Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterwork, The Scarlet Letter (1850) is considered one of the best novels of all time, and an exemplar of Dark Romanticism. Our study guide offers teachers and students important background about the author, particularly his own experiences at The Custom-House, where he learned to "stick it to the man" and inspired his writing of Hester Prynne's story. Don't skip the Introduction!
Read the book: The Scarlet Letter, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Symbolism & Literary Devices, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Readings, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Hester Prynne - The woman who committed adultery with a pastor and bore an illegitimate child. She is sentenced to wear a letter "A" on her chest as her badge of public shame in this small Puritan community in which she seeks repentance and dignity.
Arthur Dimmesdale - The town's pastor with whom Hester had an adulterous affair, impregnating her out of wedlock. He does not confess to his guilt, and grows sick by his tormented conscience. Finally, he confesses in public and dies in Hester's arms.
Pearl - The "elf child" borne out of wedlock whom her mother Hester raises, but her father Arthur keeps his paternity a secret. Pearl becomes unruly and capricious as she is raised by Hester in a cabin on the edge of town.
Long-lost Husband - The small misshapen man who was Hester's husband, presumed to be lost at sea. She spots him in the crowd at her sentencing on the public scaffold (stocks). He changes his name to Roger Chillingworth and embarks on a mission to reveal the identity of Hester's adulterous partner. Hester refuses to name her lover, he threatens Hester to never reveal his identify as her husband. He finally suspects Dimmesdale is the father of Pearl, but Dimmesdale dies before Chillingworth gets his revenge.
Reverend John Wilson - A church leader who attempts to get Hester to confess her lover's identity, along with the town's minister denying his sin, Arthur Dimmesdale.
Governor Bellingham - Governor of the Bay Colony, he listens to the ministers and grants Hester's appeal to retain custody of her daughter.
The story, subtitled "A Romance," is set in the Puritan town of Boston in the 17th century. It is about Hester Prynne, who conceived a child during a secret affair with a pastor, Arthur Dimmsedale, and is charged with adultery. After refusing to name her lover after repeated pressures from everyone (including Dimmesdale, who is covering up his sin), she is sentenced to wear a scarlet "A" (A for adultress) after standing three hours on the public scaffold in quiet dignity. Her long-lost husband appears at the sentencing, she refuses to reveal her lover, and he threatens to get revenge. After serving her prison sentence, Hester raises her daughter in a small cottage at the edge of town, church members threatens to take her away for being unruly, so Hester appeals to the ministers and Governor to let her stay. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale hides his guilt, but is consumed by sickness for years and eventually confesses to his sin. Chillingworth who suspected him, sees a symbol representing an "A" on Dimmsedale's chest. Hester and Dimmesdale meet secretly, she convinces him to leave Boston for Europe. After his best sermon ever delivering "a shower of golden truths upon them," Dimmesdale climbs on the public scaffold to admit his sin, and dies in Hester's arms. Some witnesses swear they saw an "A" on his chest, but can't confirm it. When she dies, Hester is buried near Dimmesdale with the gravestone epitaph, "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules" (On a field, black, the letter A, red). Chillingworth gives up on revenge, dies, and leaves Pearl a large inheritance.
Readers are encouraged to study, rather than skip over the Preface to the Second Edition and The Custom-House, where Hawthorne reveals his sense of romance, between materialism and "dreaminess." He describes his experiences there, its crumbling systems of patronage, to provide a deeper understanding of the novel itself.
Hawthorne's story is in the genre of Romanticism, considered a masterpiece in the sub-genre of Dark Romanticism for its focus on sin, human fallibility, and the religious and societal institutions which enforce society's judgement and alienation of specific members of the community.
The story, written in 1850, is considered a work of Historical Fiction, set in Boston, the Puritan Bay Colony of Massachusetts between 1692 - 1699. Puritans left England for the New World to escape persecution and judgement in the hands of others in power. The strict religious convictions and social morays of the religion required conformity and cast judgement and punishment on anyone in their congregation who failed to conform to the Puritan ideals.
There were two types: "separating" Puritans, such as the Plymouth colonists, who believed that the Church of England was corrupt and that true Christians must separate themselves from it; and "non-separating" Puritans, such as the colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed in reform, but not separation. Most Massachusetts colonists were non-separating Puritans who wished to reform the established church, largely Congregationalists who believed in forming churches through voluntary compacts. Legacies of Puritanism include modern-day practicing Protestants which include Lutheran, Anglican, and Quaker denominations, and the so-called "Protestant work-ethic" which implies staunch focus of hard work and good deeds. Read more about Puritanism in New England
Hawthorne, and many other authors who embraced the genre of Dark Romanticism, cast judgement of their own on Puritans' treatment of sin, judgement, and human fallibility. Their stories often revealed the hypocrisy and dark side of these religious and cultural institutions to perpetuate, rather than eradicate, the sins they were trying so forcefully to admonish.
A note related to the significance of Salem's Custom-House. Both Hawthorne (as a young man) and Herman Melville (after his writing career tapered-off) took office jobs there. Operating in Salem since 1649, its business is collecting taxes on imported cargo, first for the British, then for the American Government. Starting in 1789, it housed the U.S. Customs Service and impounded cargo. Hawthorne's writing was significantly impacted by this experience, as he reveals in his introductory chapter. This is where he learned to "stick it to the man."
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"This Custom-House sketch has a certain propriety, of a kind always recognised in literature, as explaining how a large portion of the following pages came into my possession, and as offering proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained. This, in fact,--a desire to put myself in my true position as editor, or very little more, of the most prolix among the tales that make up my volume,--this, and no other, is my true reason for assuming a personal relation with the public." The Custom-House
"Ah, but let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart." - Chpt. II
"'People say,' said another, 'that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to his heart that such a scandal has come upon his congregation.'" - Chpt. II
"He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Mr. Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!" - Chpt. X
"A pure hand needs no glove to cover it." - Chpt. XII
"It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility." - Chpt. XIII
"She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers - stern and wild ones - and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss." - Chpt. XVIII
She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom." - Chpt. XVIII
"No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." - Chpt. XX
"It was if an angel, in his passage to the skies, had shaken his bright wings over the people for an instant,--at once a shadow and a splendor,--and had shed down a shower of golden truths upon them." - Chpt. XXIII
Some speculated that: "the awful symbol was the effect of the ever active tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter." - Chpt. XXIV
"Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!" - Chpt. XXIV
"The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!" - Chpt. XXIV
1. What does the "A" represent? What does Hester mean when she says the letter is her "passport into regions where other women dared not tread"?
2. Why wasn't Arthur Dimmesdale punished to the same degree as Hester? How was this a double-standard in the Puritan culture?
3. Hawthorne's story is considered a parable, a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. What's the lesson of this story?
4. Discuss the themes of sin and redemption, and Hawthorne's take-away lesson from this parable. Evil is found in plotted revenge of Chillingworth, not in Hester and Dimmesdale's love.
5. Does committing adultery with a "man of the cloth" constitute a worse crime than with a layman?
6. How is this story representative of Dark Romanticism?
7. Why does Chillingworth (the long-lost husband) assume a new identity, and threaten Hester to never reveal he is her husband in this tight-knit Puritan culture?
8. Explain the Biblical references in the novel, including Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge (good and evil), and the character's namesake, Esther in The Bible
9. Study the painting, The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merle (1859), which Hawthorne considered the best visual representation of Hester Prynne's public disgrace and condemnation. Describe the artist's use of details, techniques and their affect (e.g., strong resemblance to Madonna and child, Hester's elderly husband is in the background).
9. Discuss Hawthorne's use of veils in his stories. He mentions a veil in his introduction, The Custom-House: "...we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil" and "...make its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon our faces." His story about a minister voluntarily adorning a veil to teach his parishioners a lesson about secret sin, The Minister's Black Veil. In its introduction, he tells of a clergyman who hid behind a black veil as self-imposed punishment for accidentally killing a friend. How does self-imposed shaming compare to Hester's public, imposed symbol of shame?
11. How does Hawthorne reveal himself as an author, an authentic "editor" to impart this story as it relates to The Custom-House. How does his experience relate to understanding the novel? Compare his description of an arcane, crumbling trading port and its aging patronage powers-that-be, with the arcane institutions in the novel.
12. Describe the significance of Hester's tombstone epitaph, "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules" (On a field, black, the letter A, red). Is she marking herself for all eternity?
13. Speculate about the significance or symbolism of Hester naming her daughter "Pearl." What do you think her future holds after Hester's death?
Essay prompt #1: Watch a movie: The Scarlet Letter was adapted a number of times (notably 1917, 1926, 1995). Pick a version, watch and compare it to the novel (comment on the historical or cultural context of the film's year you choose).
Essay prompt #2: In modern culture, what does it take to earn a Scarlet Letter? Is social media our current method of social shaming, calling out those who have done wrong? Do you think public shaming can result in the person's reform?
Compare and contrast themes and literary elements in The Scarlet Letter with another story involving Puritans:
The Minister's Black Veil, the veil and the red "A" share a similar stigma of extreme social alienation, how are both "secret sin"?
Lois The Witch (Salem Trials of 1692)
The Maypole of Merry Mount, both Puritans and Merry Mounter hippies are considered persecuted minorities in this story.
Desiree's Baby, a white mother of a bi-racial child she's raising in the deep South.
Teachers: Challenge students to identify and compare other stories they've read with themes involving public ostracism, sin, and redemption.
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