The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Chapter one introduces the reader to Hawthorne’s vision Boston in the 1600s, before the reader meets any of the main characters in the novel. The setting of the novel is June sometime in the 1600s, in Boston. A crowd of Puritans is standing outside of a prison, which is surrounded by weeds. They are dressed in drab colors and appear stern and rigid. This helps establish the role that the Puritan society will play in the novel; it is a tremendous force and, with its judgment, drives the plot of the story just as much as the actions of any individual.
Hawthorne also introduces the prison, though the prison is the physical setting for only a short time in the story. The prison is drab and ugly and, as it is introduced simultaneously with a group of Puritans, it is clear that the prison is meant to symbolize the confines of Puritan society. The prison is also a symbol of punishment, and since the main characters are punished by society throughout the novel, this introduction to the punitive aspects of the Puritan society is an important one. Though the reader does not know who is being punished or why, the reader is immediately put on notice that the novel will be intimately involved with the theme of punishment. Hawthorne also describes the cemetery. Given that the looming specter of death—one’s fate at death was a constant presence in Puritan society—the juxtaposition of the graveyard and the cemetery highlight the dual obsessions of the Puritan lifestyle. Earthly punishment was not simply for the sake of punishing and offering judgment to people, but was intended to be a means of helping people steer clear of those things that would be met with eternal judgment. Though Hawthorne demonstrates the fallacies behind such a thought process, he does want the reader to understand that, while Puritan society as a collective may have been malicious, the individual Puritans were not necessarily so.
The single incongruous element in the first chapter is Hawthorne’s description of a rose bush. After...Sign up to continue reading Chapter 1 to Chapter 6 >