The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Red apple symbolising temptation.

“The Scarlet Letter”, published in 1850, is considered to be Hawthorne’s best work and is an example of a gothic romance.  The story is set in 1642, in Boston.  In the novel, Hester Prynne is convicted of adultery and required to wear a scarlet A on her clothing to mark her shame.  In this extract, Hester leaves after receiving her sentence …


The door of the jail being flung open from within there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand.  This personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final and closest application to the offender.  Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward, until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air as if by her own free will.  She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquaintance only with the grey twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison.

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 so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or 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 smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.  On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale.  She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes.  She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison.  Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.  It may be true that, to a sensitive observer, there was some thing exquisitely painful in it.  Her attire, which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity.  But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer–so that both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time–was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom.  It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.


Some thinking points …

This extract opens with the opening of the jail door by the town-beadle who is used to symbolise the Puritanic code of law.  What adjectives does the writer used to describe this code of law?  What does this suggest about the narrator’s view of puritanism?

Look at the ways in which Hester Prynne is described in this extract – what kind of character do you think she is based on this description?

Look at the words used to describe the scarlet letter, which she has embroidered herself – what does this communicate about Hester and how does it impact on her connection with those around her?


Classic inspiration – some ideas for writing based on this extract

  • Describe the appearance of a person which looks very different from all others around them.
  • Write the opening to a story set in a dark place.
  • Write the opening to a story where someone is contained, controlled or restricted.