Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it—or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door—we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.
In this passage in the opening chapter of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we are greeted with intense imagery and the lay out of a dark setting through heavy diction. The description of the prison grounds, of their dark past and gloomy existence, brings a tone to the book which sets readers up to view this 17th century world in a negative light. Once we are presented with the imagery of the rose bush, we are given a piece of hope to hold on to through the horrors of the systems put into place; explicitly said. But it can also be seen to represent the main character, Hester Prynne, once she is introduced. We are first described the setting of this novel with very intense diction: “weather-stains and other indications of age”…. “beetle-browed and gloomy front”….
“rust”…. “ugly edifice,” the list could go on. One can already see that this is done to bring
down the view of the rest of the town compared to this one singular rose bush, which is very rare and said to have withheld its glory throughout history. From what has already been stated to this point in the novel, one could already foreshadow the unjust judicial/prison system because of the tone surrounding the subject. With this, Hawthorne implies that the main trait the people of this puritan township will bring is ridicule and intense judgment. This is all done to bring the reader down in hope, only to be shed an ounce of light through the persistently gleaming rose bush. The rose is
portrayed as the only shining light in this setting, “a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in.” This phrase alone is a complete switch in tone from the rest of the passage, foreshadowing that this rose will align and represent a character that we are about to be introduced to (Hester Prynne). With this, we are introduced to parallels that can be drawn between the contrast in the setting of the prison grounds and the rose bush, with the townspeople and our protagonist, Hester. The heavy imagery of not only the dark themes, but the strength of the rose, were done intentionally by Hawthorne to create the proper understanding of the world we are about to be thrown into.
Her final employment was to gather sea-weed of various kinds, and make herself a scarf, or mantle, and a head-dress, and thus assume the aspect of a little mermaid. She inherited her mother’s gift for devising drapery and costume. As the last touch to her mermaid’s garb, Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter—the letter A—but freshly green, instead of scarlet! The child bent her chin upon her breast, and contemplated this device with strange interest; even as if the one only thing for which she had been sent into the world was to make out its hidden import. “I wonder if mother will ask me what it means!” thought Pearl. Just then, she heard her mother’s voice, and, flitting along as lightly as one of the little sea-birds, appeared before Hester Prynne dancing, laughing, and pointing her finger to the ornament upon her bosom. “My little Pearl,” said Hester, after a moment’s silence, “the green letter, and on thy childish bosom, has no purport. But dost thou know, my child, what this letter means which thy mother is doomed to wear?” “Yes, mother,” said the child. “It is the great letter A. Thou hast taught it me in the horn-book.”2 Hester looked steadily into her little face; but though there was that singular expression which she had so often remarked in her black eyes, she could not satisfy herself whether Pearl really attached any meaning to the symbol. She felt a morbid desire to ascertain the point. “Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?” “Truly do I!” answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother’s face. “It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!”
As the middle of the novel is upon the reader, and the knowledge of the relationship between Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale is heightened, the reader is drawn to focus on Hester’s child, Pearl. As we are introduced to Pearl throughout the novel, we learn of Hester’s decentered feeling towards her. She often calls her the “demon child” yet loves her very much as a mother should a daughter.
Although Hester is often turned upside down by Pearl, the young girl looks up to her mother heavily, and could never imagine a wrong doing on her part. As she constantly ponders the meaning behind the Scarlet letter “A”, the true meaning is not yet revealed to Pearl. Because Pearl has not, before this moment, brought up the parallels between her mother’s scarlet letter and the
minister’s constant coverage of his heart, this passage is a turning point in which the questions of Pearl aid the reader in the discovery of the connection between the physical tokens of the sinful acts between Hester and the Minister. Pearl’s actions in this passage can be seen to represent the innocence of childhood, and the undeservingness of a child to be scorned upon based on their parent’s actions. As she goes “flitting along as lightly as one of the little sea-birds, appeared before Hester Prynne dancing, laughing, and pointing her finger to the ornament upon her bosom,” she is an example of the lightness that should represent a child, and the naivety of the things that one encounters.
The innocence that is brought fourth with the recreation of the scarlet letter is in juxtaposition with the reality of its representation. Pearl recreates the letter such as any child would to any other attribute of their parent, which are never usually done with hasty intentions. As Pearl shows her recreation to her mother, she is asked several times if she knows the significance of the real scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom, in which she replies each time that she does.
This is implying that Hester can’t hold back the truth from her child and that she feels that she is old enough to bear the honest answers. Although Pearl can correctly come to the conclusion that there is something between her mother and the Minister, her innocence is still seen in her misunderstanding of what that “something” really is.
Left alone, the minister summoned a servant of the house, and requested food, which, being set before him, he ate with ravenous appetite. Then, flinging the already written pages of the Election Sermon into the fire, he forthwith began another, which he wrote with such an impulsive flow of thought and emotion, that he fancied himself inspired; and only wondered that Heaven should see fit to transmit the grand and solemn music of its oracles through so foul an organ-pipe as he. However, leaving that mystery to solve itself, or go unsolved forever, he drove his task onward, with earnest haste and ecstasy. Thus the night fled away, as if it were a winged steed, and he careering on it; morning came, and peeped blushing through the curtains; and at last sunrise threw a golden beam into the study, and laid it right across the minister’s bedazzled eyes. There he was, with the pen still between his fingers, and a vast, immeasurable tract of written space behind him!
The final paragraph of the chapter titled: ‘The Minister In A Maze’, is a passage which holds the switch that went off in Mr. Dimmesdale’s mind before he presents his Election Sermon to the townspeople. As he throws his previously written sermon in the fire we are only left with the idea that he is rewriting a sermon on his admittance of his guilt in the case with Hester Prynne.
This conclusion can be drawn due to the intense emotion that is being expressed in the paragraph which ties in with his expression in only one other section of the book, the chapter in which Minister and Hester meet in the woods to discuss their further decisions. The decision to admit his sins to the entire town can be seen as an impulse, or as a premeditated plan to finally step out of this position of power, and live like a normal person. His connection with God and the heavens as a strict puritan could be in play during this decision as well.
Because the Minister is in such a position of strict morality, his decision making will reign guilt upon him if he does wrong, especially if his accomplice is cursed with a scarlet letter and he is left spotless. He implies that this is a last resort with the Lord as he says, “…and only wondered that Heaven should see fit to transmit the grand and solemn music of its oracles through so foul an organ-pipe as he.”
This sentence is revealing the way that the Minister feels about himself in the eyes of his religion. He is definitely guilt-ridden after all the time that Hester has had to spend under scrutiny while he is still seen as a good person. With the conclusion of this chapter being the beginning of the Ministers reveal of the truth, we start to learn who he really is.