Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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 shame on the scaffold.

Interestingly, there is a spot of color in the prison yard. In the midst of the weeds and ugliness, a rosebush blooms. This can be seen as the landscape yielding up some hope for relief in all the surrounding bleakness.

Forest

Forest. Wilderness area surrounding the township. The forest is the scene of a meeting between Hester and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. It is a place of nature, beauty, and freedom from inhibitions. The sensual quality of the untamed land is a perfect backdrop for the forbidden lovers and the complete opposite of the repression of the settled areas of the colony. It is also in the covering of the forest that Hester is able to shed her shame, physically (by removal of the “A”) as well as mentally, and be a more free-spirited woman.

King’s Chapel Church

King’s Chapel Church. Church at which Arthur Dimmesdale is the pastor. The church is a typical New England building of worship—square and boxy—suggesting that something is pent in by its shape. It is within the cloak of the church that Dimmesdale hides from his part of the guilt of the adultery and where Hester’s sin is condemned in the name of God; it does not project an image of love or forgiveness.

Scaffold

Scaffold. Platform in the center of town, near the prison, where prisoners are brought for public viewing. The scaffold is the scene of Hester’s initial shame as well as the novel’s climax. Although it is under darkness of night that Dimmesdale stands on the platform with Hester to finally accept his shame, it is its openness that is important. It is elevated and open, a place for the revelation of secrets.

The Scarlet Letter Historical Context

1882 Woodcut Published by Gale Cengage

The Transcendentalist Movement
The Scarlet Letter, which takes as its principal subject colonial...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

The Scarlet Letter Quizzes

Chapters 1-4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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,...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Chapters 5-8 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Chapters 9-12 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Chapters 13-15 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Chapters 16-19 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Chapters 20-22 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Chapters 22-24 Questions and Answers

Questions
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...

(The entire section is 379 words.)