Why is there no opera of The Scarlet Letter? The novel opens on a scene, “The Prison-Door,” that is so dramatic in its starkness that one half-expects to hear an audience burst into applause. “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”
The cruel public spectacle that follows is contained in the fact that although this is a primitive Boston, only some fifteen or twenty years old, “the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave yet a darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the new world.” To a “new world” these Puritans have transferred intact from the old everything rigid, intolerant, aged, and cramped in spirit.
The contrast between old world and new, between the dour old Roger Chillingworth and his estranged and lively young wife Hester Prynne, is fundamental to a novel so overwhelming in its images and driving in its symbols that Henry James said that Hawthorne’s method amounted to “importunity.”
Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
No opera could begin with a scene of more violent contrasts of costume, color, and personality than in what follows. A young woman, tall, “with a figure of perfect elegance,” stands on a scaffold before the whole town clasping a three-month-old baby.
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore.
Hester Prynne, a married woman with a missing husband, could have been sentenced to death for adultery. Condemned always to wear the letter A as a badge of shame, this gifted seamstress has turned it into a resplendent work of art. To make the contrast between Hester’s condemnation and the splendor of the scarlet letter, between her dignity on the scaffold and the deadly crowd of …
Copyright © 1992 by Alfred Kazin