In The Scarlet Letter, why is the opening scene important, what does it set up, or how does it add to the rest of the novel?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The opening scene—even the opening paragraph of the story—helps to establish the mood and make clear Hawthorne's feelings regarding the Puritans and their brand of "justice." The narrator says,

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, [. . .] was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

To describe their clothing as sad-colored gives us a clue as to the general nature of these individuals; there is little liveliness about them—so little, in fact, that even their clothing seems sad. Furthermore, their hats are compared to the steeples of churches, signaling how incredibly important religion—a very specific set of religious beliefs—informs everything they do.

Women are hardly mentioned, as women were not generally considered to be very important (at least not in society), and a great deal of focus is placed on the door to the prison. It is made of oak, a wood known for its strength, and studded with iron spikes, making it sound like some kind of torture device. In fact, it basically was. Puritan prison was a nasty and merciless place, and so the thought of a woman jailed there while pregnant and even giving birth there is a horrible one.

This opening scene establishes the dark and solemn mood of the story and it foreshadows, by its reference to and description of the door, the way in which Puritan "justice" will affect the story's main characters. The Puritans, in many of their actions, favored justice over mercy, and this led to many acts that seem unjust, especially to our eyes.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The opening scene in the Salem customs-house presents a withering critique of Puritanism, the dominant ideology in The Scarlet Letter. Although the events surrounding the scarlet letter have long since retreated into the past, the town of Salem itself hasn't really moved on. It's still shrouded by the same hanging fog of gloom and paralysis that existed in Hester Prynne's day.

In describing the old customs-house and its immediate environment, Hawthorne deliberately uses words that also paint a vivid picture of a town still resolutely stuck in the past. The wooden warehouses are "decayed," with few signs of commercial life. The wharf is "dilapidated," its row of buildings surrounded by a border of overgrown grass. Yet the tide regularly overflows the wharf, a symbol perhaps of how time moves on even if the good folk of Salem do not.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The opening scene paints a dark picture of Puritanism as the prison door is placed in a dominant position of the setting, acting as a symbolic reminder of the retributive power of Puritanism and the little joy it gives to any one.

The grey atmosphere of the "ponderous iron-work on the oaken door [that] looked more antique than anything else in the New World" sets a grim tone for the narrative. In addition, this opening chapter prepares the way for the entrance of the main characters. Within the walls of the prison waits Hester Prynne, who will soon be shamed upon the scaffold. But, on one side of the old iron trimmed door, there sits a wild rose-bush, symbolic of Hester's spirit which cannot be so repressed that it dies.

This rose bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history...or whether...it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchison, as she entered the prison-door--we shall not take upon us to determine.

Further, Hawthorne writes that he hopes this rose bush may symbolize a moral "blossom" that may be found to relieve the dismal tale of "human frailty and sorrow" that follows. Unlike the Puritans of his uncle's time, Hawthorne does not hold with an unforgiving culture such as that of his ancestors. Instead, he finds beauty within one darkened by sin, a beauty exemplified by Hester Prynne.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team