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MonkeyNotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES

CHAPTER 1: The Prison Door

Summary

The first chapter gives a description of the dark and gloomy nature of the prison that was established in the "vicinity of Cornhill" by the early settlers. The prison is described as an "ugly edifice" and "black flower of civilized society". Weeds grow in front of the gloomy structure, where a group of Puritans, dressed normally in their dull clothing, has gathered. The only positive image in the whole setting is a single rosebush that stands beside the weeds. It foreshadows that there will be some brightness amidst this "tale of human frailty and sorrow."


Notes

The purpose of this opening chapter is to set the scene for the novel in seventeenth century Boston. A crowd of Puritans has gathered at the prison and as always, they wear "sad-colored" clothing. The description of the dark and gloomy prison sets the mood for the entire story and foreshadows the situations of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. She is outwardly "imprisoned" for her sin through her alienation and isolation; he is inwardly "imprisoned" by his mental anguish and deterioration. Hawthorne obviously chooses to begin his novel with a prison, an appropriate symbol for the punishment that the protagonists will suffer.

In the midst of the dark description of the prison, there is a single rose bush. It is said to spring from the footsteps of Anne Hutchinson, an actual Puritan woman who questioned the strictness of her religion and was later judged by some as a martyr for it. The rose, in its brightness and beauty, is an obvious symbol for Hester Prynne, who has similarities to Anne Hutchinson. In spite of the darkness of her situation in the novel, Hester lives in truth, pride, goodness, and honor, openly confessing her sin. She becomes like a "martyr", suffering in silence and refusing to reveal the identity of her partner.

The closing lines of the chapter briefly state that the narrative is a story of human weakness (the passion between Hester and Dimmesdale) and the resulting sorrows for their actions.

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