Notes to Ch. 1, The Prison-Door
The Scarlet Letter

Utopia ....sl01.html#g02
Imaginary place where everything is good, from Sir Thomas More's book (1515) of the same name. (Puritan Boston was meant to be a "city on the hill" or a good society in contrast to England--but of course More was Catholic and so the Puritans would have appreciated neither the book nor the reference to it.) In some ways this book is similar to More's book--both authors use fiction to lament a world that was being lost, a warning against politics and modern life overwhelming the values of traditional society and individual rights. The authors also share a considerable sense of irony, of wit, of being marginalized, and of the importance of good writing. Hawthorne had lived at Brook Farm, meant to be a sort of Utopian community.
among their earliest practical necessities ....sl01.html#g02
this phrase about the prison and the cemetery has been widely quoted, but was not historically exact about Boston--the jail was not built until 1632, two years after the town's founding (1630), though maybe that might still count loosely as "among their earliest", or, with Hawthorne's usual cautious tempering, "almost as seasonably".
Boston locations ....sl01.html#g02
Most of these 1642 locations no longer are recognizable, though a visitor to downtown Boston of today can stand on their sites. Picture an area of a few blocks, with dirt streets and unpainted wood buildings (looking old after only a dozen years) of at most two stories. The scaffold has been replaced by a giant steaming tea-kettle, but it would be in the middle, and all the other locations within a short walk, usually downhill. (The center would be today the intersection of State Street and Tremont, with the coastline just beyond the Old State House to the east, and today's King's Chapel two blocks south along Tremont.) Cornhill was an northern extension of Washington Street (well, for some reason that street did not have that name, it was Orange) across King's Street (State Street). Cornhill is now bricked over as part of City Hall Plaza, but was once the home of several booksellers. Isaac Johnson (1601-1630) was a settler who left land to the town--he died shortly after the Puritan group arrived from England--his lot would be just north of King's Chapel, which was not built until after this period (in 1688), but which absorbed the old burying-ground there.
rose-bush ....sl01.html#g02 and g03
The rose bush is an obvious symbol which many critics discuss [Cola72]. Again, note the author's ambiguity and irony-- Anne Hutchinson was a saint in the eyes of neither the Puritans nor Hawthorne. There is a hint here--don't forget to look for the moral in the last chapter. The narrator steps forward to deliver a misleading comment or what in a play is called an "aside" here--look for similar shifts in the narration as the story progresses. By the way, a "hawthorn" bush is something like a rose bush, although it is never called that. Hawthorne has Pearl remember this rose-bush in Chapter 8 since she and Hester passed that way to the Hall of Governor Bellingham.
a tale of human frailty and sorrow ....sl01.html#g03
--this is how the author characterizes his own story --not as a tale of immorality, a tale of man's cruelty to his fellows, a tale of failed rebellion, a tale of hypocrisy, or whatever others might think.

Summary -- The setting: A group of people are standing around outside the prison door, which is pretty ugly. It is Puritan Boston, about June, 1642. It seems that every new town needs both a prison and a cemetery. There are weeds, but also a rose bush. Perhaps the rose is left over from the wilderness, or perhaps it stems from Anne Hutchinson (a woman rebel a few years earlier). Anyway, the author suggests the reader take it to help brighten this sad story.


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Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 1, The Scarlet Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.


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