Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
The narrator describes the prison in Boston where Hester has spent the last several months for her crime of adultery. The building and grounds seem to have always been old and unkempt. While the building itself looks grim and formidable, the rose-bush just outside the door provides a spark of color for prisoners as they enter. While the prison and rules of man are harsh, nature is still kind.
On the outskirts of the town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation, there was a small thatched cottage. It had been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned, because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation, while its comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the emigrants. It stood on the shore, looking across a basin of the sea at the forest-covered hills, towards the west. A clump of scrubby trees, such as alone grew on the peninsula, did not so much conceal the cottage from view, as seem to denote that here was some object which would fain have been, or at least ought to be, concealed. In this little, lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and by the license of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her, Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot.
This passage describes where Hester lives after she emerges from prison. She chooses to remain in Boston, the scene of her adultery. She can’t live in town among the respected people, so she opts to live outside of, but close to, the town. Her small, rundown cottage on bare ground resembles her life now. She is lonely and mostly isolated and needs to figure out how to support herself and her infant daughter. The cottage serves as both a refuge from the townspeople and a prison since she is ostracized from most of society.
The motherly care of the good widow assigned to Mr. Dimmesdale a front apartment, with a sunny exposure, and heavy window-curtains to create a noontide shadow, when desirable. The walls were hung round with tapestry, said to be from the Gobelin looms, and, at all events, representing the Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet, in colors still unfaded, but which made the fair woman of the scene almost as grimly picturesque as the woe-denouncing seer.
Dimmesdale has just moved into a room at the home of a widow in the community. The minister’s room is decorated with tapestries that tell the Bible story of David and Bathsheba, in which King David commits adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers. She becomes pregnant and David sends her husband to his death in a battle. They keep their secret until a prophet forces them to reveal it. The tapestries are a constant reminder to Dimmesdale of his adulterous relationship with Hester.
The road, after the two wayfarers had crossed from the peninsula to the mainland, was no other than a footpath. It straggled onward into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering. The day was chill and sombre. Overhead was a gray expanse of cloud, slightly stirred, however, by a breeze; so that a gleam of flickering sunshine might now and then be seen at its solitary play along the path. This flitting cheerfulness was always at the farther extremity of some long vista through the forest. The sportive sunlight—feebly sportive, at best, in the predominant pensiveness of the day and scene—withdrew itself as they came nigh and left the spots where it had danced the drearier, because they had hoped to find them bright.
This passage describes the forest where Hester waits to meet with Dimmesdale. The forest is an appropriate place for them to meet, because it is removed from the spying eyes and gossiping tongues of the townspeople. The narrator’s description of the day in the forest also applies to the state of Hester’s life—gray without much sunlight or happiness. The sunlight, like happiness, always seems to be just ahead of her, out of her reach.
And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:
“On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”
This passage at the end of the novel describes Hester and Dimmesdale’s graves. Her grave has recently been dug next to his, but with a few feet of distance between them, symbolizing how they were never completely together in life. The simple headstone they share differs from the more ornate ones surrounding them. Theirs has a scarlet letter A carved into it, the glow of which can be seen from afar in the otherwise gloomy cemetery.