Stage 4 (Sage): The Scarlet Letter, chapter 1

CHAPTER 1: THE PRISON DOOR AND THE MARKET PLACE

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Retold By: Rachna Shah

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia they might originally project, have recognised it necessary to allot (1) a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as a prison.

 

Some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with age.

 

But on one side of the prison door was a wild rose-bush, which might have been there 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.

 

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve to symbolise some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty (2) and sorrow.

 

___________________

 

The grass-plot before the jail, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes intently fastened on the door.

 

Amongst any other population, the grim rigidity that petrified (3) the bearded features of these good people would have augured (4) some awful business. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so sure to be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. This befitted a people among whom religion and law were almost identical, where the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were made alike.

 

On that morning, the women appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal (5) infliction might be expected to ensue.

 

‘Goodwives,’ said a dame, ‘It would be most appropriate for the public behoof (6) if we women should handle such malefactresses (7) as this Hester Prynne. If the hussy (8) stood up for judgment before us, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates (9) have awarded? I hope not!”

 

‘At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead!”

 

‘What do we talk of marks and brands!’ cried another, the ugliest and most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. ‘This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; Is there not law for it?”

 

‘Mercy!’ exclaimed a man, ‘Hush now, gossips; here comes Mistress Prynne herself. ‘

 

The door of the jail being flung open from within there appeared, the grim town-beadle. This personage represented the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law.

 

He laid his right hand upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he drew forward, until she repelled (10) him, and stepped into the open air as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a baby of some three months old.

 

When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not by motherly affection, but to conceal a certain token fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty (11) smile, looked around at her townspeople.

 

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, laced by an elaborate embroidery of gold thread, appeared the letter A.

 

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance. She had a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too; characterised by a certain state and dignity. Those who had known her before, and had expected to behold her dimmed, were astonished to perceive how her beauty shone and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy (12) in which she was enveloped.

 

But the point which drew all eyes was that SCARLET LETTER which was so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

 

“Did ever a woman, before this brazen (13) hussy, contrive (14) such a way of showing it? She laughs in the faces of our godly magistrates, taking pride in what they meant as a punishment!”

 

The beadle made a gesture with his staff. ‘Make way! Open a passage; Mistress Prynne shall be set where all may see her apparel. Bless our righteous colony, where iniquity (15) is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madame Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!’

 

A lane was opened through the crowd of spectators. Hester Prynne set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment.

 

It was no great distance. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be a journey of some length; for haughty as her demeanour was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged (16) to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to trample upon.

 

Hester Prynne came to a scaffold (17). It stood nearly beneath the eaves (18) of Boston’s earliest church. This scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which was held, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as was the guillotine (19) among the terrorists of France.

 

Above the platform rose the framework, fashioned to confine the head in its tight grasp, and hold it up to the public gaze. The very idea of ignominy was embodied in this contrivance. There can be no outrage, I think, against our common nature more terrible 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, her sentence bore that she should stand upon the platform, but without undergoing that latch around the neck and confinement of the head. Knowing well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was thus displayed to the surrounding multitude.

 

The witnesses of Hester Prynne’s disgrace were stern enough to look upon her death, but had none of the heartlessness for gags. It must have been overpowered by the solemn presence of the governor and ministers of the town, whom either sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house, looking down upon the platform. Their presence inferred that the infliction of a legal sentence would have an earnest and effectual meaning. Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and grave.

 

The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting (20) eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable.

 

Yet there were intervals when the whole scene seemed to vanish from her eye. Memories came swarming back upon her. Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit to relieve itself by the exhibition of these shifting forms, from the cruel weight and hardness of the reality.

 

Upon the scaffold was a point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had been walking since her infancy. She saw again her native village, in Old England; her father’s and mother’s faces too. She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty. She beheld another face of a man, with a pale, thin, scholar-like visage— eyes dim and bleared. Yet those same optics had a strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner’s purpose to read the human soul. This figure was slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right.

 

Next rose before her a continental city; where new life had awaited her, still in connexion with the misshapen scholar.

 

Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople assembled, and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne who stood on the scaffold, an infant on her arm, and the letter A in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom.

 

Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes these were her realities—all else had vanished!


+GLOSSARY

1/allot(v): to divide an amount of land into separate sections, each of which serve different purposes

2/frailty(n): a condition of weakness

3/petrified(n): solidified, made permanent (as in: they were so rigid and grim that their faces didn’t move)

4/augured(v): foreboded, forecasting doom for an event in the near future; implies that an upcoming event is a grim and serious one

5/penal(adj): a type of disciplinary action that corrects the wrongdoings of criminals

6/behoof(n): the general well-being (of a community)

7/malefactresses(n): a woman who has done something evil or illegal (or both)

8/hussy(n): slang term for an immoral or cheeky woman

9/magistrates(n): judges who decide the fate of criminals

10/repelled(v): to push somebody away/off

11/haughty(adj): proud, acting/looking superior to other people

12/ignominy(n): public shame and disgrace

13/brazen(adj): bold, unabashed

14/contrive(v): made skillfully for a specific purpose/objective

15/iniquity(n): immorality, wickedness

16/thronged(v): swarmed, collected in large numbers as a group

17/scaffold(n): a raised wooden platform upon which a criminal can stand before a crowd

18/eaves(n): a part of the roof that hangs over the walls of a building

19/guillotine(n): a machine, traditionally French, used for beheading people

20/unrelenting(adj): determined, describing a person who won’t stop a certain action no matter what

 

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