Perhaps the greatest contrast established by the first chapters of The Scarlet Letter are the ironies of situation
- First is the irony that in the "Utopia of human virtue and happiness" that the Puritans sought by leaving England found it "their earliest practical necessity" to build a prison.
- Then, there is the irony that the Puritan community, who have sought religious freedom in America, are characterized by "grim rigidity" and intolerance themselves. In Chapter II, Hawthorne writes,
...a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as sterna dignity as the punishment of death itself.
- Another irony appears in Hawthorne's comparison of Hester to Mary. With verbal irony, Hawthorne writes
Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans [they were mortal enemies], he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity....Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life.
- Further, the hypocrisy of the Puritan women, who enviously talk of Hester before she is brought to the scaffold is certainly in contrast to the behavior of true Christianity. For instance, one woman knows nothing of the quality of mercy,
"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not a law for it?"
Of course, the greatest contrast is that of the effects of overt sin and that of secret sin.
- While Hester suffers the loss of her beauty and is marginalized in the Puritan society, she remains healthy and eventually attains respectability. On the other hand, the well-respected Reverend Dimmesdale, whose sin is hidden from the community, becomes physically and mentally ill from his guilt and hypocrisy; finally, the false life that he leads destroys Dimmesdale because "[No] man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." In a desperate attempt to redeem his soul, the minister confesses his sin, but his heart is too weakened, and he dies.
The opening chapter of the novel presents several examples that are ultimately symbolic of the book's major themes.
...it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house, somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground... (chapter 1)
In the small colony, the first two things the founders planned out and executed construction upon were a prison and a burial plot, as if to highlight that there are two things that are certain in life: punishment and death. The irony of this distinct contrast heightens a very Puritanical mode of thinking.
After this comes very descriptive imagery detailing the look of the prison itself, and specifically, its large wooden door. The description heightens the gloom, the age, and the severity of this structure.
Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era.
But then there's this:
But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush...
Contrasted with the dark, rusty, wooden, brown, ugly, rough, and arguable fearsome prison, is the presence of a delicate rosebush, in bloom. Alive and beautiful.
Hawthorne, in putting these two objects side by side, makes several points. First, this rosebush is the final glimpse at something of beauty before a prisoner is locked into darkness and ugliness for a period of time. If prison symbolizes a death of sorts, the rosebush is the reminder of life. Second, Hester Prynne herself (and her child) are the embodiment of the same beauty, the same youth, and the same red color of the rosebush. This time, the prison represents the society Hester lives in, which could be classified as a society of death. But even as a symbol of sin and shame, Hester is also a reminder of life and beauty.
I can offer some basic contrasts. Hawthorne presents contrasts of order and transgression, civilization and wilderness, the town and the surrounding forest, and adulthood and childhood. The theme of waywardness is at the heart of this series of oppositions. The more strict Puritan society strives to keep out wayward passion--as represented by Hester--the more it reinforces the split between apperance and reality. The members of the Puritan community who
are ostensibly the most respectable are often the most depraved, the apparent sinners are often the most virtuous.
Another contrast is the symmetry between social oppression and
psychological repression. Dimmesdale's sense of torment at his guilty secret, and the physical and mental manifestations of his malaise, reflects the pathology of a society that needs to scapegoat and alienate its so-called sinners. In plainer language, the Puritans ostracize Hester from the community because on a deeper level she represents the wayward passion they secretly recognize in themselves.
Eventually, individual virtue and personal integrity are able to break free from social control, but not without a terrible personal price for all persons involved.