Read The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter - Study Guide

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

The Scarlet Letter frontispiece
The Scarlet Letter, first edition, 1850

Character Analysis & Summary

Character Analysis

Plot Summary

The Scarlet Letter Study Guide: The Scarlet Letter silent movie, 1917
The Scarlet Letter, silent film adaptation, 1917

Genre & Themes


Primary Themes

Morality Lessons

The Scarlet Letter 'A'
The Red Letter 'A'

Symbolism & Biblical References


Biblical References

The Minister's Black Veil: Milford meeting-house, 1667
Early Parish meetinghouse, 1667

Historical Context & The Custom-House

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

The Scarlet Letter introduction: The Custom-House
The Custom-House, Salem, MA 1819

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."

The Scarlet Letter Study Guide: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne


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

The Scarlet Letter: Painting by Hugues Merle, 1859
Hugues Merle, The Scarlet Letter, 1859

Discussion Questions

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?

Paired Reading for the Scarlet Letter: Lois the Witch
Lois the Witch

Paired Reading Suggestions

Compare and contrast themes and literary elements in The Scarlet Letter with another story involving Puritans:

Teachers: Challenge students to identify and compare other stories they've read with themes involving public ostracism, sin, and redemption.

The Minister's Black Veil Study Guide: History of Puritans
Puritans: Liberty of Conscience

Teacher Resources
A Teacher's Work Is Never Done

Notes/Teacher Comments

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