Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a classic American novel that tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who is shamed and ostracized by her Puritan community after committing adultery and bearing a child out of wedlock. The events of the novel take place in 17th century Boston, a time when the Puritan community was rigidly structured and deeply religious. The first chapter of the book sets the stage for the story, introducing us to the setting and the characters involved. But there are events described in the chapter that take place before the story begins, and understanding these events is key to understanding the themes and motifs of the book.
The chapter begins with a description of a wild rosebush growing outside the prison door in Boston. The rosebush is a symbol of beauty and hope in an otherwise bleak and dreary landscape, and it serves as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is still beauty to be found. The narrator then describes the prison door itself, which is made of “oaken timber, heavily framed, and with a iron-clenched portal,” suggesting that the Puritan society is rigid, stern, and uncompromising.
The narrator then introduces the reader to the main character of the book, Hester Prynne, who is being led out of the prison and into the public square for punishment. Hester is a young woman who has been found guilty of adultery and is carrying a child out of wedlock. She wears a scarlet letter “A” on her breast as a symbol of her shame and sin. The crowd that has gathered to watch her punishment is described as “a rankling and festering of evil things,” emphasizing the harsh and unforgiving nature of the Puritan community.
But what events led up to Hester’s punishment? We learn that Hester arrived in Boston two years earlier, having been sent by her husband, who remained behind in Europe. Hester is immediately seen as an outsider in the community, with her exotic looks and her refusal to conform to the strict Puritan dress code. She quickly finds work as a seamstress and becomes friendly with the town’s governor, who gives her a small cottage to live in.
It is at this point that Hester meets Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a young and handsome minister who is highly respected in the community. Hester and Dimmesdale begin a secret affair, and Hester becomes pregnant with his child. When Hester is accused of adultery, she refuses to reveal the identity of the child’s father, and so is sentenced to wear the scarlet letter “A” for the rest of her life.
The events that led up to Hester’s punishment are important because they reveal the strict and unforgiving nature of the Puritan community. Hester is an outsider who refuses to conform to their strict dress code, and so is immediately seen as suspect. When she commits adultery, she is punished not only for her sin but also for her refusal to conform to Puritan ideals.
Reverend Dimmesdale’s involvement in the affair is also significant. He is a highly respected member of the community, and his affair with Hester reveals the hypocrisy of the Puritan leaders. Dimmesdale preaches about the evils of sin and the importance of living a virtuous life, but he himself is unable to resist temptation. His guilt over the affair and his inability to confess his sin lead to his eventual downfall.
The events that take place before the story begins also set the stage for the themes and motifs of the book. The scarlet letter “A” serves as a symbol of shame and sin, and Hester’s punishment for adultery emphasizes the harsh and unforgiving nature of the Puritan community.