In Chapter 2, before he introduces Hester Prynne and her plight, Hawthorne describes the women of this Puritan settlement, emphasizing their rigidity and hard-heartedness, to emphasize Hester's difference from them.
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 has transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and
briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not a 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
"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 no 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."