Notes to Ch 2, The Market-Place
The Scarlet Letter

member of the Religious Society of Friends, founded by George Fox. Considered heretic by the Puritans--when they first entered Massachusetts in 1656 (after the date of this story) some were expelled, and then hung on Boston Common if they returned--a statue of one such Quaker, Mary Dyer (1659), now sits in front of the Massachusetts State House. See Hawthorne's story, "The Gentle Boy" (1832). Note that Quakers today sometimes still use the terms "thee" and "thou" for other people, but in Puritan times these were familiar pronouns, used for children, loved ones, servants, or in church, while the formal "you" was reserved for non-family members or those higher in rank.
religion and law were almost identical
the first governments of the Pilgrim colonies were really theocracies--government by elders who had both religious and political power--only adult male church members could vote. (Though you can see from this chapter that women exercised considerable power behind the scenes and in their family and small societies.) Direct royal power and law was not asserted over these chartered corporations until later. Popular perception of the Puritans today is that they were too stern in punishments, anti-women and anti-Native American, bigoted, completely unfair in trials of people for witchcraft and others they persecuted, superstitious, hypocritical, carnivores of turkey meat and deer for Thanksgiving--and basically were unfit to be the forefathers of our politically correct generation. One of your jobs in reading this book might be to examine it critically to see if it really backs up those preconceptions.
One of the themes of this novel is the relationship of the individual with society, the community around one. This theme is complicated here because the church and the civil town were so close.
Is there no law for it?
The Bible used by the Puritans states, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (Exodus 20:14). Leviticus 20:10 states, "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." A 1641 Boston law provided for death as punishment (the scaffold then was used only for executions, not the pillory). English law at the time provided for only a small fine. In Boston in 1644, one Mary Latham and her partner James Britton were reported in John Winthrop's journal to have been put to death for adultery. More usually, public whipping was the punishment in Puritan Massachusetts. Hawthorne's ancestor Major John Hathorne in 1688 was magistrate in Salem and ordered Hester Craford to be severely whipped in public after she gave birth to an illegitimate child. A Plymouth law of 1694 called for the display of an A on the dress. Hawthorne recorded this in his journal of about 1844 and had written a story in 1837, "Endicott and the Red Cross," in which a Salem woman, required to wear the red letter A, had fantastically embroidered it. It is important to understand that Hester Prynne here is let off with what some think is a comparatively light punishment, and that the Puritan elders felt they needed to find out who the father was, not so much to punish Hester, as to help take proper care of the child and single mother. Women and children should not be taken advantage of by selfish men, they thought.
One theme of the book is that of "law"--the Old Law as in the Old Testament, where the text was engraved by God on tablets, and the New Law, as in the New Testament, where the law must be interpreted in the hearts of men. In the New Testament, Jesus says to those who would kill an adulteress, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," thus suggesting an interpretation of the law based on love, even for sinners. How does this story present the conflict between the two laws, for the Puritans and the characters? Adultery might be technically against the law in the modern Western world but such laws are only rarely enforced now, and such laws seem to modify human sexual behavior very little anyway. Often they are used to oppress female sexual behavior and allow men to philander in secret--the "double standard"--since pregnancy and childbirth are more difficult to conceal. Criminalizing female adultery makes the child an outcast and burdens the mother with raising the child herself.
sumptuary regulations
laws governing personal or moral behavior, usually excessive spending or clothing, both religious and to preserve class distinctions. The significance of all this is made clearer later, when we see that Hester works at embroidery, and her customers are the Puritan leaders who were allowed to wear such finery. Also, we see that Hester is already recognized as an artist with her needlework--perhaps she is separated from people around her just as Hawthorne the novelist was in the Custom House.
show your scarlet letter
scarlet is a bright red, usually red-orange. The significance here is that the punishment would be effective only if the shame of appearing in public with the letter on her chest caused Hester to repent and name the father of her illegitimate child. Since she refuses to do that in the next few chapters, the letter starts losing this first significance. Hester's fancy embroidery of the letter is referred to, but Hawthorne does not explain whether it is to conceal and camouflage the letter, or to defiantly make it more visible and personal.
the image of Divine Maternity
i.e., Mary, mother of Jesus. Critics such as Nina Baym have pointed out that Hawthorne wrote these words not long after his mother died, and that the passion through the book is surely that of a son justifying his mother (who was not accepted by her in-laws after her husband died--and perhaps because her first child was born earlier than nine months after marriage) and not so much that of a Salem son rejecting his Puritan forefathers. It should be pointed out, however, that the Virgin Mary as an icon was a subject of violent Puritan attack. Hawthorne through his life seemed to be fascinated by Roman Catholic imagery (his daughter became a nun). In England the pre-Raphaelite artists and writers a little later used such imagery to challenge the commercial Victorian intellectual world around them.
shield of arms
The flashback to Hester's home and parents is matched at the end of the story by this device of a coat-of-arms (and so making what is called a 'frame' This shows that Hester is a lady, a noble person by both birth and character. We can identify with her--the author has placed her in a time distant from today's republican society, but given us this hint that she is admirable, not too rich--and we are allowed to transfer our emotions as in a proper Romance. But the flashback also lets us see that Hester is really a young girl (women married young then) and not long away from home. Her husband might be looked at in the light of psychology as her old father more than a husband toward which she might have ambiguous feelings. So in that sense the role that Hester plays for today's high school girls is really much closer than one would think by counting the years.

Summary. Hester here, on the scaffold (the first of three times in the book), is contrasted to the women of the town, who take various views of the situation, but also she is contrasted with Hester as a child, and some of the background of how she got here is filled in. Even if the author hadn't told us so, the situation is a bit hard to believe, and the scarlet letter becomes a focus for determining what is real. This physical letter is interpreted by those who see it from their own viewpoints, just as what it symbolizes is. (The French painter Degas said that to draw a crowd you draw five heads, not fifty--Hawthorne here allows five women to talk.) The other person Hester is thinking about we will learn later is her husband, the misshapen scholar. We conclude that Hester is being shamed and made to wear this red A, but we are not told why, we are held in suspense and we are forced to guess at what is going on as the scene unfolds. The use of a lot of archaic words here adds some historical color and contributes to the sense of awe in the scene that the author describes. Anyway, it seems that Hester appears as a beautiful, pale damsel in distress.


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