Extract passages from chapter one and explain them, please.The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the exposition of Hawthorne's classic novel, the grey starkness of Puritan life and its sanctimonious cruelty and punishment of any who fail to comply with its stringent ideology is portrayed in the description of the prison, the oldest of all structures in the community:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others barheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes....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.

Incongruously, in front of this door is a rose bush, covered with delicate and fragant beauty:

But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, 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 stands as a symbol of the power of nature to thrive in all situations.  It also represents the passion of the occupant behind the door, a passion incarnate in the body of little Pearl.

In Chapter I Nathaniel Hawthorne sets the tone for the "tale of human frailty and sorrow" which follows.  The rust and decay and ugliness of the prison and its door foreshadow the gloom of the narrative to follow.  The landmarks of Puritanism, the prison and the cemetery, suggest the themes of punishment and death, themes that meet in the climax of the novel.  The rose, in its beauty, is Hawthorne's invitation to find "some sweet moral blossom" in the tragic tale that follows.

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The Scarlet Letter

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