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CHAPTER 1: THE PRISON-DOOR
Hawthorne opens The Scarlet Letter just outside the prison of what, in the early 1640s, was the village of Boston.
Ask yourself what you know about a novel that begins in a prison. You probably suspect you are reading the story of a crime already committed, of characters whose lives are already darkened by guilt and disgrace. And, in the case of The Scarlet Letter, you are quite right.
Look carefully at the details of the opening scene: "The sad- colored garments" of the spectators; the prison-door itself, "heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes." These details create a somber mood; they paint a cheerless picture. And they hint, as well, at a society that places punishment far above forgiveness on its scale of values.
One note of color relieves the gloom. A wild rose bush blossoms by the prison door. A natural thing, the rose bush suggests a world beyond the narrow confines of the Puritan community, where beauty and vibrant color flourish and crime finds tolerance and pity.
You will not know it yet. But even this early, Hawthorne has marked the thematic boundaries of his novel: law and nature, repression and freedom. In the following chapters, his characters will move back and forth between them.