"The Scarlet Letter"--Vocabulary from Chapters 1-4

Set in 17th century puritanical New England, "The Scarlet Letter" tells the story of Hester Prynne -- a woman who endures loneliness and public humiliation with strength and dignity.Here are links to all of our word lists for "The Scarlet Letter": The Custom-House, Chapters 1-4, Chapters 5-8, Chapters 9-13, Chapters 14-19, Chapters 20-24
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definitions & notes only words
  1. inauspicious
    contrary to your interests or welfare
    Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader.
    The adjective "inauspicious" often refers to a sign that something bad is about to happen. Here it is being used to describe the door of a prison, from which Hester and her baby are about to emerge. Everyone already knows what "bad" has been done and what the consequences are. Along with Hawthorne's descriptions, this suggests that the prison is contrary to the interests and welfare of humanity and morality.
  2. petrify
    make rigid and set into a conventional pattern
    Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand.
  3. augur
    indicate by signs
    Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand.
  4. indubitably
    in a manner or to a degree that could not be doubted
    But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn.
  5. scourge
    whip
    It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant Indian, whom the white man's firewater had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest.
  6. meager
    deficient in amount or quality or extent
    Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders, at the scaffold.
  7. infamy
    a state of extreme dishonor
    On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.
  8. rotundity
    the fullness of a tone of voice
    There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone.
    Another definition of "rotundity" is "the roundness of a 3-dimensional object"--although that would not fit Hawthorne's description of the matrons' voices, it echoes the earlier physical descriptions of their "broad shoulders and well-developed busts" and "round and ruddy cheeks".
  9. sumptuary
    regulating or controlling expenditure or personal behavior
    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, and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
  10. brazen
    unrestrained by convention or propriety
    "She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain," remarked one of her female spectators; "but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it?
  11. iniquity
    morally objectionable behavior
    A blessing on the righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine!
  12. haughty
    having or showing arrogant superiority
    Measured by the prisoner's experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length; for haughty as her demeanour was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.
  13. flagrant
    conspicuously and outrageously bad or reprehensible
    There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.
    Note how Hawthorne is using the words "flagrant" and "outrage"--not to describe a crime but to pass judgment on a form of punishment.
  14. contumely
    a rude expression intended to offend or hurt
    Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult;
  15. impediment
    something immaterial that interferes with action or progress
    She saw her father's face, with its bold brow, and reverend white beard that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her daughter's pathway.
  16. remonstrance
    the act of expressing earnest opposition or protest
    She saw her father's face, with its bold brow, and reverend white beard that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her daughter's pathway.
  17. visage
    the human face
    There she beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many ponderous books.
  18. exhort
    force or impel in an indicated direction
    It behoves you; therefore, to exhort her to repentance and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof."
  19. tremulous
    quivering as from weakness or fear
    He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow; large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self restraint.
  20. lurid
    shining with an unnatural red glow
    It was whispered by those who peered after her that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior.
    Although the "lurid gleam" of the scarlet letter seems supernatural, Hawthorne gives that perspective to the people whispering and peering after Hester. This connects to the other definition of "lurid" as "marked by sensationalism".
  21. rebuke
    an act or expression of criticism and censure
    As night approached, it proving impossible to quell her insubordination by rebuke or threats of punishment, Master Brackett, the jailer, thought fit to introduce a physician.
  22. amenable
    disposed or willing to comply
    "Trust me, good jailer, you shall briefly have peace in your house; and, I promise you, Mistress Prynne shall hereafter be more amenable to just authority than you may have found her heretofore."
  23. peremptory
    not allowing contradiction or refusal
    His first care was given to the child, whose cries, indeed, as she lay writhing on the trundle-bed, made it of peremptory necessity to postpone all other business to the task of soothing her.
  24. requital
    an act of requiting; returning in kind
    "I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe," remarked he; "but I have learned many new secrets in the wilderness, and here is one of them—a recipe that an Indian taught me, in requital of some lessons of my own, that were as old as Paracelsus.
  25. expostulation
    the act of expressing earnest opposition or protest
    Without further expostulation or delay, Hester Prynne drained the cup, and, at the motion of the man of skill, seated herself on the bed, where the child was sleeping; while he drew the only chair which the room afforded, and took his own seat beside her.

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