The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.
The novel opens in the Puritan settlement of Boston in the mid seventeenth century, with a group of men and women, all dressed in gray, standing in front of the town's prison. The cemetery and the prison are described, with a focus on the prison. The most interesting aspect of the prison is a wild rose-bush that has sprung up in front of the prison door. Its wild beauty in full bloom contrasts with the dark and dismal edifice behind it.
The novel opens with a group of men and women, all dressed in gray, standing in front of the town's prison. The cemetery and the prison are described. The graveyard is found near the church, in an area of land that once belonged to Isaac Johnson, who had been one of the richest settlers and one of the four founders of the first church at Charlestown. The prison is described in more detail; it looks gloomy, ugly and old, even though it is the same age as most other buildings in the settlement. In front of the prison is a small section of grass that is mostly covered with weeds and undesirable plants, but very close to the prison door is a rose-bush, in full bloom. No one knows how it came to be or how it has survived. Hawthorne makes reference to the rose bush and addresses the reader, offering it to him/her as a symbol of the moral lesson contained within the story as well as act as a counterpoint to the dark and sorrowful aspect of the novel.
A group of people wait outside the prison door, discussing the fate of the prisoner within. The town beadle brings the prisoner out; it is a young woman with a three month old child. She has a letter "A" embroidered onto her dress in bright red and gold. She is made to stand on a scaffold at one end of the marketplace for three hours. She bears the silent, judgmental stares, and as her mind wanders she thinks of her past life, and how it all seems to have led up to her present situation.
Focus returns to the group of Puritan men and women standing outside the prison door on a morning in June in the Seventeenth century. The people look serious and stern as they wait for the prison door to open. At this point it is unclear who they expect to come out, and Hawthorne lists some possibilities; it could be a bond-servant who had not performed his/her duties properly; it could be a child who had misbehaved; it could be a person whose religion did not follow the rules and guidelines set forth by the Puritan church; it could be a Native American; or it could be someone thought to be a witch. Since religion and law are equal to the Puritans, the prisoner could be anyone who did not follow Puritan doctrine, and such a prisoner could not expect compassion from the group gathered outside his/her door.
The women surrounding the door are used as an example. They are described as far coarser in look and thought than the women of Hawthorne's time. They discuss the prisoner who is meant to come out, Hester Prynne. Most believe that she deserves a much worse punishment than the magistrates thought fit to give. Each woman is more severe than the last, except for one young mother who urges the rest to be more sympathetic to Hester's position.
The door opens and the town beadle comes out, followed by Hester Prynne. She is holding a baby, who is about three months old and seeing the sunshine for the first time, having been born in the prison. She boldly steps out and reveals the letter "A" which is beautifully embroidered on her dress. The "A" is like a gorgeous ornament, much out of sync with the somber gray dress she is wearing, which all Puritans see it fit to wear and its spectacular nature seems to work like a spell on those who look at it. Hester is described, beautiful and lady-like in every way. The women react, remarking that Hester was too bold in making the letter so remarkable.
Hester takes her place on a scaffold placed at one end of the marketplace, and begins the first part of her punishment, which is to sit on the scaffold, unable to hide her face for three hours. She is not untouched by the silent stares she is subjected to, which seem to be far worse than if she had been openly mocked or rebuked. She bears it well and after remembering situations in the past, realizes that her fate is palpable and unavoidable.
The first chapter sets the scene for the novel, introducing the reader to Boston, Massachusetts, 1642. The narrator introduces the Puritan ideology and betrays his own opinion of their religious intolerance by describing two main features of the Puritan settlement: the cemetery and the prison. They were two of the first developments in the colony, the fact of which seems to illustrate the bleakness of their outlook on life. The prison is emphasized, and the notion of the unnecessary and stifling strictness of the Puritan religious order, which will be continued throughout the novel, is introduced. The ugliness of the prison is contrasted with the wild-rose bush in full bloom to the side of the prison door. As the narrator suggests, this symbolizes the moral lesson embedded in the "tale of human frailty and sorrow." It also seems to suggest one particular theme expounded in the text that just as objects of beauty can be found inhabiting dark corners, good can be found in those people considered evil, and vice versa. The potential for good and for evil can be found equally in everyone, and that good can survive, even in the harshest conditions.
Continuing with the atmosphere described in the first chapter, in the second chapter the Puritans of this community are examined on a more personal level. The group of people standing outside the prison door gives an example of the different responses within the Puritan community towards the protagonist, but also demonstrates the general attitudes concerning sin, guilt, and punishment. The older women are harsh and each one is uglier and more severe in her ideas than the last. One woman even suggests death as the proper punishment for Hester's crime of adultery. One young woman is an exception among the group and recognizes the severity of isolation that is Hester's fate, and understands the power that guilt can exercise over a person without any outside aid. She is the most moderate of all the women, and as a lovely young mother, the most sympathetic character of the group. The other women's unfeeling attitude towards exposed sinners is shown in the harshest light, and the hypocrisy at the heart of some organized religious practice is highlighted, as it will be throughout the rest of the novel.
Hester is introduced, wearing the "A" and holding her daughter. She is beautiful and strong-willed, and her apparent ability to withstand the punishment offered by the community, compounds the harshness of the women gathered to see her. The community's professed reason for public punishment is in order to reform sinners and inspire penitence. These women are not interested in reformation; they want to see her spirit crushed and this effect seems to be inherent in the scaffold that Hester is forced to climb. The narrator argues that the inability to hide one's face in shame is most inhumane thing to do to another human, whatever their crime. The fact that this is the punishment of choice suggests the community's general intolerance towards and lack of sympathy for the type of human frailty at the heart of this story.