In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, what is significant about the rosebush outside the prison door?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapter one of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne offers a brief description of the prison in which Hester Prynne has been incarcerated. He does not mention Prynne yet; in fact, he does not allude to the subsequent narrative at all. His purpose in this brief chapter (about a page long) is to set the tone of the story for the reader.

After noting that the prison was one of the first necessities that Boston’s forefathers’ had built, he describes the door of the prison. This door, on which “the rust of the ponderous ironwork looked more antique than anything else in the new world” represents the idea that punishment is a never-ending aspect of life in a civil society. This reflects on the inability of man to behave appropriately—prisons will always be necessary, even in a proposed religious “utopia” like Puritan Boston.

Then Hawthorne mentions the rose bush.

But on one side of the portal . . . was a wild rosebush.

To Hawthorne, this rosebush is more than just an object of natural beauty to relieve the dreariness of the prison, it is also a potential comfort to the prisoner.

Its delicate gems [roses] . . . 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.

Note that Hawthorne has suggested that, while man cannot create a functioning society without the need to imprison others, nature has a more forgiving attitude to those who transgress man’s law.

Finally, Hawthorne alludes to his main character, Hester Prynne, without naming her. Look at how the following quote associates the main character with the beauty and goodness of the rose.

It [the rosebush] 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.

It is unusual that Hawthorne actually uses the word “symbolize” in his narrative. He is simply coming right out and telling the reader that the rosebush is a symbol. Writers usually aren’t as obvious as that about their symbols.

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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