Excerpt from The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
1. The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer
2. morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty
3. large number of the inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently
4. fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population,
5. or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that
6. petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have
7. augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing
8. short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the
9. sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment.
10. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind
11. could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant,
12. or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority,
13. was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a
14. Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town,
15. or an idle or vagrant Indian, whom the white man's fire-water had made
16. riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of
17. the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the
18. bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In
19. either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the
20. part of the spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law
21. were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly
22. interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike
23. made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy
24. that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold.
25. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of
26. mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern
27. a dignity as the punishment of death itself.
28. It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our story
29. begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the crowd,
30. appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be
31. expected to ensue. The age had not so much refinement, that any sense of
32. impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping
33. forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons, if
34. occasion were, into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally,
35. as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of
36. old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants, separated from
37. them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of
38. ancestry, every successive mother has transmitted to her child a fainter
39. bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame,
40. if not a character of less force and solidity, than her own. The women,
41. who were now standing about the prison-door, stood within less than
42. half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the
43. not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her
44. countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral
45. diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition.
46. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and
47. well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had
48. ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner
49. in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness
50. and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed
51. to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its
52. purport or its volume of tone.
53. "Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a piece of
54. my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being
55. of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the
56. handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. What think ye,
57. gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now
58. here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as
59. the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!"
60. "People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale,
61. her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal
62. should have come upon his congregation."
63. "The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful
64. overmuch,--that is a truth," added a third autumnal matron. "At the very
65. least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's
66. forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me.
67. But she,--the naughty baggage,--little will she care what they put upon
68. the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch,
69. or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave
70. as ever!"
71. "Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the
72. hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always
73. in her heart."
74. "What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her
75. gown, or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest
76. as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. "This
77. woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no
78. law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book.
79. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank
80. themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!"
81. "Mercy on us, goodwife," exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there
82. no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of
83. the gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips; for
84. the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress
85. Prynne herself."
According to the passage, what do the five townswomen believe they could accomplish that the magistrates cannot?