• Great Beginnings: The Scarlet Letter

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Great Beginnings     Comments 10 comments

    In advance of January’s awesome new workshop “Great Beginnings,” we’re going to take a weekly look at some of literature’s finest opening lines and chat about what makes them each so special.

    Lately I’ve been revisiting some Nathaniel Hawthorne, and next on the list is The Scarlet Letter: the bane of many a 10th grader’s existence, but an eye-opener for others. Hawthorne writes a fairly lengthy quasi-introduction to the book, and then opens Chapter 1 with the following:

    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.

    Let’s chat about what works here and what (if anything) doesn’t. And what is Hawthorne doing here with colors?

    Leave your comments below and let’s dissect this Great Beginning.

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    h. l. nelson

    All right, I’ll bite. :)

    We have “throng,” which suggests more of a mob than a simple group of people. And “sad-colored” and “gray,” which aren’t vibrant and pleasant. This is obviously not a happy gathering. Then there’s “steeple-crowned,” which connotes church/religion. “Edifice, I believe, is something large and imposing. “Heavily timbered” and “oak” suggest weight and hardness. “Studded” and “iron spikes” suggest sharpness and also hardness.

    Sounds like a party! Hawthorne is a bit wordy for my own tastes. But, this beginning works for what he was trying to accomplish with the scene.

    Michael Kellner

    I imagine the colors are serving to offset the red that’s to come. If everyone in this gathering were dressed in yellow and orange and, well, scarlet, then Hester’s letter wouldn’t pop.

    H.L., I imagine Puritans didn’t have “happy gatherings” that were “vibrant and pleasant.” But that can’t really be the case, can it? They must’ve cracked smiles now and then at weddings and baptisms, etc. Although I don’t think they were boozers; which, as we all know, makes it quite hard to be vibrant and happy at a wedding.

    h. l. nelson

    Personally, I think all weddings are vibrant and pleasant. But, I show up high.

    Haha, just kidding.

    (I’m not kidding.)

    h. l. nelson

    I’m not a “Puritan,” exactly. But I am a purist. Especially about my pot.

    Somehow, I don’t think those are the same.

    And, I don’t really smoke pot.


    Jake Reilly

    I do! But I won’t smoke it here at Write BY Night, where I am now. Unless they tell me I can. Which they should.

    How about the “bearded men” thing. Did the Puritans all have beards? Or does this just happen to be a group of only bearded men?

    Melynda Nuss

    I liked the description of the “throng” — convincingly grey and depressing. But for some reason, I balked at the “edifice.” It was so abstract in comparison to the men and women. At first I wasn’t sure if the “edifice” was the building or the door. I get that it’s supposed to be foreboding — and I suppose there’s nothing more foreboding than an edifice. But the fancy latinate term struck me as wrong.

    h. l. nelson

    Yep. What he said. Beat me to it.

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