Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romantic tale of sin, punishment, and redemption, The Scarlet Letter was destined to become an American classic when it was published in 1850; it has endured for over 150 years. Despite the absence of a fast-moving plot and the presence of a colorless Puritan setting, the story of Hester Prynne endures for good reason. At its most literal, The Scarlet Letter is an engrossing tale of psychological turmoil and passions gone awry. At its most figurative, the story can be interpreted as an allegory for a new America, a young country born out of revolution, in its own state of turmoil as it tries to find its way through the moral wilderness.
One of the first American psychological novels, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester Prynne, a beautiful, passionate young woman who has committed the sin of adultery and borne a child. As part of her punishment, for the remainder of her life she must wear a scarlet letter (A for “Adulteress”) to remind her—and every member of the Puritan community—of her sinful, shameful transgression. Early on, the reader discovers that the town’s much-loved minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, was her lover, but he is too cowardly to reveal the truth to the community. Hester’s long-missing husband arrives in town and discovers the truth. Hiding his own identity from the community, he makes it his mission in life to torment the long-suffering Dimmesdale, who grows gradually weaker from his inner turmoil. Meanwhile, Hester, cast out of society and raising her capricious young daughter, Pearl, in isolation, grows stronger and more liberal-minded as a result of her public condemnation. She eventually takes matters into her own hands, confronts her husband and makes plans to run away with Dimmesdale. However, Dimmesdale decides instead to repent before the townspeople and then dies with Hester and Pearl by his side.
Although the novel is set in a rigid Puritanical society, many of its themes still resonate today. Hawthorne explores the universal emotions of shame, guilt, pride, forgiveness, and compassion, as well as the power of revenge and secrecy, religious fervor and public scorn. America is a very different place today, but the Puritans can teach us a great deal about the relationship between the individual and society and about human nature. The Scarlet Letter is gripping, filled with mystery and ambiguity. Although the storyline may seem simplistic, the depth and complexity of the major characters drive the plot; over time, Arthur, Hester, Roger, and Pearl change in profound ways.
The story’s context is critical to a solid understanding of the book. The novel is set in Colonial Boston in the 1640s; settled by Puritans only a decade or so earlier, the town sits on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of the vast American wilderness. The settlement speaks to the singular vision of those who established it. Like the Puritans of the Plymouth colony, they were Protestants who deemed the church in England to be corrupt, lax in upholding moral behavior. They came to America in 1630 in pursuit of religious freedom, determined to create a model society in the new world, a pure society that adhered to their strict moral code. Consequently, the Puritan theocracy took root in New England: religion, politics, and law were inseparable. The Puritan ethic embraced not only hard work and a high, rigid standard of behavior, but also contempt for any thought, feeling, or action hinting at decadence or frivolity. Even the smallest personal transgression was seen as both sinful and dangerous, a threat to their spiritual purpose and to the community itself. It is in this society that Hester Prynne falls from grace, and these are the people who condemn her.
Nathaniel Hawthorne understood very well the nature of Puritanism. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804, he was a direct descendent of the Puritans, ever mindful of their sometimes tragic role in Colonial history. The Salem witch trials in the late seventeenth century haunted him; Judge Hathorne, one of several magistrates who presided at the trials, was his ancestor. Living with the sad legacy of the witch trials and being caught up in the turmoil of a young country struggling to define itself after the American Revolution quite likely contributed to Hawthorne’s interest in moral dilemmas, new civilizations, and social unrest. The Scarlet Letter was extremely well received when it was published in 1850, securing Hawthorne’s place as a preeminent American author.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe Puritan values in Colonial America.
2. Compare and contrast the different effects of externally imposed and internally motivated shame.
3. Discuss alienation and the relationship between the individual and society.
4. Identify and describe the primary emotions driving each of the main characters in the novel.
5. Show examples of ambiguity in the novel, and explain what that ambiguity symbolizes.
6. Describe the transformation of Hester Prynne.
7. Discuss which elements of the novel are still relevant today.