In this first chapter, Hawthorne sets the scene of the novel — Boston of the seventeenth century. It is June, and a throng of drably dressed Puritans stands before a weather-beaten wooden prison. In front of the prison stands an unsightly plot of weeds, and beside it grows a wild rosebush, which seems out of place in this scene dominated by dark colors.
In this chapter, Hawthorne sets the mood for the "tale of human frailty and sorrow" that is to follow. His first paragraph introduces the reader to what some might want to consider a (or the) major character of the work: the Puritan society. What happens to each of the major characters — Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth — results from the collective ethics, morals, psyche, and unwavering sternness and rigidity of the individual Puritans, whom Hawthorne introduces figuratively in this chapter and literally and individually in the next.
Dominating this chapter are the decay and ugliness of the physical setting, which symbolize the Puritan society and culture and foreshadow the gloom of the novel. The two landmarks mentioned, the prison and the cemetery, point not only to the "practical necessities" of the society, but also to the images of punishment and providence that dominate this culture and permeate the entire story.
The rosebush, its beauty a striking contrast to all that surrounds it — as later the beautifully embroidered scarlet A will be — is held out in part as an invitation to find "some sweet moral blossom" in the ensuing, tragic tale and in part as an image that "the deep heart of nature" (perhaps God) may look more kindly on the errant Hester and her child (the roses among the weeds) than do her Puritan neighbors. Throughout the work, the nature images contrast with the stark darkness of the Puritans and their systems.
Hawthorne makes special note that this colony earlier set aside land for both a cemetery and a prison, a sign that all societies, regardless of their good intentions, eventually succumb to the realities of man's nature (sinful/punishment/prison) and destiny (mortal/death/cemetery). In those societies in which the church and state are the same, when man breaks the law, he also sins. From Adam and Eve on, man's inability to obey the rules of the society has been his downfall.
The Puritan society is symbolized in the first chapter by the plot of weeds growing so profusely in front of the prison. Nevertheless, nature also includes things of beauty, represented by the wild rosebush. The rosebush is a strong image developed by Hawthorne which, to the sophisticated reader, may sum up the whole work. First it is wild; that is, it is of nature, God given, or springing from the "footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson." Second, according to the author, it is beautiful — offering "fragrant and fragile beauty to the prisoner" — in a field of "unsightly vegetation." Third, it is a "token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to" the prisoner entering the structure or the "condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom." Finally, it is a predominant image throughout the romance. Much the same sort of descriptive analyses that can be written about the rosebush could be ascribed to the scarlet letter itself or to little Pearl or, perhaps, even to the act of love that produced them both.
Finally, the author points toward many of the images that are significant to an understanding of the novel. In this instance, he names the chapter "The Prison Door." The reader needs to pay particular attention to the significance of the prison generally and the prison door specifically. The descriptive language in reference to the prison door — ". . . heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes" and the "rust on the ponderous iron-work . . . looked more antique than anything else in the New World" and, again, ". . . seemed never to have known a youthful era" — foreshadows and sets the tone for the tale that follows.
Cornhill part of Washington Street. Now part of City Hall Plaza.
Isaac Johnson a settler (1601-1630) who left land to Boston; he died shortly after the Puritans arrived. His land would be north of King's Chapel (1688), which can be visited today.
burdock any of several plants with large basal leaves and purple-flowered heads covered with hooked prickles.
pigweed any of several coarse weeds with dense, bristly clusters of small green flowers. Also called lamb's quarters.
apple-peru a plant that is part of the nightshade family; poisonous.
portal here, the prison door.
Anne Hutchinson a religious dissenter (1591-1643). In the 1630s she was excommunicated by the Puritans and exiled from Boston and moved to Rhode Island.