19th Century Literature/The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter[edit]

Hawthorne's tale revolves around the life of Hester Prynee after having been forced to wear the mark of an A on her blouse; the A originally stood for Adultery, the crime which Hester committed, yet was later taken to stand for able. Hawthorne is critical of the Puritan morality that he thought was preoccupied with punishing other's sins.

Extract One[edit]

In this extract, Hawthorne shows us a crowd that waits for Hester Prynne to leave the prison and to make her way to the place where she will be publicly humiliated.

"Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!"

"People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation."

"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch,—that is a truth," added a third autumnal matron. "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she,—the naughty baggage,—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like, heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!"

"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart."

"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest as well as the 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? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!"

"Mercy on us, goodwife," exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips; for the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself."

Explanation and Analysis[edit]

Hawthorne's commentary is revealed in this extract through the characterization of the members of the crowd. Consider how the first woman to speak is described - 'a hard-featured dame of fifty'. This is certainly not a flattering description. She asks the crowd to let her 'tell ye a piece of my mind'. Her dialogue is coarse and unforgiving - 'if the hussy stood up for judgement'. She is not only 'hard-featured' but also very judgemental, unforgiving and moralistic. Also notice that the only one to sympathize with young Hester was the young female holding a child by the hand, thus re-emphasizing the rosebush representing a new era and hope for the future compared to the rusting iron door.