In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, why is it important to have a cemetery and a prison, even when building a "Utopia of human virtue and happiness?"

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This description comes from chapter one of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The chapter is titled "The Prison-Door" and, though it is a very short chapter, sets the tone, attitude, and expectation for the rest of the novel. 

The narrator says that every group of people who have founded a new city,

whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project,

have always found the need, early on, to set aside a plot of land as a cemetery and build a prison on another plot of land. In that regard, the founders of Boston were no exception, and they built a prison and a cemetery.

The reason for this, of course, is that some aspects of humans and human nature never change. Everyone dies--thus the cemetery--and everyone sins (and in Puritan terms sinning is also breaking the law)--thus the prison.

The narrator goes on to describe the prison in Boston (the setting for this story) which, after twenty years, is well used and weather-beaten. 

The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era.

Again, Hawthorne is commenting through the narrator that the one consistent element in society is sin/crime; it has existed from the beginning and it still exists today. His point is that human nature, at least the negative aspects of it, are unchanging. 

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The Scarlet Letter

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