Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Massachusetts Bay Colony
*Massachusetts Bay Colony. Early American New England colony established by British Puritans who were seeking religious freedom. This is the primary setting of the novel in which all the other places to be mentioned are found. While ostensibly seeking a place of freedom, the Puritans had created a society more repressive than America has ever known through the present day. Beauty and creativity in the surroundings the Puritans themselves created were not valued. A premium was instead placed on utilitarianism and frugality.
While there must surely have been sunshine and beautiful landscapes in the actual area, Hawthorne focuses on the starker, gray quality of New England as those qualities seem to reflect the personalities of its citizens. Hester has been jailed, then ostracized, for her crime of committing adultery and having a child out of wedlock. As a result, there are very few bright spots in her world. The hard, dark landscape with its cleared fields and minimalist human-made structures mirrors the rigid mind-set which represses her.
Prison and courtyard
Prison and courtyard. Colony’s jail, in which readers first encounter Hester and her daughter, Pearl. The jail cell where Hester spends the days of her imprisonment is presented as small and gloomy. It is in the prison’s courtyard, also plain and cheerless, where Hester is dragged in front of the townspeople to parade her...
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The Transcendentalist Movement
The Scarlet Letter, which takes as its principal subject colonial seventeenth-century New England, was written and published in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne began writing the novel in 1849, after his dismissal from the Custom-House, and it was published in 1850. The discrepancy between the time represented in the novel and the time of its production has often been a point of confusion to students. Because Hawthorne took an earlier time as his subject, the novel is considered a historical romance written in the midst of the American literary movement called transcendentalism (c. 1836-60).
The principle writers of transcendentalism included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and W. H. Channing. Transcendentalism was, broadly speaking, a reaction against the rationalism of the previous century and the religious orthodoxy of Calvinist New England. Transcendentalism stressed the romantic tenets of mysticism, idealism, and individualism. In religious terms it saw God not as a distant and harsh authority, but as an essential aspect of the individual and the natural world, which were themselves considered inseparable. Because of this profound unity of all matter, human...
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Chapters 1-4 Questions and Answers
1. What is the setting of the story?
2. What legend accounts for the existence of the rose bush by the prison door?
3. What is the mood of the crowd, and why is their attention focused on the door?
4. What reasons are given as to why Hester Prynne was not executed for her crime? What would the Puritan women have done to her if given the power?
5. What are Hester’s specific actions as she walks from the prison to the scaffold?
6. What memories does Hester review during her three-hour ordeal?
7. Tell where each of the following are located while Hester is on the scaffold: her daughter Pearl, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, and her former husband, Roger Chillingworth.
8. What specifically is Dimmesdale’s plea to Hester?
9. During their interview, what is Chillingworth’s attitude toward Hester and her act of infidelity?
10. What promise does Chillingworth exact from Hester?
1. The Scarlet Letter is set in the Puritan colony of Salem, Massachusetts during the 1640s. Specifically, the action begins in the market-place of Salem on a morning in June 1642.
2. The rose bush was said to have grown out of the footsteps of Anne Hutchinson. She was a heretic who taught that personal faith was superior to the force of moral law. The Puritans imprisoned her, then drove...
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Chapters 5-8 Questions and Answers
1. After her ordeal, where did Hester choose to live? Why?
2. What occupation did Hester take up?
3. Describe Hester’s appearance and mental state during this time period.
4. Give at least three examples of Hester’s treatment by the community.
5. Describe Pearl’s personality and appearance.
6. What is Pearl’s reaction to the scarlet letter?
7. Why does Hester go the Governor’s house?
8. Describe the luxury of the Governor’s home, especially in contrast to an ordinary Puritan’s lifestyle.
9. How does Pearl behave when questioned by the men?
10. How does Hester succeed in her mission, and how does this relate to her conversation with Mistress Hibbins?
1. Free to go anywhere, Hester remains in Salem, taking up residence in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of the community. She does so because she feels connected to Salem by her sin and because she feels linked to the man who was her lover.
2. Hester’s ability to sew, shown by her embroidering of the scarlet letter itself, allows her to support herself. She sews everything from funeral shrouds to fancy apparel for the upper class.
3. On the outside Hester exhibits the somber manner the Puritans demand of her. She wears drab and coarse clothing and interacts with the community only in her...
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Chapters 9-12 Questions and Answers
1. What are the townspeople’s reactions to Chillingworth’s lodging in the same house as Dimmesdale?
2. What changes have taken place in Chillingworth over the years?
3. What actions does Dimmesdale take to punish himself?
4. Why is Chillingworth called a “leech,” and why, at another point, does the narrator compare him to a miner?
5. What is the significance of Chillingworth’s examining Dimmesdale’s chest?
6. What is the reaction of Dimmesdale’s parishioners to his sermons?
7. For what reasons are the major characters at the scaffold during the night?
8. Why does Dimmesdale cry out while on the scaffold?
9. Where is each major character located when the meteor is seen?
10. What are the various interpretations the characters attribute to the shape of the meteor?
1. Many are happy that a doctor will be close at hand to tend to their beloved minister. It is seen as the answer to their prayers. Others begin to notice changes in Chillingworth’s appearance and personality, and rumors circulate that he might be in league with the devil. If there is any conflict between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, they are sure the goodness in Dimmesdale will win out.
2. There was something ugly and evil in his face. It was widely held that he was the devil or the devil’s...
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Chapters 13-15 Questions and Answers
1. What are the effects of the letter on Hester Prynne over this seven year interval?
2. What crime has Hester committed which, if known to the Puritans, would have resulted in her death?
3. What value does Hester place upon her life?
4. What does Hester see as necessary before women would be treated equally in society?
5. What is the meaning of the line, “the scarlet letter had not done its office”?
6. Why does Hester feel responsible for Dimmesdale’s physical condition?
7. What favors does Chillingworth feel he has done for Dimmesdale?
8. Why is Chillingworth even more vengeful towards Dimmes-dale?
9. When is Hester untrue to the scarlet letter?
10. What is the current relationship between Hester and Pearl?
1. Her quiet acceptance of her status and her charity work have won her respect. The scarlet letter is now said to stand for “Able” and is even said by some to have a supernatural power to protect the wearer, but the letter and Pearl’s reaction to it are a source of continual pain. On the surface Hester is uncomplaining and somber, but her passions have been redirected into thoughts about the individual’s role in society.
2. Hester’s free speculation about life and her abandonment of Puritan values, if known, would have been held a far deadlier...
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Chapters 16-19 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Hester prefer to meet with Dimmesdale in the forest rather than in the settlement?
2. What significance can be attributed to the play of sunlight on Pearl and Hester?
3. What story does Pearl hear of her mother’s involvement with the Black Man of the Forest?
4. What are Dimmesdale’s reactions when Hester tells him Chillingworth’s true identity?
5. What effect does Hester have upon Dimmesdale?
6. How does Pearl fit into the forest setting?
7. Why does Pearl refuse to retrieve the scarlet letter herself?
8. Why does Pearl insist that the scarlet letter be replaced?
9. What is the effect on Hester when she replaces the letter on her bosom?
10. What is the significance of Pearl’s reaction to the minister?
1. Hester prefers the openness of the forest for their important talk. She also fears the interference of Chillingworth if the two meet anywhere in the settlement.
2. Here, sunlight seems to symbolize happiness and acceptance of the individual by nature. Pearl delights in the light while it eludes Hester when she reaches for it.
3. Pearl has overheard rumors that her mother meets regularly with the devil in the forest. Hester denies this and admits to meeting with the devil once and receiving the scarlet letter from him. Hester is referring...
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Chapters 20-22 Questions and Answers
1. What is Hester’s plan for Dimmesdale, Pearl, and herself?
2. What is Dimmesdale tempted to do as he returns to his room? Why?
3. What decision does he make as he reaches his lodging?
4. What does the Puritan celebration tell about their values?
5. How has Chillingworth interfered with Hester’s plan?
6. What does the procession show about Puritan values?
7. What is the minister’s mental state as he walks to the meeting-house? What effect does he have upon Hester?
8. Where is Hester standing during Dimmesdale’s sermon?
9. Why does Hester become the center of the crowd’s attention? What irony does the narrator see in the scene?
10. What is Pearl doing during the sermon?
1. Hester will arrange passage to England for the three of them with a ship’s captain who is leaving in four days.
2. As the minister encounters people on his way he is tempted to suggest obscene religious practices to a deacon, heretical comments about doctrines to a pious woman, and impure ideas to a young maiden. His weakened mind is not accustomed to thinking outside the basic Puritan guidelines.
3. Since he is scheduled to deliver an important sermon one day before the escape to England, Dimmesdale is moved to write a new and more powerful sermon. The encounter with Hibbins...
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Chapters 22-24 Questions and Answers
1. What is the topic and mood of Dimmesdale’s sermon?
2. Describe the minister’s condition after the speech, and tell which people offer him assistance.
3. Where are the four major characters during the final scaffold scene?
4. What changes occur in Pearl? What does she accept from Dimmesdale?
5. What moral does the narrator say is central to the story?
6. What are the various versions of what was seen on Dimmesdale’s chest?
7. What is the effect of Dimmesdale’s confession on Chillingworth?
8. What is the effect of Chillingworth’s legacy to Pearl?
9. Describe the circumstances of Hester’s return to Salem.
10. Are the two lovers ever united?
1. Dimmesdale’s sermon is a passionate and surprisingly positive one about the relationship of God to the Puritan community and about the “high and glorious destiny for the newly gathered people of the Lord.”
2. Dimmesdale seems near death. He rejects the assistance of Reverend Wilson and of Governor Bellingham, but accepts the help of Hester as he mounts the scaffold.
3. All four, Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, are now on the scaffold.
4. Dimmesdale’s kiss acknowledges Pearl as his child, and breaks the spell which seems to have held Pearl captive. She cries and, we are told,...
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One of the most obvious problems when discussing The Scarlet Letter is determining the identity of the narrator. This difficulty is clearly intentional. In the second paragraph of "The Custom-House," Hawthorne claims that he is merely "explaining how a large portion of the following pages came into [his] possession," hoping to offer "proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained." Hawthorne proclaims himself only an editor, "or very little more." Yet later he states that "I have allowed myself . . . nearly or altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention," and all he is willing to verify is "the authenticity of the outline " Thus Hawthorne's characteristic use of ambiguity is both a central theme and a central technique of the novel.
The Scarlet Letter is rich with symbols; in fact, it is largely regarded as the first symbolic novel in America. A symbol is, like a metaphor, something that stands for, or represents, something else: an object, a person, even an idea. But the term "symbol" is used to describe a substitution with more power, or profound meaning, for which the term "metaphor" is inadequate. Of course, the scarlet letter itself is the principal symbol in the novel, but there are many others. In the first chapter the wild rosebush symbolizes dissent in its reference to the historical figure Anne Hutchinson, who led a group...
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Hawthorne organizes the story of Hester and Dimmesdale around three key scenes, each of which takes place on the scaffold outside the prison in Boston. Each is used to make some key revelation about his hero and heroine. Throughout the novel, the author balances his narrative among scenes describing the career of Hester among the villagers, the growing agony felt by Dimmesdale over his concealed sin, and the insidious efforts of Chillingworth to discover his wife's lover.
The novelist also makes superb use of imagery and symbolism. With great frequency, he makes symbolic associations between his characters and natural phenomena; light and darkness are employed to highlight the moral state of the minister, the physician, and the woman who is willing to remain in the village where she has been publicly humiliated. Hawthorne also makes suggestive use of names: Dimmesdale is one for whom the light of spirituality is dimmed by secular failings; Chillingworth is a man without warmth, in whom the chill of evil is predominant. Similarly, Pearl is a living embodiment of the "pearl of great price" mentioned in the Bible — a point Hawthorne makes explicit at one point in the text. Seen by some as a symbol of shame for an adulterous union, she is instead the embodiment of the natural joy which emerges from a union sanctioned by a power higher than Puritan society.
The central symbol in the novel, of course, is the letter "A" worn by Hester as an outward...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The Scarlet Letter is one of the most widely taught novels in high schools and colleges. This story of young adults whose passions are thwarted in a society governed by codes of conduct inimical to natural human emotions has generated discussion and debate for decades. Most readers recognize that adultery is wrong, and yet they cannot help but sympathize with Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale; somehow, readers find their head and heart at odds, especially when they consider that Hester's husband, Chillingworth, is a cold prig intent on revenge and seemingly devoid of any real feelings for his wife. Hawthorne uses a number of subtle literary devices to emphasize the dichotomy of law versus feeling, and his tale continues to evoke powerful emotional reactions.
1. Hawthorne makes extensive use of the historical background of Puritan New England to set a tone for his novel. How accurate is his portrait of the period? What details does he highlight? What aspects of Puritan society does he downplay?
2. How does Hawthorne use images from the natural world to highlight the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of Puritan society?
3. Numerous critics have argued about the "real hero" of The Scarlet Letter. While many have seen Hester as the strong figure in which the novelist embodies the highest qualities of human nature which he admires, a number believe Hawthorne intended readers to see Dimmesdale as the central figure in this tragedy....
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Nathaniel Hawthorne has been described as the chronicler of America's Puritan heritage. The Scarlet Letter is the best known of dozens of novels and tales in which the writer recreates the ambiance of a period in American history when religious and social intolerance stifled individual expression and forced young men and women to restrain their natural passions. Not only were personal idiosyncrasies looked upon with disdain or even hostility; the countryside was in the grips of hysteria stirred up by preachers and politicians who engendered a religious fervor among the populace, to the point where deviance from strict religious practices or small social or moral transgressions became evidence of imagined crimes of heinous proportions. Hawthorne's own ancestors participated in the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts.
The attitudes which dominated New England society during the turbulent decades of the early colonial period form the basis for the portrait of society which the novelist aims to capture in his tale of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale's ill-fated love affair. The novelist believed the American character was shaped in part by the events and communal state of mind of this bygone era, and that future generations must understand their ancestry to make sense of contemporary society.
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Compare and Contrast
1640s: The Puritans believed in their mission to establish a model community for the Protestant world.
1850s: America had developed an ideology of "manifest destiny" that held that the prosperous expansion of Americans across the continent was inevitable and ordained, and implied that the country was destined to become a great global power.
Today: America's global power seems both assured with the splitting of the Soviet Union, and a thing of the past with the rise of countries like Japan and Germany to economic power.
- 1640s: The colonists, though not clearly provoked, fought with the Narraganset Indians against the Pequot Indians, at one point killing seven hundred Pequot men, women, and children.
1850s: Native land claims had all but been eliminated east of the Mississippi with President Jackson's removal of the "five civilized tribes" in the late 1830s. Their bitter march to Oklahoma is known as "The Trail of Tears."
Today: Native peoples survive and grow in geographically dispersed areas and continue to fight legal battles over land claims.
- 1640s: Anne Hutchinson had recently disturbed the Massachusetts Bay Colony by asserting that inward knowledge of the Holy Spirit, not outward good...
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the role of Hawthorne's relative, John Hathorne, in the Salem witch trials and discuss how this influences your interpretation of the novel.
- Read a work by one of Hawthorne's transcendentalist contemporaries (like Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature, or Henry David Thoreau's Walden) and compare what you think to be their world view with that of Hawthorne's.
- Investigate the idea of crime and/or the role of women in colonial New England and compare your findings with Hawthorne's representation of Hester. You might want to consider what the Puritans feared that would justify their particular laws and actions.
- Look at some histories of the European revolutions of 1848 and consider why they may have caused Hawthorne some anxiety.
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The principal precedents for Hawthorne's stories lie in two areas: the tragedies of classical and Renaissance literature and the romances of the Gothic period of the late eighteenth century. From the latter Hawthorne borrows the technique of the discovered manuscript, found by the narrator in the Custom House section of the book, a long introduction to the principal story. The gloomy forest scenes, the hidden secrets which torment the hero and heroine, and the presence of an evil villain are all staples of Gothic tradition. Hawthorne's characterizations are based more closely on the intense psychological portraits one finds in the works of Greek tragedians Sophocles and Aeschylus, or more especially in the great works of Shakespeare. Like Oedipus Rex, The Scarlet Letter is filled with coincidence that might strain the limits of realism, but it is easy to overlook the contrived nature of the plot because the central interest of both author and reader is in the psychological dimensions of the principal characters. In this area Hawthorne is a master.
Having assumed a place of prominence in the canon of American literature, The Scarlet Letter has itself served as precedent for a number of tales and novels. Most notably, in the twentieth century novelist John Updike has composed a modern version of the story. His novels A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger's Version (1984) and S. (1988) form a trilogy, in which the protagonist of...
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Many of Hawthorne's novels and stories share some affinities with The Scarlet Letter. A number of his short stories, notably "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Ethan Brand," contain characters and incidents distinctly reminiscent of those in this novel. These and many others, including "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "Young Goodman Brown," deal with similar themes and rely on the history of Puritan New England as background. The House of the Seven Gables (1851), a novel written by Hawthorne immediately after he published The Scarlet Letter, is also a scathing indictment of Puritan values.
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Not surprisingly, The Scarlet Letter has been a favorite subject for movie makers, television producers, and the growing market in audio and video recording. During the era of silent films, several versions of Hawthorne's story were produced, the most distinguished being a 1926 blockbuster starring Lillian Gish as Hester, newcomer Lars Hanson as Dimmesdale, and Henry Walthall as Chillingworth. Produced by Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, this version was carefully crafted to downplay the sexual transgressions of the heroine so as to avoid censure by religious groups and preserve Gish's screen reputation.
In 1934, Hollywood director Robert Vignola orchestrated an unusual version of the tale which introduced elements of comedy into Hawthorne's bleak tale. Starring Colleen Moore, Hardie Albright, and (once again) Henry Walthall, the movie attracted mixed reviews. A German-language version, reasonably faithful to the original story, was released in 1973, featuring European film star Senta Berger. In 1979, and again in 1991, the novel was adapted for television in two multi-part series released by the public broadcasting and national humanities agencies; both were acclaimed for their faithful treatment of the author's themes, and for the quality of acting. The latter was accompanied by a documentary outlining the research involved in producing the film.
In 1995, The Scarlet Letter once again made headlines when Hollywood released a...
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- The Scarlet Letter has received several film adaptations beginning with director Victor Seastrom's 1926 silent version starring Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne. The first talkie version, directed by Robert Vignola in 1934 (produced by London Films) and starring Colleen Moore, is available from Nostalgia Family Video, though it is probably difficult to locate a rental copy.
- Recent film productions include a 1973 international version directed by Wim Wenders that received good reviews (Ingram International Films; in German with English subtitles). PBS aired a four-hour version in 1979 that stars Meg Foster as Hester and John Heard as Dimmesdale. Rick Harser's direction is faithful to the novel (PBS Home Video; four video cassettes). A similar educational version was produced in 1991 and is available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences
- One of the great flops of recent years is the 1995 Hollywood production directed by Roland Joffe and starring Demi Moore as Hester, Gary Oldman as Dimmesdale and Robert Duvall as Chillingworth (available from Hollywood Pictures Home Video). Be careful not to embarrass yourself by relying on this film as a guide to the novel.
- There are also a number of sound recordings of the novel. Audio Partners Inc. (of Auburn, CA) published an abridged version in 1986 read by Michael Learned (the full title is Michael Learned reads The Scarlet Letter). The Brilliance Corporation...
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What Do I Read Next?
- The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne's third novel, which he personally thought was a better piece of work than The Scarlet Letter, about the cursed house of the Pyncheon family where the sins of fathers are passed on to their descendants.
- The Bird Artist, Howard Norman's recent (1994) novel about an artist in a small Newfoundland coastal village, is a story of crime and adultery in a place without the religious authority of Hawthorne's Boston.
- The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987) by Carol F. Karlsen shows that the violent Salem witch trials were not only directed primarily at women, but particularly women who stood to inherit property and, thus, power.
- William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, (1983) is a seminal work of environmental history that describes the impact the early settlers had on New England native peoples and the environment.
- Life in the Iron Mills (1861) by Rebecca Harding Davis is the powerful story of the physical and emotional oppression and struggle of a mid-nineteenth-century mill-worker. Published about a decade after Hawthorne's novel, it is even more of an anomaly in the...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
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.
Boudreau, Kristin. “Hawthorne’s Model of Christian Charity.” In Sympathy in American Literature: American Sentiments from Jefferson to the Jameses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. This chapter relates Hawthorne’s novel to the question of Christian charity in the writings of Puritan governor John Winthrop.
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.
Durst Johnson, Claudia. Understanding the Scarlet Letter: A Student...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baym, Nina. "Plot in Hawthorne's Romances." In Ruined Eden of the Present, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke. Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 49-70.
———. The Scarlet Letter: A Reading. Boston: Twayn, 1986.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Office of the Scarlet Letter. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Carpenter, Frederic I. "Scarlet A Minus." In College English, Vol. 5, 1944, pp. 173-80.
Coxe, Arthur Cleveland. "The Writings of Hawthorne." In Church Review, January, 1851, pp. 489-511.
Duyckinck, Evert A. Review in Literary World, March 30, 1850, pp. 323-25.
Gerber, John C. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Norwalk, Connecticut: Heritage Press, 1973.
James, Henry. Hawthorne. Macmillan & Co., London, 1879.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Oxford University Press, 1941.
The Scarlet Letter; an annotated text, backgrounds, and sources. New York: Norton, 1962.
Whipple, Edwin Percy. Review in Graham's Magazine, May, 1850, pp. 345-46.
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