American Literature

The Scarlet Letter Mood



Bryan Sherwood's image for:
"The Scarlet Letter Mood"
Caption: 
Location: 
Image by: 
©  

In the novel The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne skillfully uses the first chapter to set the mood that continues throughout his story.

Like most openings, the beginning chapter of the story presents the reader with basic historical background. Here, Hawthorn briefly introduces the Puritan colony on which he establishes his tale. Seventeenth century Boston appears a gloomy, slightly morose place, with colonists dressed in "sad-colored garments and grey, steeple-crowned hats" (chpt.1, para.1). The people gather in a seemingly serious and melancholy way in front of a mysterious door (para.2). This new environment stands at an odd contrast with opulent and crowded England, which the colonists have just arrived from (chpt.21, para.15). Of course, due to the fact that the New England settlers only arrived "some fifteen or twenty years" ago, many may be struggling to adapt to the new colony (chpt.1, para.2). Though the colonists had journeyed across the Atlantic with high hopes and dreams of their own utopian society, this sordid introduction serves as a foreshadowing of the ironic issues presented later on in the novel.

Adding onto the already dour atmosphere, Hawthorne next conveys the image of a prison, "the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded in iron spikes", as well as a cemetery (chpt.1, para.2). The prison symbolizes the main theme the rest of the story revolves around sin. In the second paragraph of the chapter, Hawthorne describes the prison as the "black flower of civilized society". Curiously enough, in chapter ten of the book, old Rodger Chillingworth uses "black weeds" to represent sin. However, Chillingworth's black weeds had not been found in the prison, but rather in the cemetery (para.8). Despite the optimism the Puritans share, they immediately construct a prison and cemetery upon their arrival (chpt.1, para. 2). No matter how close to perfection their intended paradise reaches, they all realize that sin stains even the most holy of humans. After all, laws were made to be broken. With sin then, comes death, an invariable part of life as shown by the cemetery. In some respects, the cemetery denotes the fact that sin not only affects people mentally, but physically as well. This fact comes into play later on, evident in the physical appearance of the main characters of the book. Both the prison and the cemetery serve as powerful images to begin the story with.

Despite the rather glum surroundings, one small object stands out as the highlight of the scene. A single rosebush grows next to the prison door. It's flowers are in full bloom, it's "delicate gems" accentuating it's inconsistency with the atmosphere (para. 2). This small plant provides a striking message that reverberates throughout the plot; that is, the beauty of human will and it's inevitable strength to go on, no matter what type of environment presents itself. Though shunned by society, the novel's protagonist Hester Prynne wills herself to push through in difficult times. The splendor of her willpower manifests itself in the regal way she carries herself, despite her heavy burden (chpt.2, para.16). Like the rosebush, Hester does not seem to fit in perfectly. Even before receiving the scarlet letter, her elegance and raw beauty cause her to stand out (para.11). On a different note, the rosebush could also represent the hope flickering in each of the characters' hearts, whether it be hope for revenge or hope for spiritual sanctification. Whatever the intended implications of the shrub may be, it certainly adds a touch of cheer to the otherwise dismal scene.

Several of the images presented in the first chapter of the book symbolize different themes in Hawthorne's story.

 

More about this author: Bryan Sherwood

ARTICLE SOURCES AND CITATIONS