SparkNotes Blog

Blogging The Scarlet Letter: Part 2 (Chapters 1-3)

Previously in Blogging The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a really long introduction—the equivalent to the Hogwarts profs’ obstacles in Sorcerer’s Stone. Did he even want us to read this book?

Chapter 1: The Prison Door

If you’re wondering what to put down for “setting” on your quiz, try “my post-apocalyptic nightmare:”

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.


Youtube / Lionsgate

Except we’re actually in front of a prison in Boston during the 1600s, so the major themes to keep in mind are: male supremacy, waistcoats, stale bread.

For your convenience, here is the rest of the first chapter paraphrased:

Nathaniel 2.0: The prison before us is outdated, weather-stained, and fugly. Coincidentally, these are the characteristics of Puritan society. There is also a beautiful and resilient rose bush growing next to this prison (a.k.a. Puritan society). Allow me to present the story of Hester Prynne, the rose bush of Puritan society. To clarify, Hester Prynne is the rose bush in this particular comparison, in which her character outlasts and overcomes the moral constraints of a prison-like Puritan existence. That was my metaphor, thank you.

Chapter 2: The Market-Place

On a bright summer day a large group of people are gathered in front of the actual prison that served as a metaphorical prison in the previous chapter.

Everyone seems to have gotten the day off to watch Hester Prynne, condemned adulteress, make an appearance for the first time since she went to jail. School is even cancelled. Does this really take precedence over basic arithmetic? I used to think most things were more important than basic arithmetic when it came to life skills, and that was the biggest mistake of my life because now it takes me an average of eleven minutes to calculate a tip.

A swarm of Mrs. Bennett/Miss Stephanie Crawford hybrids are naturally gossiping about the situation. I’m only a few paragraphs in but already up to my eyeballs in creative ways to call Hester a “public ledger,” if you will. So far:

  • hussy
  • brazen hussy
  • malefactress
  • harlot
  • naughty baggage

That last one is on page 49 if you think I’m kidding. They go on chatting until someone in the crowd tells them to kindly shut up (#bless). The prison doors open and Hester walks out carrying a three-month-old baby:

With a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, [she] looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.

I picture it more like a combo of this and this in my head, which Nathaniel 2.0 does nothing to discredit by describing her all in one paragraph as “elegant,” “beautiful,” “glossy,” “impressive,” “lady-like,” “delicate,” “evanescent,” “graceful,” and, ironically, “indescribable.”

Someone with the unfortunate title of “Town Beadle” escorts Hester to a scaffold in the marketplace where she is to stand with her baby until one o’clock, which seems arbitrarily specific. The next paragraph is dedicated to the history of scaffolds.

Scaffolds aside, can I just point out that not one of these so-called gossips has commented on the baby yet? Is that weird to you?

Hester relives her memories from England on the scaffold. I think. I don’t know for sure. There are a lot of run-ons in here. What I do know for sure is that the old man she married in England was supposed to join her in the colonies after tying up loose ends with his business, but never did. She hasn’t heard from him in two years.


Me testing the air for foreshadowing. (Credit: Youtube / Comedy Central)

Chapter 3: The Recognition

Hester scans the crowd and SWEET NIBLETS, there is her creepy old husband. He is in disguise, but she recognizes him by two things: a shoulder deformity and the way he makes her skin crawl. I don’t know much about the institution of marriage, but “doesn’t make my skin crawl” is pretty high up there on my baseline checklist. Now I’m thinking that if even if she did get any correspondence from him, she probably set it aflame in a chamber pot.

Guys, the description of this man is single the reason I never watched When a Stranger Calls:

At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne […] A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight […] When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.

Oh no. No thanks. Nope.

Tfw you’re sailing far, far away from your creepy husband (Youtube / Paramount)

He is a very learned man—super smart, trained in medicine, fluent in Parseltongue by the looks of it. He’s being held for ransom by Native Americans who have had him in custody since he got to the colonies, so at least someone is keeping geo-tabs on him for the moment.

To bring some clarity to the situation—the situation being his long-lost wife is on a scaffold holding a baby that is def not his—he asks the guy next to him who the father is. He does this very calmly, like some kind of CSI suspect.

Man in crowd #1: No one knows who the father is.
Man in crowd #2:
 YOU KNOW WHAT, IT’S TOO BAD HER BRITISH HUSBAND ISN’T HERE. HE’D GET TO THE BOTTOM OF IT. IF ONLY HE WERE HERE IN THIS CROWD. STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO ME, FOR EXAMPLE.

Hester and creepy husband make prolonged and uncomfortable eye contact (she recognizes him, hence the title of this chapter), which breaks when he holds a finger to his lips as if to silence her. *screenshots for future reference when asked to explain the workings of patriarchal oppression in today’s society*


Youtube / Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, three important men tootle out onto a nearby balcony to deliver a sermon on the hot topic of the day. We have John Wilson, oldest minister in Boston, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, local preacher who is also a babe, and Governor Bellingham, whose purpose is unclear.

Wilson asks Dimmesdale to ask Hester who the father is, and to also inform her of the speed at which her soul is hurtling towards purgatory. This reminds me of the time in first grade when I asked my friend to ask her friend to ask this kid Vincent if he would stop following me around at recess.

Dimmesdale hesitates, which strikes me as suspicious because I thought a case of adultery was icing on the cake as far as Puritan sermon topics go. Nathaniel’s description of Dimmesdale reminds me of the Inspector from the introduction (both solid 10/10s):

[…] he trode in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself simple and child-like; coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel.

He reluctantly agrees:

Dimmesdale: I beg you, Hester: free the father of this child from the bonds of guilt. Believe me, this guy would want you to give his name up. He really would. Trust me. I know this in my heart, 100%. I have no idea who he is, but I know he would want you to. I don’t know how I know, but I know I know. You know?

via GIPHY

Reverend Wilson is like, “oh my god just let me do it,” and launches into an hour-long speech about repentance to which no one pays attention. Meanwhile, Hester and Dimmesdale can’t take their eyes off each other. If I had a million dollars, I’d spend half of it on nut butter and the other half betting that I know what’s going on here.

Hester is led back to prison, and this is where Chapter 3 leaves us.

Conclusions/questions:

  • Do you know who the father is? Because it’s not the Town Beadle.
  • I can’t get it out of my head that the Town Beadle looks like this.
  • Like Reverend Wilson, I, too, went straight to Vincent and demanded he stop following me around at recess. He did not, and I cried.

JOIN US NEXT TIME FOR MORE SPECULATION IN A TIME BEFORE DNA TESTING.

Find the next chapter and every installment of Blogging Scarlet Letter HERE, and an index of all our Blogging the Classics titles HERE.