The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain
summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by
a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with
their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door.
Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the
history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the
bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured
some awful business in hand.  It could have betokened nothing
short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on
whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the
verdict of public sentiment.  But, in that early severity of the
Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so
indubitably be drawn.  It might be that a sluggish bond-servant,
or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the
civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post.  It
might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox
religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or
vagrant Indian, whom the white man's firewater had made riotous
about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow
of the forest.  It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress
Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die
upon the gallows.  In either case, there was very much the same
solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators, as
befitted a people among whom religion and law were almost
identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly
interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public
discipline were alike made venerable and awful.  Meagre, indeed,
and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for,
from such bystanders, at the scaffold.  On the other hand, a
penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking
infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern
a dignity as the punishment of death itself.
It was a circumstance to be noted on the summer morning when our
story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were
several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in
whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue.  The age
had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety
restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from
stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not
unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest
to the scaffold at an execution.  Morally, as well as materially,
there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old
English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants,
separated from them by a series of six or seven generations;
for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother
had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate
and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not
character of less force and solidity than her own.  The women who
were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than
half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had
been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex.
They were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native
land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely
into their composition.  The bright morning sun, therefore, shone
on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and
ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had
hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New
England.  There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech
among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would
startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport
or its volume of tone.
"Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a
piece of my mind.  It would be greatly for the public behoof if
we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute,
should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester
Prynne.  What think ye, gossips?  If the hussy stood up for
judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together,
would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful
magistrates have awarded?  Marry, I trow not."
"People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master
Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart
that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation."
"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful
overmuch--that is a truth," added a third autumnal matron.  "At
the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on
Hester Prynne's forehead.  Madame Hester would have winced at
that, I warrant me.  But she--the naughty baggage--little will
she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown!  Why, look
you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish
adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!"
"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a
child by the hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang
of it will be always in her heart."
"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of
her gown or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female,
the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these
self-constituted judges.  "This woman has brought shame upon us
all, and ought to die; is there not law for it?  Truly there is,
both in the Scripture and the statute-book.  Then let the
magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if
their own wives and daughters go astray."
"Mercy on us, goodwife!" exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there
no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of
the gallows?  That is the hardest word yet!  Hush now, gossips for
the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress
Prynne herself."
The door of the jail being flung open from within there
appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into
sunshine, the grim and gristly presence of the town-beadle, with
a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand.  This
personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole
dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his
business to administer in its final and closest application to
the offender.  Stretching forth the official staff in his left
hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom
he thus drew forward, until, on the threshold of the
prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural
dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air as
if by her own free will.  She bore in her arms a child, a baby of
some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little
face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence,
heretofore, had brought it acquaintance only with the grey
twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the
When the young woman--the mother of this child--stood fully
revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to
clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse
of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a
certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress.  In
a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame
would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her
arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a
glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her
townspeople and neighbours.  On the breast of her gown, in fine
red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic
flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so
artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous
luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and
fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was
of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but
greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of
the colony.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a
large scale.  She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it
threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides
being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of
complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow
and deep black eyes.  She was ladylike, too, after the manner of
the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain
state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and
indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication.
And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the
antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the
prison.  Those who had before known her, and had expected to
behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were
astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone
out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she
was enveloped.  It may be true that, to a sensitive observer,
there was some thing exquisitely painful in it.  Her attire,
which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and
had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the
attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood,
by its wild and picturesque peculiarity.  But the point which
drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer--so that
both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with
Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the
first time--was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically
embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom.  It had the effect of
a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity,
and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.
"She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain," remarked
one of her female spectators; "but did ever a woman, before this
brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it?  Why, gossips,
what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates,
and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a
"It were well," muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames,
"if we stripped Madame Hester's rich gown off her dainty
shoulders; and as for the red letter which she hath stitched so
curiously, I'll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel to
make a fitter one!"
"Oh, peace, neighbours--peace!" whispered their youngest
companion; "do not let her hear you!  Not a stitch in that
embroidered letter but she has felt it in her heart."
The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff.  "Make way,
good people--make way, in the King's name!" cried he.  "Open a
passage; and I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where
man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel
from this time till an hour past meridian.  A blessing on the
righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged
out into the sunshine!  Come along, Madame Hester, and show your
scarlet letter in the market-place!"
A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators.
Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession
of stern-browed men and unkindly visaged women, Hester Prynne
set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment.  A
crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of
the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran
before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare
into her face and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the
ignominious letter on her breast.  It was no great distance, in
those days, from the prison door to the market-place.  Measured
by the prisoner's experience, however, it might be reckoned a
journey of some length; for haughty as her demeanour was, she
perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that
thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the
street for them all to spurn and trample upon.  In our nature,
however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful,
that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he
endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that
rankles after it.  With almost a serene deportment, therefore,
Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and
came to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the
market-place.  It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston's
earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there.
In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine,
which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely
historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old
time, to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good
citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of
France.  It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above
it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so
fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and
thus hold it up to the public gaze.  The very ideal of ignominy
was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and
iron.  There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common
nature--whatever be the delinquencies of the individual--no
outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his
face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.
In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not unfrequently in
other cases, her sentence bore that she should stand a certain
time upon the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about
the neck and confinement of the head, the proneness to which was
the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine.  Knowing
well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was
thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height
of a man's shoulders above the street.
Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might
have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire
and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind
him of the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious
painters have vied with one another to represent; something
which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that
sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem
the world.  Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most
sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the
world was only the darker for this woman's beauty, and the more
lost for the infant that she had borne.
The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always
invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature,
before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead
of shuddering at it.  The witnesses of Hester Prynne's disgrace
had not yet passed beyond their simplicity.  They were stern
enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence,
without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the
heartlessness of another social state, which would find only a
theme for jest in an exhibition like the present.  Even had there
been a disposition to turn the matter into ridicule, it must
have been repressed and overpowered by the solemn presence of
men no less dignified than the governor, and several of his
counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town,
all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house,
looking down upon the platform.  When such personages could
constitute a part of the spectacle, without risking the majesty,
or reverence of rank and office, it was safely to be inferred
that the infliction of a legal sentence would have an earnest
and effectual meaning.  Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and
grave.  The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman
might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes,
all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom.  It was
almost intolerable to be borne.  Of an impulsive and passionate
nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and
venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every
variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible
in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather
to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful
merriment, and herself the object.  Had a roar of laughter burst
from the multitude--each man, each woman, each little
shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts--Hester
Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful
smile.  But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to
endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out
with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the
scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.
Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was
the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or,
at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of
imperfectly shaped and spectral images.  Her mind, and especially
her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up
other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on
the edge of the western wilderness: other faces than were
lowering upon her from beneath the brims of those
steeple-crowned hats.  Reminiscences, the most trifling and
immaterial, passages of infancy and school-days, sports,
childish quarrels, and the little domestic traits of her maiden
years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with
recollections of whatever was gravest in her subsequent life;
one picture precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of
similar importance, or all alike a play.  Possibly, it was an
instinctive device of her spirit to relieve itself by the
exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight
and hardness of the reality.
Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a point of
view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which
she had been treading, since her happy infancy.  Standing on that
miserable eminence, she saw again her native village, in Old
England, and her paternal home: a decayed house of grey stone,
with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half obliterated
shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility.
She saw her father's face, with its bold brow, and reverend
white beard that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff;
her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love
which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since
her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle
remonstrance in her daughter's pathway.  She saw her own face,
glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior
of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it.
There she beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in
years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and
bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many
ponderous books.  Yet those same bleared optics had a strange,
penetrating power, when it was their owner's purpose to read the
human soul.  This figure of the study and the cloister, as Hester
Prynne's womanly fancy failed not to recall, was slightly
deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right.
Next rose before her in memory's picture-gallery, the intricate
and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, grey houses, the huge
cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date and quaint
in architecture, of a continental city; where new life had
awaited her, still in connexion with the misshapen scholar: a
new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft
of green moss on a crumbling wall.  Lastly, in lieu of these
shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan,
settlement, with all the townspeople assembled, and levelling
their stern regards at Hester Prynne--yes, at herself--who stood
on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the
letter A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold
thread, upon her bosom.
Could it be true?   She clutched the child so fiercely to her
breast that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at
the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to
assure herself that the infant and the shame were real.  Yes
these were her realities--all else had vanished!