The Scarlet Letter HTML version

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 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 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 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