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The Scarlet Letter Chapter 1 Summary

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This lesson is a summary of chapter 1 from Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter''. It also includes a brief overview of the historical context of the setting as well as a condensed analysis of important themes in the chapter.

The Importance of Setting in The Scarlet Letter

What comes to mind when you try to picture Puritans? Maybe you imagine men and woman dressed all in black, with buckles on their shoes. Or possibly you think about the happy pilgrims we see images of every Thanksgiving. In real life, Puritan living wasn't so happy-go-lucky. Nathaniel Hawthorne captured the reality of their beliefs in The Scarlet Letter, which he set in Puritan-controlled Massachusetts, specifically during the years 1642-1649.

Puritans were Protestants who wanted to purge all traces of the Roman Catholic Church from religion and had extremely strict rules and ideologies about what was moral and right. They did not typically refer to themselves as 'Puritans' and instead used terms such a 'godly' to refer to themselves, or more specifically the names of particular sects to which they belonged.

Puritans were extremely strict, demanding adherents to their ideas of reform within the church and striving for levels of perfection that seem nearly impossible to achieve. Puritan sects also widely believed in demonic forces that would attempt to work on godly people, and often believed non-godly persons were under the influence of these forces. Central to Puritan beliefs was the idea of family (based on the model of Adam and Eve) as a central means to achieve godliness. Men were the de facto heads of household, women and children were to be obedient in all things, and sin was to be shamed. Sinners without shame were punished severely, with the intent to bring them back to the supposed right way of thinking.

It is in this sort of community that Hawthorne set The Scarlet Letter, a story of an unwed mother and her minister-lover. It's important to keep in mind how Puritan society worked as you go through a summary of the book's first chapter.

First Boston Settlement
First Boston Settlement

The Prison Door

In Boston (which was still a fairly small town in 1642, though still prone to traffic), a narrator engages the reader. His audience (us) are addressed as if they are a passer-by. The narrator remarks on the prison and the cemetery, two things the settlers of Boston were quick to build before any other landmarks in the town. The ugliness of the setting is described, and nothing is noted of any beauty in the area, with the exception of a rosebush outside the prison. The narrator offers the reader a bloom from the bush, remarking that the lush, bright bloom is like a moral to the story he is about to tell.

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