In Chapter II of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, Hester Prynne stands as a figure of singular innocence and enchantment amidst the ugliness and vituperation of the community that has condemned her for the sin of sleeping with a man not her husband. Her punishment for this transgression – for which she has been harshly judged – in addition to the large, prominent “A” she was forced to wear on her breast, signifying her adulterous nature, was time in the local prison. Hawthorne, in the opening chapter (excluding his extensive prologue, “The Custom-House Introductory”) describes this place of enforced confinement in unsurprisingly bleak terms, with its “ugly edifice” and its decaying structure. It is here where Hawthorne first discusses the rose bush that adorns one side of the prison entrance:
“. . . 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.”
Lest anyone underestimate the significance of this rose bush, Hawthorne proceeds to invest it with a divine meaning, noting that the community has associated it with a one-time Puritan spiritual leader:
“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 . . . or whether, as there is far 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.”
Hawthorne clearly intended this rose to represent the moral purity that Hester similarly represents among the shrill, judgmental hypocrisy in which this beautiful young woman exists. If Hawthorne ascribes to the rose bush a spiritual meaning that invests it with inordinate importance, he also suggests that Hester is of one with the roses that blossomed on its stems. How else can one explain the references to scripture common among those who condemn Hester, such as in the following exclamation from one of the women gathered outside the prison door to protest the leniency shown this adulterer? It is surely no accident that the protester most vocal in calling for Hester’s execution on the grounds of biblical prophesy is “the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges.” That this decidedly unattractive woman should call for Hester’s death – “This woman has brought shame upon us and ought to die” – is part of Hawthorne’s theme regarding false piety. Hawthorne was a subscriber to Puritan principles, but recognized the distinctions between God’s Word and those of mere mortals. For added emphasis, Hawthorne contrasts the dour, virtually evil town official who releases Hester from her confinement with the disgraced woman:
“The door of the jail being flung open from within there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and gristly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final and closest application to the offender.”
“Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.”
As with the rose bush, Hester represents a higher level of spirituality, as does her daughter, Pearl, borne out of that illicit affair. Describing his protagonist’s emergence from the darkness of the prison cell, Hawthorne introduces not only Hester, but her child as well, imbuing in the baby a Christ-like aura:
“. . .stepped into the open air as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day;”
Next, in Chapter VIII, Hawthorne reintroduces the figure of Reverend John Wilson, a “great scholar” and “a man of kind and genial spirit,” who nevertheless, in response to his questions regarding the young girl’s knowledge of her origins, looks askance at Pearl’s suggestion that she “had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.”
Finally, at the end of Chapter XII, Hawthorne returns the theme of rose bushes and their relationship to his protagonists. Visiting the mansion of Governor Bellingham, Hawthorne noticeably adorns this fanciful estate with rose bushes, and connects these beautiful flowers to Pearl:
“There were a few rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple-trees, probably the descendants of those planted by the Reverend Mr. Blackstone, the first settler of the peninsula; that half mythological personage who rides through our early annals, seated on the back of a bull.
“Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and would not be pacified.”
The role played in The Scarlett Letter by the rose bushes clearly suggests that the author intended a direct connection between them and his protagonists, Hester and Pearl. The flowers represent virtue and stand out in the novel’s settings for their rarity – just as with Hester.