Share this Page URL

Chapter 20. In the End Zone > Backed by the Best - Pg. 224

In the End Zone 224 Another Possible Source of Hawthorne's Hester Prynne And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave ... on this simple slab of slate--as that curious investigator may still discern, ... there appeared ... a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: "ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES" ( The Scarlet Letter , 264). So ends Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter , and so begins the search for Hester Prynne's grave. Seventeenth-century Boston town officials, meticulous about keeping accurate records, nevertheless failed to record the death--or life, for that matter--of Hester Prynne, adulteress, seamstress, and ministering angel. The town officials must have been too busy surveying chim- neys, keeping pigs off the streets, keeping count of the "many Miscarriages [that] are committed by Saylers ... immoderate drinking, and other vain expences," and granting widows permission to keep houses of "publique entertainment for the selling of Coffee, Chuchaletto, & sydar by retayle" (Nobel, 113). The lack of official records notwithstanding, Hester's grave is more often in-quired after by vis- itors to the King's Chapel Burial Grounds than any other, claims the custodian of that historic enclosure in a 1999 interview. Her grave is apparently sought there because Hawthorne's skillful intermingling of real and fictional people and places has led readers to believe that The Scarlet Letter is based on a true story. In his essay entitled "The New England Sources for The Scarlet Letter," scholar Charles Ryskamp establishes the fact that the supporting characters in The Scarlet Letter--other than Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, for whom we can find no real historical basis--were actual figures (258). The fictional characters assume solidity in part through their encounters with well-known citizens of colonial Boston. According to Ryskamp, Hawthorne used the most credible history of Boston available to him, Caleb Snow's History of