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The primary setting in The Scarlet Letter is the town of Boston, Massachusetts, during the Puritan colonial era. Several things contribute to establish the overall mood of this primary setting. First is the description of the prison-house in Chapter 1. It is described as antique, which can be synonymous with "out-dated," and devoid of any appearance of having had a "youthful era." The prison-house is weather-stained with a "gloomy," "beetle-browed" aspect and "rusty...iron-work of its oaken door." These early descriptions, as well the following ones, contribute to the overall mood.
Second, In Chapter 2, Hawthorne describes the gathering of townspeople, which further establishes the overall mood. Hawthorne describes the men as having "bearded physiognomies" and acting as though some "awful business" were at hand, like an anticipated "execution." They are described as rigid, and, though later on Hawthorne mentions loud words spoken between the men and women spectators, the first description of rigid continues to hold sway. The overall mood thus established for this setting is one of gloomy, decayed rigidity and judgementalism.
Is it not ironic that a religious sect that sought freedom to practice their beliefs in England came to America where they built a settlement and placed as one of the first buidings a prison? Hawthorne conveys this irony in his description of the second paragraph of Chapter I:
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison....The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World.
That this prison has been built as the first construction indicates the hypocrisy and the restrictiveness of Puritanism, a motif that is prevalent throughout Hawthorne's novel. With this restrictive and iron prison, the setting conveys the harsh control exerted upon the Puritan colony. But, before this "ugly edifice" is a small plot of ground where grass grows and a single rose-bush. Hawthorne writes of this rose-bush,
It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moreal blossom...to relieve the darkening close of a tale of human fraility and sorrow.
This grass-plot is occupied by grey figures in "grim rigidity that petrified the bearded phsiognomies" of the people....there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical and in whose character both were interfused.
Clearly it is a dismal, prison-like setting into which the reader is introduced to Hawthorne's "tale of human fraility." The people are clad in grey like the prison door, suggesting the cold rigidity of their lives, a passionless existence. Only one red rose, a symbol of passion, blooms in the prison yard.
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