediately. This is true of the citizens of Boston, who built their prison some twenty years earlier.
The one incongruity in the otherwise drab scene is the rosebush that grows next to the prison door. The narrator suggests that it offers a reminder of Nature’s kindness to the condemned; for his tale, he says, it will provide either a “sweet moral blossom” or else some relief in the face of unrelenting sorrow and gloom.
As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, a young woman holding an infant, emerges from the prison door and makes her way to a scaffold (a raised platform), where she is to be publicly condemned. The women in the crowd make disparaging comments about Hester; they particularly criticize her for the ornateness of the embroidered badge on her chest—a letter “A” stitched in gold and scarlet. From the women’s conversation and Hester’s reminiscences as she walks through the crowd, we can deduce that she has committed adultery and has borne an illegitimate child, and that the “A” on her dress stands for “Adulterer.”
The beadle calls Hester forth. Children taunt her and adults stare. Scenes from Hester’s earlier life flash through her mind: she sees her parents standing before their home in rural England, then she sees a “misshapen” scholar, much older than herself, whom she married and followed to continental Europe. But now the present floods in upon her, and she inadvertently squeezes the infant in her arms, causing it to cry out. She regards her current fate with disbelief.
These chapters introduce the reader to Hester Prynne and begin to explore the theme of sin, along with its connection to knowledge and social order. The chapters’ use of symbols, as well as their depiction of the political reality of Hester Prynne’s world, testify to the contradictions inherent in Puritan society. This is a world that has already “fallen,” that already knows sin: the colonists are quick to establish a prison and a cemetery in their “Utopia,” for they know that misbehavior, evil, and death are unavoidable. This belief fits into the larger Puritan doctrine, which puts heavy emphasis on the idea of original sin—the notion that all people are born sinners because of the initial transgressions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
But the images of the chapters—the public gatherings at the prison and at the scaffold, both of which are located in central common spaces—also speak to another Puritan belief: the belief that sin not only permeates our world but that it should be actively sought out and exposed so that it can be punished publicly. The beadle reinforces this belief when he calls for a “blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine.” His smug self-righteousness suggests that Hester’s persecution is fueled by more than the villagers’ quest for virtue. While exposing sin is meant to help the sinner and provide an example for others, such exposure does more than merely protect the community. Indeed, Hester becomes a scapegoat, and the public nature of her punishment makes her an object for voyeuristic contemplation; it also gives the townspeople, particularly the women, a chance to demonstrate—or convince themselves of—their own piety by condemning her as loudly as possible. Rather than seeing their own potential sinfulness in Hester, the townspeople see her as someone whose transgressions outweigh and obliterate their own errors.