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.
Yet, unlike her fellow townspeople, Hester accepts her humanity rather than struggles against it; in many ways, her “sin” originated in her acknowledgment of her human need for love, following her husband’s unexplained failure to arrive in Boston and his probable death. The women of the town criticize her for embroidering the scarlet letter, the symbol of her shame, with such care and in such a flashy manner: its ornateness seems to declare that she is proud, rather than ashamed, of her sin. In reality, however, Hester simply accepts the “sin” and its symbol as part of herself, just as she accepts her child. And although she can hardly believe her present “realities,” she takes them as they are rather than resisting them or trying to atone for them.
Both the rosebush and Hester resist the kinds of fixed interpretation that the narrator associates with religion. The narrator offers multiple possibilities for the significance of the rosebush near the prison door, as he puzzles over its survival in his source manuscript. But, in the end, he rejects all of its possible “meanings,” refusing to give the rosebush a definitive interpretation.
So, too, does the figure of Hester offer various options for interpretation. The fact that she is a woman with a past, with memories of a childhood in England, a marriage in Europe, and a journey to America, means that, despite what the Puritan community thinks, she cannot be defined solely in terms of a single action, in terms of her great “sin.” Pearl, her child, is evidence of this: her existence makes the scarlet letter redundant in that it is she and not the snippet of fabric that is the true consequence of Hester’s actions.
As Pearl matures in the coming chapters and her role in Hester’s life becomes more complex, the part Hester’s “sin” plays in defining her identity will become more difficult to determine. For now, the infant’s presence highlights the insignificance of the community’s attempt at punishment: Pearl is a sign of a larger, more powerful order than that which the community is attempting to assert—be it nature, biology, or a God untainted by the corruptions of human religious practices. The fact that the townspeople focus on the scarlet letter rather than on the human child underlines their pettiness, and their failure to see the more “real” consequences of Hester’s action.
From this point forward, Hester will be formally, officially set apart from the rest of society; yet these opening chapters imply that, even before her acquisition of the scarlet letter, she had always been unique. The text describes her appearance as more distinctive than conventionally beautiful: she is tall and radiates a natural nobility that sets her apart from the women of the town, with whom she is immediately juxtaposed. Hester’s physical isolation on the scaffold thus only manifests an internal alienation that predates the beginning of the plot.
This is the first of three important scenes involving the scaffold. Each of these scenes will show a character taking the first step toward a sort of Emersonian self-reliance, the kind of self-reliance that would come to replace Puritan ideology as the American ideal. In this scene, Hester confronts her “realities” and discovers a new self that does not fit with her old conceptions of herself. Puritan doctrine views “reality” as merely an obstacle to a world beyond this one; Hester’s need to embrace her current situation (in part by literally embracing her daughter) implies a profound separation from the ideals of that ideological system. From now on, Hester will stand outside, if still surrounded by, the Puritan order.