The Puritan women waiting outside the prison self-righteously and viciously discuss Hester Prynne and her sin. Hester, proud and beautiful, emerges from the prison. She wears an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter A — standing for "adultery" — on her breast, and she carries a three-month-old infant in her arms.
Hester is led through the unsympathetic crowd to the scaffold of the pillory. Standing alone on the scaffold as punishment for her adulterous behavior, she remembers her past life in England and on the European continent. Suddenly becoming aware of the stern faces looking up at her, Hester painfully realizes her present position of shame and punishment.
Although the reader actually meets only Hester and her infant daughter, Pearl, in this chapter, Hawthorne begins his characterization of all four of the novel's major characters. He describes Hester physically, and he tells about her background, illustrating her pride and shame. Then we see Pearl and hear her cry out when her mother fiercely clutches her at the end of the chapter. Although Pearl is one of the physical symbols of Hester's sin (the other is the scarlet A), she is much more than that. She is the product of an act of love — socially forbidden love as it may have been — but love still. This is why Pearl, as we later learn, is not amenable to social rules. She was conceived in an act that was intolerable in the Puritan code and society.
In addition to Hester and Pearl's appearance, we get our first glimpse of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, the novel's other two main characters. Although the irony of Dimmesdale's relationship to Hester is not yet apparent, his grief over his parishioner Hester is commented on by one of the women assembled near the prison who notes that Dimmesdale "takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation." And, although Roger Chillingworth is not yet named, we are given a rather full characterization of the man through Hester's recollections of him. He is the "misshapen scholar" who is Hester's legal husband.
Chapter 2 also contains a description of the Puritan society and reveals Hawthorne's critical attitude toward it. The smugly pious attitude of the women assembled in front of the prison who condemn Hester is frightening — especially when we hear them suggest that Hester should be scalded with a hot iron applied to her forehead to mark her as a "hussy," an immoral woman. Although this scene vividly dramatizes what Hawthorne found objectionable about early American Puritanism, he avoids over-generalizing here by including the comments of a good-hearted young wife to show that not all Puritan women were as bitter and pugnaciously pious as these "gossips." The young woman's soft remarks of sympathy for Hester's suffering contrast sharply with the comments of the majority of the women. It is important to note, however, that even this young mother has brought her child to witness the punishment, passing these morals and behaviors to the next generation.
When Hester appears with Pearl, she is in stark contrast to the gloom and the grim reality of the crowd. She has a natural grace and dignity and rejects the arm of the beadle, walking into the sunlight on her own. The most startling part of her appearance is the scarlet letter A on her dress. What is meant to be a badge of shame is elaborately decorated in threads of gold. It goes far beyond the standards of richness — sumptuary laws — decreed by the colony. Her extraordinary appearance defies the order of the governor and the ministers. The scarlet letter is "fantastically embroidered and illuminated" and takes "her out of the ordinary relations with humanity" and into a sphere all her own. The red of the letter, standing for adultery, reminds the reader of the rosebush and the letter that later appears in the sky. Its color, for now at least, is associated with her sin and will be strongly connected to Pearl throughout the novel.
Stylistically, the chapter employs a somewhat heavy historical narrative, occasionally interrupted by Hawthorne's comments. It also uses such symbols as the beadle, the scarlet letter A, and Pearl. In fact, many of the novel's themes become apparent by investigating the images and symbols represented in the characters, physical objects, and larger social issues. For example, the beadle, or town crier, who carries a sword and walks with a staff symbolic of religious — and therefore social — authority, is described as "grim and grisly." This description also characterizes , both the atmosphere in Chapter 2 and, more important, the society of which the beadle is a part. As the novel progresses, Pearl, the offspring of Hester's adulterous affair, becomes more strongly linked to the scarlet letter A that Hester wears on her clothing; likewise, both Pearl's and the A's symbolism are also more fully developed.
physiognomies facial features and expression, esp. as supposedly indicative of character
Antinomian a believer in the Christian doctrine that faith alone, not obedience to the moral law, is necessary for salvation; to the Puritans, the Antinomian doctrine is heretical.
heterodox religious person who disagrees with church beliefs; unorthodox.
petticoat and farthingale underskirts and hoops beneath them.
the man-like Elizabeth Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603), characterized as having masculine qualities.
gossip a person who chatters or repeats idle talk and rumors
beadle a minor parish officer who keeps order in church.
ignominy shame and dishonor; infamy.
rheumatic flannel material worn to keep warm, especially to ease the pain of rheumatism in the joints.
an hour past meridian 1:00 p.m.
pillory stocks where petty offenders were formerly locked and exposed to public scorn.
Papist a Roman Catholic; the Puritans thought them to be heretics.
spectral of, having the nature of, or like a specter; phantom; ghostly; supernatural.
phantasmagoric dreamlike; fantastic.
Elizabethan ruff an elaborate collar worn around the neck, consisting of tiny accordion pleats.