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Scarlet Letter

Scarlet Letter

Most of us have made mistakes, and some of us have been called out for those mistakes. But have you ever been shunned from your entire community and made to wear a visible mark of your sin so that no one forgets what you did? This is precisely what happens to Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic of American literature, The Scarlet Letter (1850.)

The Scarlet Letter: Contexts

Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered one of the great American authors, and The Scarlet Letter is celebrated as one of the great American novels. Though Hawthorne had written and published works before, this novel truly launched his writing career. The Scarlet Letter was hugely popular with readers nearly as soon as it was published, and copies sold out quickly, and other writers widely praised the work.

Despite this, The Scarlet Letter was also controversial because its protagonist has committed adultery, and because it critiques the harsh morality associated with Puritan culture. This controversy has popped back up in recent times, and the book has even been subject to censorship in some places.

The historical significance of The Scarlet Letter has kept it relevant since its publication. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne was very interested in US history, especially because he could trace his family back to the founding of the American colonies, and to a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. This interest in early US history inspired him to write about the Puritan colonies.

Puritans: a Christian religious group that began out of a belief in the need to “purify” the Church of England, either by separating from it or by reforming it. Many Puritans settled in the American colonies in the early 17th century.

The Scarlet Letter: Summary

The book opens with the narrator, who remains unnamed, explaining the origin of the coming story. The narrator found a scarlet letter “A” made of cloth and a manuscript in the attic of the Salem Custom House. The narrator has decided to retell the events described in that manuscript as a novel.

The Scarlet Letter, a street in modern-day Boston with old buildings visible, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Scarlet Letter is a historical fiction novel that takes place in colonial Boston.

The narrative opens 200 years earlier, in 1642, in Boston, Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, a young woman whose missing husband is believed to be dead, is being punished for adultery in front of a crowd. She is made to stand for three hours on a scaffold, holding her newborn child Pearl, whose father is unknown. For the rest of her days, Hester is sentenced to wear the letter “A,” in a scarlet red color, on her clothing as a reminder of her sin. Despite her circumstances, Hester remains calm and dignified during her public punishment. She even refuses to name the child’s father when questioned.

Did you know that some Puritan communities really did have punishments like Hester Prynne faced? There were multiple cases recorded in the Plymouth colony in which people convicted of adultery were made to wear letters on their clothes to mark them for their crime.1

Hester suddenly notices an unexpected witness in the crowd—her husband, alive and returned just in time to see Hester shamed. He learns from an onlooker that his wife has had a child with an unknown man and becomes infuriated. He takes on a new name, Roger Chillingworth, and becomes obsessed with uncovering the identity of the child’s father and getting revenge. Chillingworth, who has become a physician during his absence, attends to Hester in her prison cell. There, they speak about their marriage, and both accept some blame. However, Chillingworth tells Hester that he will find out who Pearl’s father is; Chillingworth also threatens to destroy the mystery man if Hester ever reveals his identity as her husband.

Once released from prison, Hester makes a life for herself on the outskirts of the town. She raises her daughter, making enough money to survive through her skill as a seamstress. Because Hester and Pearl are both shunned by their community, Pearl grows up with no friends; she becomes wild and impulsive. This leads the townspeople to question whether Hester is fit to raise her child. When Hester hears of this threat, she goes to town and appeals to Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's young minister. He convinces the town’s governor, Bellingham, to let Hester keep Pearl.

Dimmesdale, however, has visibly declined over the years since Hester was first shamed. Chillingworth treats him for heart trouble but becomes convinced that the true cause of the minister’s illness is guilt. Chillingworth eventually moves into Dimmesdale’s home to better care for his patient; there, he becomes suspicious that the minister’s illness is connected to Hester’s crime. Before long, Chillingworth discovers that there is a mark on Dimmesdale's chest similar to the scarlet letter Hester wears.

Dimmesdale suffers from his guilt more and more under Chillingworth’s now vengeful attention. On the other hand, Hester has begun to earn the community's admiration back thanks to her good deeds and empathy. Dimmesdale goes one night to the scaffold where Hester was publicly shamed years before. There, Hester and Pearl watch as he admits to the sin that he is still unable to speak out loud to the townsfolk. They take his hands and join him on the scaffold.

Despite this, Dimmesdale will not agree when Pearl asks him to tell the town that he is her father. A meteor then streaks across the sky, making a red letter “A” as it goes. Upset by Dimmesdale’s deterioration, Hester asks Chillingworth to stop his cruel treatment of the minister. He refuses, so Hester meets with Dimmesdale in the woods to reveal who Chillingworth is. The two plan to leave in a few days’ time aboard a ship headed to Europe; there, they will be able to live together as a family with Pearl. For the first time, Hester takes her scarlet letter off.

However, the day before their departure, Dimmesdale gives a moving sermon and realizes that he will not live long enough to go to Europe. Instead, he asks Hester and Pearl to join him on the scaffold again; this time, he publicly admits to his sin and reveals the scarlet letter he bears on his chest. Pearl kisses her father as he dies.

The Scarlet Letter, a red letter "A" on a black decorated background, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A scarlet letter "A" appears multiple times in the book as a symbol of Hester and Dimmesdale's sin

No longer able to exact revenge, Chillingworth dies the next year, and he leaves Pearl a substantial inheritance. Pearl and Hester leave Boston, though years later, Hester returns to her home on the outskirts of town. She wears her scarlet letter and goes back to her good works. Pearl sends letters now and then from Europe, where she married a wealthy man and started her own family. Hester is eventually buried close to Dimmesdale, where they share a tombstone with a scarlet “A” on a black background.

The Scarlet Letter: Characters

  • Hester Prynne: A young woman from colonial Boston. While her husband was missing and presumed dead, she had an affair that resulted in a child, Pearl. Hester is shamed and shunned for adultery but refuses to reveal who her child’s father is. Instead, she does charitable work and raises Pearl on her own.
  • Pearl: Hester and Dimmesdale’s daughter. Because she grows up shunned and without friends, she has a wild nature as a child. She inherits a fortune from Chillingworth and eventually begins a family in Europe.
  • Roger Chillingworth: Hester’s husband, who had been missing and presumed dead. When he learns of Hester’s affair, he becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of Pearl’s father and exacting revenge. Chillingworth discovers that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father while treating the minister’s illness and exacts revenge on him until the minister's death.
  • Arthur Dimmesdale: A minister in Boston. Dimmesdale is Hester's lover and Pearl's father. For years, he does not admit to his adultery, and the guilt eats away at him. When he finally realizes that he is close to death, he publicly admits to his sin and then collapses, dead.
  • Governor Bellingham: The governor of Boston. Bellingham wants to remove Pearl from Hester’s care but is convinced by Dimmesdale not to.
  • Narrator: A man who finds a red, cloth letter “A” and a manuscript in the attic of the Salem Custom House. He decides to retell the story in the manuscript in a novel, which becomes The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter: Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is an example of Dark Romanticism.

Dark Romanticism: a sub-genre of Romanticism. Popular in the United States between 1800 and 1850, it focuses on the weaknesses, punishments, and psychology of flawed humans.

Other famous works of Dark Romanticism include the following:

  • The Minister’s Black Veil (1836) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) and Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville
  • “Anabel Lee” (1849), The Black Cat (1843), “The Raven” (1845), The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), and “Ulalume” (1847) by Edgar Allen Poe

Because it delves into themes such as sin, shame and guilt, and punishment, The Scarlet Letter fits perfectly within this genre. It is also a work of Historical Fiction.

Historical fiction: fictional stories in historical settings; works in this genre typically feature real-life events.

Set in a Puritan colony in New England between 1642 and 1649, The Scarlet Letter's setting allows Nathaniel Hawthorne to explore the morality and strict punishments of Puritan culture.

The Scarlet Letter Frame Narrative

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a frame narrative structure. Doing so helps to add to the story's context and to provide a background for the narrator.

Frame narrative: a literary device in which one story is contained within another.

The novel’s main story about Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale is contained inside the story of the narrator who, 200 years after Hester’s story took place, decides to write her story out as a novel. This outer story appears at both the beginning and end of the book. Its inclusion is a way to explain to the reader why the book's main story is being told, as well as to offer the narrator's opinions throughout the inner story.

Other well-known novels that use a frame narrative structure include:

  • Dracula (1897) Bram Stoker
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
  • Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad
  • The Moonstone (1886) Wilkie Collins
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898) Henry James
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) Emily Brontë

The Scarlet Letter Symbols

Throughout The Scarlet Letter, author Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbolism to highlight the themes of his work. Two of the most important symbols are the scarlet letter itself and the rosebush outside the prison.

The Red Letter “A”

At the novel's beginning, the scarlet letter Hester is made to wear symbolizes her crime—adultery. It signifies to everyone who sees her that she is a sinner. However, its meaning changes with time. Hester accepts her sin as part of herself and learns to empathize with other sinful humans. She does many good deeds, and eventually,

...the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.” (Ch 24)

The Rosebush

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a rosebush as a symbol of beauty in harsh places. It grows just outside the prison, and its blooms are described as offering,

...their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. (Ch 1)

Though Hester has been condemned and shamed, the rosebush serves as a reminder that there is still beauty in her life despite her strict and repressive society. Additionally, the rose bush symbolizes defiance because it grows and blooms despite its harsh environment. This meaning is also later connected to characters such as Pearl. For example, she tells the governor that, instead of having been made by God, she grew on the rose bush outside the prison. Her identification with this symbol of defiance signals to the reader that Pearl herself is defiant.

The Scarlet Letter, a rosebush with pink blossoms on a dark background, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Hawthorne uses the rosebush outside the prison as a symbol of defiance, beauty, and hope in dark places

The Scarlet Letter: Themes

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne addresses themes including guilt, sin and empathy, and punishment.

Guilt

From the very beginning of the novel, guilt is an important theme. Early on, Hester Prynne is found guilty of adultery. However, she is not overwhelmed by guilt. Hester does not hide her sin, and she is able to accept her actions and their consequences. With time, the physical mark of her sin that was intended to be a source of shame for her became something that she took pride in and that the other townsfolk respected.

In contrast to this, Nathaniel Hawthorne emphasizes how guilt slowly destroys Dimmesdale. Because he cannot bring himself to admit his sin, he anguished internally about his guilt. Dimmesdale’s heart problems are a physical manifestation of his unconfessed guilt; while Hester is able to acknowledge and move on from guilt, Dimmesdale hides it until it causes his death.

Sin and Empathy

Hawthorne draws a connection between sin and empathy in The Scarlet Letter. Though Hester has been charged with and punished for her sin, she accepts it as part of her personal history.

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers…” (Ch 18)

Acknowledging that humans are imperfect and commonly sin, she is able to better accept others who are known to be flawed. Because of this, Hester performs many charitable works over the years and eventually regains the respect of her community. By highlighting this connection between sin and empathy, Hawthorne challenges the strict morality of Puritan societies.

Scarlet Letter - Key Takeaways

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850.
  • The Scarlet Letter is set in a Puritan New England colony between 1642 and 1649.
  • The novel is a work of Dark Romanticism.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne uses frame narrative and symbolism in The Scarlet Letter.
  • Major themes of the novel include guilt, empathy, and sin and punishment

References

  1. Lisa M. Lauria, “Sexual Misconduct in Plymouth Colony.” University of Virginia. 2007.
  2. Fig. 1 - Public Domain: https://pixabay.com/photos/boston-historic-campanile-2093491/
  3. Fig. 2 - Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scarlet_Letter_-_Illustration_Logo.png
  4. Fig 3. - Public Domain: https://pixabay.com/photos/bush-rosebush-roses-rose-flower-4781627/

Frequently Asked Questions about Scarlet Letter

One of the main messages in The Scarlet Letter is that strict morality and judgement like that of Puritan New England can be oppressive. 

The Scarlet Letter has been popular since it was first published in 1850. 

One example of irony in The Scarlet Letter is that Arthur Dimmesdale suffers more for his sin than Hester Prynne does, even though she is publicly shamed, and he keeps his guilt a secret. 

Roger Chillingworth is commonly considered the most sinful character in The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter depicts a historical setting in the United States and highlights the negative aspects of Puritan society. 

The rosebush in The Scarlet Letter symbolizes defiance and beauty in harsh places. 

Final Scarlet Letter Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Scarlet Letter?

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Answer

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Question

In what year was The Scarlet Letter published?

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Answer

1850

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Question

Who is Pearl's father?

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Answer

Arthur Dimmesdale

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Question

Who is Hester Prynne's husband?

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Answer

Arthur Dimmesdale

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Question

Why does Hester wear the scarlet letter?

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Answer

It is part of her punishment for the crime of adultery.

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Question

Which of the following genres describe The Scarlet Letter?

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Answer

Dark Romanticism

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Question

Which of the following are symbols used in The Scarlet Letter?


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Answer

A broken dish

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When is The Scarlet Letter set?

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Answer

1642-1649

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Question

Where is The Scarlet Letter set?

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Answer

In the Puritan colony in Boston

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Question

True or false: The Scarlet Letter uses a frame narrative.

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Answer

True

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True or false: The Scarlet Letter has immediately successful when published.

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Answer

True

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Why does Dimmesdale's health begin to fail?

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Answer

Because of the guilt he has for his sin and for not confessing it. 

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Question

What is a frame narrative?

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Answer

A literary device in which one story is contained within another. 


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