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CHAPTER 2: THE MARKET-PLACE
You will find much of The Scarlet Letter descriptive and analytical. But not the central scenes. These are dramatic enough to take your breath away.
"The Market-Place," for instance, is some curtain-raiser. In one vivid image, you have the whole story. The lines of conflict are drawn, the issues defined, the characters placed in relation to one another.
The image Hawthorne gives us is that of a young woman taken in adultery, and standing on a scaffold in the midst of a hostile crowd. (Wait a minute. An adulteress on display in the market- place? Yes. This is Puritan Boston, where private wrongdoing is public business.)
The woman has been brought to the scaffold for an ordeal of shaming, an ordeal she endures with stubborn pride. She does not drop her gaze, but instead responds to the angry stares of the crowd with quiet defiance.
In her arms, the woman carries an infant, one emblem of her sin. And on her breast, she wears another: a scarlet letter A (for Adulteress), intended by the magistrates to be a badge of shame, but already the subject of curious speculation.
On a nearby balcony, seated in a place of honor among the judges, is the woman's lover, the man who is supposed to be standing on the scaffold by her side. And on the outskirts of the crowd an interested observer, the woman's secret husband, watches, his keen eyes searching for his rival, his thoughts already turned to revenge.
It is a scene fraught with tension, brimming with possibilities. Let's explore some of them further.
In this first encounter in the market-place, the young woman, Hester Prynne, and the Puritan community are in fierce if silent conflict. They take the measures of one another. They bring into play opposing values.
On the one side is a woman who has violated a strict social and religious code, but who has sinned (if indeed, she has sinned) in an affirmation of love and life. On the other side is a grim and forbidding crowd which seems, nonetheless, to possess a certain degree of dignity and authority.
You will have to determine which side claims your sympathy- and Hawthorne's. The choice is not as cut-and-dried as it seems.
Let's take a closer look at the Puritan spectators waiting by the scaffold with such apparent eagerness to condemn one of their number. The severe expression on their faces, Hawthorne tells us, would be better suited to greet an infamous murderer (a Jack the Ripper, say) than an adulteress. He quickly adds, however, that this stern and unbending crowd would glower just as fiercely at a mischievous child brought before the magistrates for whipping.
We quickly sense in these Puritans a lack not only of sympathy but of discrimination. In their eyes, all crimes are equally reprehensible. And all criminals are to be treated with the full rigor of the law.
What about mercy? we wonder. What about that injunction not to cast the first stone? Not for this crowd. They can be downright bloodthirsty, especially the women. One hard-faced matron suggests branding Hester Prynne's forehead with a hot iron as a more appropriate punishment than the wearing of the scarlet letter. And a second woman goes further, calling for the death penalty.
It is tempting, when we hear such talk, to dismiss these Puritans as hard-hearted fanatics, to sense beneath their severity a strain of bigotry, and to cheerfully consign them to the hell they so fervently believed in.
It is tempting, but it is probably premature.