Last Updated on January 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
Seemingly the entire city of Boston has gathered outside the prison. These Puritan men and women have come to judge Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the novel, who’s on trial for adultery. Hester’s crime was only discovered after the fact, when she bore a child despite the absence of her husband, whom everyone suspects to have been killed by Native Americans. Most of the audience appears to have already decided what they think about her. Some wish she had been branded with a hot poker. Others think the scarlet letter A sewn into her clothes is enough.
Hester steps out onto the scaffold carrying her three-month-old daughter, Pearl. Hester is described as a tall, beautiful woman with flowing hair and enormous vitality. She’s also a talented seamstress, and the clothes she wears appear rich, even though she herself wouldn’t be classed as such. In terms of appearance, Hester reminds the narrator of the Virgin Mary. These Puritans, however, gaze upon her with an utter lack of sympathy. While standing before these people, Hester thinks of her past in England and of her life up to this moment. She can hardly believe what’s happening.
Hawthorne uses alliteration in the line, “Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes . . .”
Antinomian. Antinomianism promotes the doctrine of sola fide, or “faith alone.” This stems from the belief that the faithful are saved simply by their belief in God rather than their adherence to the Law of Moses (the laws governing the actions of Christians, as set forth in the Bible). Antinomianism was looked down upon by many prominent theologians—above all, Catholics—and was considered heretical by the Council of Trent, a sixteenth-century ecumenical council that issued a number of degrees concerning heresies.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I reigned as Queen of England from 1558–1603, in which time England flourished both financially and artistically. Her reign has come to be known as the Elizabethan Era, during which William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe led a movement in English drama. Hawthorne’s narrator describes Elizabeth as “man-like” in large part because she was a powerful woman who refused to back down, particularly when under attack.
Hawthorne uses internal rhyme in the sentence, “Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders, at the scaffold.” Linking “cold” and “scaffold” here effectively renders the scaffold a heartless, unfeeling place.
When Hester stands on the scaffold, the crowd sometimes looks to her “like a mass of imperfectly shaped and spectral images.” This use of the word “imperfectly” emphasizes that the citizens in this crowd aren’t necessarily in the right and that their souls may be no cleaner than Hester’s.
The Scaffold. In the context of this novel, the scaffold is by and large a symbol of shame and public humiliation. When Hester stands on it, she’s at the mercy of those above her (the magistrates and ministers), as well as those below (the public). Much later in the novel, Dimmesdale himself will stand upon the scaffold, bringing shame upon himself.
The Scarlet Letter. This scarlet letter symbolizes many things. First and foremost, it symbolizes Hester’s adultery—the letter A standing in for the crime itself. It’s also a symbol of the puritanical laws that govern society in seventeenth-century Boston. This scarlet letter has religious, legal, and moral connotations.
Religion. It should be clear by now that The Scarlet Letter is a deeply religious novel and that its plot hinges largely on puritanical beliefs that dictate how a person thinks, behaves, and even loves. Note, also, that different characters have a different relationship with their faith and that the narrator’s beliefs do not align with those of the most puritanical citizens of Boston.
The Supernatural. Even though the novel revolves heavily around religious iconography, the supernatural will play a significant role in the narrative, especially with regards to Pearl and her mother. In this chapter, the supernatural is hinted at through the use of the words “preternaturally” and “phantasmagoric.” This links the supernatural with the theme of optics, which is developed here in terms of perception and vision.