Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, as Nathaniel Hathorne. He later added a w to his name, in part to avoid association with his Puritan ancestor, Judge John Hathorne, who was a judge in the notorious Salem witch trials.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a shy man whose quiet nature was often mistaken for aloofness. After graduating from Bowdoin College in 1825, Hawthorne devoted much of his time to collecting New England ghost legends, peculiar stories, and historical information, especially those pertaining to Puritanism.

An active writer, Hawthorne published a novel called Fanshawe at his own expense in 1828. Over the next several years, he mainly wrote short stories, until the publication of his first moderately successful book, Twice Told Tales, in 1837. Hawthorne next took a job as inspector at the Boston Custom House, which left him little time for writing, but he left this position when the administration changed and joined an experimental Transcendentalist commune. In 1842, Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody.

The Scarlet Letter was published in 1849; it received critical acclaim, but did not enhance Hawthorne's financial status. Other novels followed: The House of the Seven Gables(1850), The Snow Image(1851), Other Twice Told Tales(1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852). From 1853-1857, Hawthorne served as Consul to England, after which he traveled to Italy and completed his last novel, The Marble Faun. His health was failing, and Hawthorne died on May 18, 1864, while on a vacation.

Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne stands as one of America's greatest writers, The Scarlet Letter is recognized as a powerful depiction of human nature, sin, and redemption, and many scholars now consider Hester Prynne one of America's first feminists.