Summary—Chapter 1: The Prison-Door
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.
Summary—Chapter 2: The Market-Place
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.
Chapter One: The Prison Door
A large crowd of Puritans stands outside of the prison, waiting for the door to open. The prison is described as a, "wooden jail ... already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front." The iron on the prison is rusting and creates an overall appearance of decay.
Outside the building, next to the door, a rosebush stands in full bloom. The narrator remarks that it is possible that "this rosebush ... had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison door." He then plucks one of the roses and offers it to the reader as a "moral blossom" to be found later in the story.
This opening chapter of the main narrative introduces several of the images and themes within the story to follow. These images will recur in several settings and serve as metaphors for the underlying conflict.
In the manner that Hawthorne describes it, the prison embodies the unyielding severity of puritan law: old, rusted, yet strong with an "iron-clamped oaken door." Puritan law is coated, in this account, in the rust of tradition and obsolete purpose. But despite the evolution of society, the laws have not kept up. As a result, the door remains tightly shut and iron-clamped. It seems it will take a superhuman force to somehow weaken the mores that control the society in which our story will take place.
With the reference to Ann (actually Anne) Hutchinson, the prison also serves as a metaphor for the authority of the regime, which will not tolerate deviance from a prescribed set of standards, values, and morals. Hutchinson was a religious but freewheeling woman who disagreed with Puritanical teachings, and as a result she was imprisoned in Boston and then banished. She eventually was a founder of antinomian Rhode Island. Hawthorne claims that it is possible that the beautiful rosebush growing directly at the prison door sprang from her footsteps. This implies that Puritanical authoritarianism may be so rigid that it obliterates both freedom and beauty.
The rosebush itself is an obvious symbol of passion and the wilderness, and it makes its most famous reappearance later when Pearl announces that she was made not by a father and mother, or by God, but rather was plucked from the rosebush. Roses appear several times in the course of the story, always symbolizing Hester's inability to control her passion and tame it so that she can assimilate to Puritan society. Pearl too is marked by this wildness.
Hawthorne cleverly links the rosebush to the wilderness surrounding Boston, commenting that the bush may be a remnant of the former forest which covered the area. This is important, because it is only in the forest wilderness where the Puritans' laws fail to have any force. This is where Dimmesdale can find freedom to confess in the dark, and it is where he and Hester can meet away from the eyes of those who would judge them. But the rosebush is close enough to the town center to suggest that the passionate wilderness, in the form of Hester Prynne, has been creeping into Boston.
That the rosebush is in full bloom, meanwhile, suggests that Hester is at the peak of her passion, referring to the fact that she has given birth as a result of her adulterous affair. The narrator’s comment that the rose may serve as a "moral blossom" in the story is therefore a note that Hester's child will provide the moral of the story.
Chapter Two: The Market Place
The crowd in front of the jail is a mixture of men and women, all maintaining severe looks of disapproval. Several of the women begin to discuss Hester Prynne, and they soon vow that Hester would not have received such a light sentence for her crime if they had been the judges. One woman, the ugliest of the group, goes so far as to advocate death for Hester.
Hester emerges from the prison with elegance and a ladylike air to her movements. She clutches her three month old daughter, Pearl. She has sown a large scarlet A over her breast, using her finest skill to make the badge of shame appear to be a decoration. Several of the women are outraged when they see how she has chosen to display the letter, and they want to rip it off.
Hester is led through the crowd to the scaffold of the pillory. She ascends the stairs and stands, now fully revealed to the crowd, in her position of shame and punishment for the next few hours. Hawthorne compares her beauty and elegance while on the scaffold to an image of Madonna and Child, or Divine Maternity.
The ordeal is strenuous and difficult for Hester. She tries to make the images in front of her vanish by thinking about her past. Hester was born in England and grew up there. She later met a scholar who was slightly deformed, having a left shoulder higher than his right. Her husband, later revealed to be Roger Chillingworth, first took her to Amsterdam and then sent her to America to await his arrival.
Hester looks out over the crowd and realizes for the first time that her life condemns her to be alone. She looks at her daughter and then fingers the scarlet letter that will remain a part of her from now on. At the thought of her future, she squeezes her daughter so hard that the child cries out in pain.
Here we are introduced to the scarlet A which has become eponymous with the novel itself. Its introduction carries a touch of humor or, at least, resistance: Hester has appropriated the supposed symbol of shame as a beautifully embroidered letter, which she wears without the slightest air of anguish or despair. Indeed, the fine stitch work around the A has reduced it to an ornament, a decorative and trivial accessory.
The community's reaction to Hester, as they watch her on the scaffold, not only gives us a sense of how unfavorably they view the crime, but also suggests that there might be a possibility for a groundswell of change. Most of the people watching Hester's punishment believe that it is far too lenient. Some say they would like to rip the letter right off her chest; others decry the failure of lawmakers to put Hester to death. Yet, there are a few who believe it is more than enough: as one bystander remarks, she feels every stitch in her chest.
This scene is the first of three scaffold scenes in the novel. In this scene Hester is forced to suffer alone, facing first her past and then her present and future. The scene at once reveals Hester's past without presenting us the details of her crime, and it ends with the revelations of the consequence of this past: "These were her realities—all else had vanished."
Chapter Three: The Recognition
On the edge of the crowd, Hester notices an Indian accompanied by a white man. She recognizes the white man as Roger Chillingworth, her husband, who sent her to America and remained in Amsterdam. Hester fearfully clutches Pearl harder, which again causes her child to cry out in pain.
Roger Chillingworth asks a bystander who Hester is and what her crime was. The man informs him of her past, telling that she was sent to Boston to await her husband, but she ended up with a child instead. Chillingworth remarks that the man who was her partner in the crime of adultery will eventually become known.
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale is exhorted to make Hester tell the gathered crowd who the father is. She refuses and instead tells him that she will bear both his shame and her own. Dimmesdale cries out, "She will not speak!" and places his hand over his heart. The Reverend Mr. Wilson steps forward and delivers a sermon against sin, after which Hester is allowed to return to the prison.
Roger Chillingworth is introduced here as Hester's husband, but because the story began in medias res (starting in the middle of the action), we did not see whatever early affection there might have been between Hester and Roger. Now, we cannot seem to find the slightest bit of emotion connecting them. Indeed, when Chillingworth appears while Hester is on the scaffold, she seems paralyzed by fear at first. And when Chillingworth demands aloud, "Speak woman, speak and give your child a father!" we suddenly understand just how distant husband and wife now are. We are still putting the pieces of the puzzle together at this point, and we are not sure what Chillingworth's relationship to Hester reayly is—does he want her dead? Does he want the child for himself? Does he know who the adulterer is? Our first priority, as readers, is to determine whether Chillingworth is still in love with Hester. For her part, it seems plain enough that Hester has no carnal feelings remaining for her own husband.
If there is irony implicit in the fact that Chillingworth is demanding Hester to give her child a father—since he should be the father of his wife’s child—it is also ironic that Dimmesdale, the actual father of Pearl, has to keep up his appearances as the town minister who is to try to make Hester confess the name of her child's father. She responds by telling him that she will bear both his and her shame, and that her child will never know her earthly father. Dimmesdale then publicly admits defeat and ceases trying to make Hester tell him the name, leaving the crowd unsettled and leaving Chillingworth with a sordid mission. Later in the novel, once we learn all the secrets that Hester is carrying, we look back at this scene with fond amusement, realizing that all of our main characters are holding back the truth with facades.
Dimmesdale places his hand over his heart in this scene. This gesture will reappear and grow in significance during the novel. In this chapter it is meant to show his distress in failing to confess his own part of the adulterous affair. At the same time, the gesture of the hand over the heart is the same one that Hester makes when she remembers the scarlet letter. Hawthorne brilliantly connects Hester's openly displayed shame with Dimmesdale's secret shame by having both characters touch the spot where the scarlet letter is displayed.
The Indian standing at the edge of the crowd introduces the division between the stark Puritanical world and the wilderness beyond. Inside the city of Boston, the laws are upheld and morals are kept intact. But in the forest the laws no longer hold, and the Indian represents the savage and wild nature of the area outside of Boston. The Indian also foreshadows the dilemma facing Hester, who must find a way to simultaneously live with her immorality and coexist with the moral utopia within Boston.
Chapter Four: The Interview
After Hester returns to her prison cell, she remains agitated by the day's events. Pearl is also upset and starts crying. The jailer therefore allows a physician to enter and try to calm them down.
Roger Chillingworth, pretending to be a physician, enters and mixes a potion for Pearl, who soon falls asleep. He also makes a drink for Hester, who is afraid that he is trying to kill her. Nevertheless, she drinks his potion and sits down on the bed.
Chillingworth tells her that he forgives her, and he accepts the blame for having married her. She says, “thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.” He asks Hester who the father of Pearl is, but she refuses to tell him. Chillingworth then laughs and says, "He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart."
He then makes Hester swear to never reveal that he is her husband. She becomes afraid of Chillingworth's purpose, and she asks whether he has forced her into a bond that will ruin her soul. He smiles and tells her, "Not thy soul ... No, not thine!"
This chapter marks the second interrogation of Hester, and it foreshadows key moments of the novel. In addition, Roger Chillingworth's relationship to Hester, namely, the fact that they are married, is revealed here.
There are two moments of foreshadowing during this chapter which require further analysis. The first occurs when Chillingworth says, "Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less is he mine. He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart." The connection between the scarlet letter and the heart was already made in previous chapters, when Hester placed her hand on the letter and Dimmesdale clutched his heart to hide his shame. Thus the reader can infer that his heart will somehow reveal Dimmesdale's secret. This does in fact occur, as a result of Chillingworth feeling Dimmesdale's heart while the reverend is sleeping.
The second moment of foreshadowing occurs in the last few sentences. Hester is afraid she has made a bond that will "prove the ruin of [her] soul." Chillingworth replies with, "Not thy soul ... No, not thine!" Obviously the reference is to Dimmesdale's soul. This prediction also appears later in the novel and seems to be coming true with the death of Dimmesdale.
It is difficult to establish what motivates Roger Chillingworth to remain and seek revenge. He is an educated man with superb skills in medicine and literature. Why then would he choose to remain in Boston and attempt to destroy Dimmesdale? There are few good explanations for Chillingworth's behavior and desire to not be known. The most likely reasons are revenge and the challenge of solving the mystery. The motive of revenge is clear enough from Hester’s infidelity and the damage that revealing himself would do to his reputation and future ability to marry. He also might seek vengeance on the true father for stealing his chance at a family. In that society, it would make sense to go after the father rather than Hester, and he admits in this chapter that he married Hester even though he knew she did not love him.
Even so, Chillingworth could have left town and tried to start a new family elsewhere. But there is still the mystery. Chillingworth's behavior is too sublimely cruel for that to be the only motivation, so it seems that he is motivated both by revenge and the mystery. A third possibility is that Chillingworth is also trying to remove the father from the scene in order to make a second attempt to win Hester’s heart. This idea seems unlikely, but it goes hand-in-hand with the acts of revenge Chillingworth carries out in his parasitic attack on Dimmesdale, sucking the virility out of the man. As we continue our analysis, let us revisit these options to see whether the textual evidence supports them.