Chapter 2 - The Market Place

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 ironclamped 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 rioted 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 bondservant, 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 churchmembers 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 statutebook. 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 prison.
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 punishment?’
‘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
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 steeplecrowned 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 povertystricken 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