The novel begins with the “Custom House” section that pretends to explain Hawthorne’s discovery of the scarlet letter that led to his narrative of the life of Hester Prynne, an adulteress--so judged by her community and compelled to wear the symbol of her iniquity. The author gives the letter itself a tangible feel, as if he could actually experience the passions that provoked Hester and her minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, to become lovers. Hawthorne’s purpose is to make readers identify with human emotions that transcend historical contexts and different value systems.
When Hester is first observed in public taking her punishment, she seems more of a Romantic than a Puritan figure. She is defiant and gloriously individual. Later, she even speaks of her affair with Dimmesdale as having had a “consecration of its own.”
Yet for all his criticism of his Puritan ancestors, one of whom took part in the Salem witch trials, Hawthorne is not unmoved by the Puritans’ strong sense of community. Only such values enable a society to control the anarchy inherent in rampant individualism. Hester is a lost soul who doubts the validity of her lonely stand; the Puritans, for all their hardness, are shown to be forgiving and fair-minded within the limits of their religion.
Hawthorne insisted in the “Custom House” and elsewhere that he was a writer of romances, by which he suggested that for all the historical authenticity of his work, he was not a realist but rather a symbolist, a romancer who probed beneath the daylight aspects of things into the darker, shadowy motivations of human beings. A master of ambiguity, he is one of the honored forebears of modern fiction, and THE SCARLET LETTER is his finest achievement, a perfectly constructed work of art remarkable for its exquisitely balanced handling of moral issues and conflicting human personalities.
Baym, Nina “The Scarlet Letter”: A Reading. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Full-length critical introduction that examines the setting, characters, and themes. One fascinating chapter treats the scarlet “A” as a character. Includes a chronology and extended bibliography.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Interpretations series. Offers seven fascinating, fairly sophisticated critical essays written after 1962. Contains several approaches to the work as not a novel but as a typical American romance.
Colacurcio, Michael J. New Essays on “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Offers serious students a brief review of the different critical approaches brought to the novel from the time of its publication to the 1980’s.
Gerber, John C., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “The Scarlet Letter”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Twenty essays for the beginning student that explore background, form, techniques, and interpretations. Includes a useful chronology that pairs dates in Hawthorne’s life with historical events.
Gross, Seymour, ed. A “Scarlet Letter” Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960. A discussion of Hawthorne’s earlier fiction, followed by a collection of brief essays on themes, characters, symbolism, and structure. Includes topics for discussion and student papers and an annotated bibliography.
Turner, Arlin. The Merrill Studies in “The Scarlet Letter.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. Essays for the general reader, including pieces on Hawthorne’s process of composition, reviews of the novel dating back to its publication in 1850, nineteenth century commentary, and a sampling of twentieth century approaches.