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In what condition is Boston's old wooden jail and the plot of land outside the jail in...

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Knaak96 | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 13, 2013 at 10:05 PM via web

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In what condition is Boston's old wooden jail and the plot of land outside the jail in Chapter I of The Scarlet Letter?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 14, 2013 at 6:09 AM (Answer #1)

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It is a curious fact that a religious sect that has sought religious freedom by crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Massachusetts would first build a prison. Indeed, the irony of this construction cannot be missed as a crowd of men stand before it in "sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats."  It is a simple building with a door "heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes."  Weather-beaten, the door is stained, and the iron-work is deeply rusted, making the door seem "more antique than anything else in the New World." In front and beside this "ugly edifice" is a plot of grass that is overgrown with weeds and some unsightly vegetation. On one side of the great door, there grows a wild rosebush, covered with delicate blooms whose redolence greets the incoming prisoner and bids farewell as the condemned criminal who goes forth "to his doom."

That Chapter I opens with the depiction of the prison with its weather-worn door indicates the predominance of punitive measures against the community for wrongdoing. Much like the "sad-colored garments" and grey hats of the Puritans, their lives are filled with gloom and fear of punishment. Therefore, this prison door is symbolic of moral and spiritual evil, or sin, while the nearby cemetery, of course, symbolizes the natural evil, death. 

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