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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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"The Governor's Hall" contains one of the most detailed and fully realized settings in The Scarlet Letter. To write it, Hawthorne had to do his homework, in-depth historical research.

There really was a Governor Bellingham in mid-17th-century Boston. Hawthorne found an accurate description of his home in one of the most creditable books on the period, Snow's History of Boston.

What Snow gave Hawthorne was an altogether prosaic description of a wooden house covered with plaster. The plaster was dotted with bits of broken glass from common junk bottles. There were also drawings on it of squares, diamonds, and fleur-de-lis.

If you turn to Hawthorne's description in paragraph nine, you may get some clues as to how his creative imagination works. (The paragraph begins, "Without further adventure, they reached the dwelling of Governor Bellingham.")

Hawthorne has taken the house he found in Snow, and he's romanced it. The broken junk bottles have become fistfuls of diamonds. The humdrum tracings in the plaster are now cabalistic (secret and mystic) messages. Instead of a local relic, we have a palace from Arabian Nights.

The hint of oriental magnificence is admittedly playful. More serious, is the double historical perspective from which Hawthorne observes the house. He stands with one foot in the 17th, one foot in the 19th, century.

He describes the house first, as if it were right there before him, a 200-year-old mansion. And then he imaginatively strips it of the accretions of time-the moss, the dust, the emotional residue of lives-to show us the house as it was in 1640, sparkling, clean, and new.

Inside the mansion, the Chronicles of England lies open on the window seat, as if someone has been called away in the middle of a page. A large pewter tankard has a foamy bit of ale in it, as if someone has just taken a draught and put it down. A suit of armor, fresh from the London armorer, stands polished and ready for use, not for show.

The whole effect is like walking into the preserved home of a famous historical figure and watching what we thought was a museum spring magically to life.

NOTE: The armor in Bellingham's hall has a second purpose. It is a distorted mirror that magnifies the scarlet letter on Hester's dress and diminishes the woman who wears it. Here, in the Governor's mansion, at the heart of the Puritan establishment, Hester Prynne, the individual, vanishes behind the symbol of her shame.

Hester has come to Bellingham's home, disturbed by rumors of a movement afoot to take Pearl away from her. The leaders of the community, the Governor chief among them, have decided that the child's welfare would be better served if she were placed in worthier hands.

Hester arrives determined to fight for her rights as a mother. But the outfit in which she has clothed Pearl is a doubtful argument in her favor.

Pearl wears a crimson velvet tunic, embroidered with gold. It is, to put it mildly, an outlandish costume in a society where black and gray are the going colors. Bellingham will find in the child's outfit all the more reason to place Pearl in a home where she will be "soberly clad."

Why has Hester dressed her daughter so peculiarly? Just in case we miss the point, Hawthorne makes it explicit. Pearl is the scarlet letter "come to life." Hester has lavished all her skill as a seamstress on a dress that points out the likeness between the two emblems of her sin.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes

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