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The Scarlet Letter

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The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man’s fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself. One summer morning in the early seventeenth century, a large number of Boston residents were gathered in front of the prison, staring at its oak door. In another place or time, the grim faces of these good people would have suggested a terrible event, such as the impending execution of a criminal so notorious that the court’s verdict merely confirms what the community already knows. But given the harsh Puritan character, one could not be so sure about the cause for this scene. Perhaps a lazy servant or rebellious child was about to be publicly whipped. Maybe a religious heretic was to be beaten out of town or an Indian, drunk on the settlers’ whiskey, was to be lashed back into the woods. It could be that a witch like old Mistress Hibbins, the foul-tempered widow of the local judge, was to be hanged. Whatever their reason for being there, the crowd gathered on that morning was quite solemn. This cold demeanor suited a community in which religion and law so intermixed in the hearts of the people that mild punishments were just as terrifying as the serious ones. A criminal could expect little sympathy on his execution day. Back then, even a light penalty—the sort that might be laughed off today—was handed out as sternly as a death sentence.
It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue. The age had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother has transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not a character of less force and solidity, than her own. The women, who were now standing about the prison-door, stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone. It should be noted that on the summer morning when our story begins, the women in the crowd seemed especially interested in the forthcoming punishment. This was not a refined age. No sense of impropriety kept these women from elbowing their way to the front, even at a hanging. In their morals as in their bodies, these women were coarser than women these days. Today, six or seven generations removed from those ancestors, women are smaller and more delicate in frame and character. But the women standing in front of that prison door were less than fifty years from the time when manly

Queen Elizabeth

Bachelor queen who presided over a golden age in English history.

Queen Elizabeth
was the model for femininity. Being the queen’s countrywomen, these women were raised on the same English beef and ale, which combined with an equally coarse moral diet to make them who they were. So the bright sun shone that morning on a group of broad shoulders, large busts, and round, rosy cheeks that were raised on English stock and not yet made pale or thin by the New England air. The bold and frank speech of these women would also startle us today, both in its meaning and its volume.
“Goodwives,” said a hard-featured dame of fifty, “I’ll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!” “Ladies,” said one hard-faced woman of fifty, “I’ll give you a piece of my mind. It would serve the public good if mature, church-going women like us were allowed to deal with hussies like Hester Prynne. What do you say, ladies? If the five of us passed judgment on this slut, would she have gotten off as lightly as she has before the magistrates? I don’t think so.”
“People say,” said another, “that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.” “People say,” said another woman, “that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her pastor, is very grieved that a scandal like this has occurred in his congregation.”

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