Search Menu

The Scarlet Letter

Original Text

Modern Text

“She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?” “She’s certainly good with a needle,” commented one female observer, “but did a woman ever parade her skill in the way this harlot has today? Girls, she is laughing in the faces of our godly magistrates and proudly flaunting the symbol they intended as a punishment!”
“It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, “if we stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!” “It would be well-deserved,” muttered a hard-faced old woman, “if we tore Madame Hester’s rich gown off her precious shoulders. As for the red letter which she has so skillfully made, I’ll give her a scrap of my own crimson flannel to make a better one!”
“O, peace, neighbours, peace!” whispered their youngest companion. “Do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart.” “Oh quiet, ladies, quiet!” whispered their youngest companion. “Don’t let her hear you! Every stitch in that letter took a toll on her heart.”
The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff. The grim beadle made a gesture with his staff.
“Make way, good people, make way, in the King’s name,” cried he. “Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel, from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!” “Make way, good people! Make way, in the King’s name!” he cried. “Make a path, and I promise you that Mistress Prynne will be placed where man, woman, and child will have a good view of her fine garments from now until one o’clock. God bless the righteous colony of Massachusetts, where misdeeds are dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madame Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the marketplace!”
A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators. Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession of stern-browed men and unkindly-visaged women, Hester Prynne set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face, and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast. It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanour was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon. In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it. With almost a serene deportment, therefore, Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the market-place. It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston’s earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there. A path immediately opened in the crowd of spectators. With the beadle in front, and a procession of foul-faced men and women behind, Hester Prynne walked toward the spot chosen for her punishment. An eager group of curious schoolboys ran ahead. Although they understood little of what was going on except that school had closed early that day, they kept turning around to stare at Hester, the baby in her arms and the shameful letter on her breast. In those days, the prison door sat close to the marketplace. For the prisoner, though, it was a long walk. As confident as she may have seemed, Hester would have felt every step of every person in the crowd as though they had landed on her heart. But human nature blesses us with a strange and merciful quirk: In our moments of suffering, we don’t realize how much we hurt. It’s only afterward that we feel the worst pain. So with almost serene composure, Hester Prynne endured this portion of her ordeal. She came to a crude scaffold at the western end of the marketplace. The scaffold stood below the eaves of Boston’s oldest church and seemed to be a permanent feature of the place.
In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very idea of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do. In Hester Prynne’s instance, however, as not unfrequently in other cases, her sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement of the head, the proneness to which was the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. Knowing well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height of a man’s shoulders above the street. Scaffolds may seem like little more than historical curiosities now, but they once formed an integral part of a penal system that was thought to promote good citizenship as effectively as the guillotines of the French Revolution. The scaffold was the site of public humiliation. On it stood the pillory, a device that held the human head steady, exhibiting it to the public gaze. The very idea of shame was embodied in this frame of wood and iron. No matter how bad the offense, there is nothing more severe, I think, than to forbid someone to hide his face in shame. This punishment did precisely that. In Hester Prynne’s case, as sometimes happens, her sentence required her to stand for a certain time on the platform, but without having her head held still—the worst part of the punishment. Knowing her role, she climbed the wooden steps and stood on display above the crowd.
Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne. If a Catholic had been present in that crowd of Puritans, the sight of this beautiful woman with an infant at her breast might have reminded him of the Virgin Mary. But Hester Prynne would have stood in great contrast to that sinless mother whose infant was sent to redeem the world. Here, sin created a stain on the most sacred quality of human life. This beautiful woman and her child made the world a darker place.