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.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.
• Before chapter Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension....
(The entire section is 447 words.)
1. Do you think Hester’s punishment fits her crime?
2. Do you feel any sympathy for Mr. Dimmesdale? Why or why not?
3. “It would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework.” Discuss how religion both supports and confines Mr. Dimmesdale.
4. Dimmesdale believes that his and Hester’s transgression was a crime of passion, while Roger Chillingworth’s crime related to principle. What is the difference?
5. Describing Hester’s charitable nature and good works, the narrator says, “Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
cogitating: thinking carefully and at length
contingency: possibility; event that may or may not occur
cumbrous: unwieldy, cumbersome
customary: habitual, usual
dearth: lack of
decorous: proper, respectable
detriment: harm, damage
exhorted: strongly urged
expatiate: speak or write at length or in detail
fastidious: clean, attentive to detail
filial: relating to a son or daughter
ignominiously: in a shameful or disgraceful...
(The entire section is 916 words.)
beadle: parish officer
congenial: pleasant, friendly
contumely: rudeness; harsh language or treatment
disposition: character, nature
flagrant: glaring, obvious
gentility: refinement characterized by good manners
inauspicious: not boding well; unfavorable
indubitably: without a doubt
infamy: evil kind of fame, negative reputation
interposed: placed or inserted between two things
malefactress: woman who does ill to another
penal: relating to punishment
petrified: terrified; solidified...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
astray: away from the proper or correct path
attribute: noun feature or trait; verb assign or ascribe
convulsive: violent or frantic, out of control
expound: present or explain in detail
furrowed: rutted with grooves
heterogeneous: consisting of many different parts that are not alike
peradventure: perhaps, without certainty
tremulous: quivering, nervous
unadulterated: pure, unmixed
unavailingly: in a futile and hopeless manner
1. Who does Hester perceive...
(The entire section is 703 words.)
amenable: open to, accepting
besmirches: soils, dishonors
composure: serenity, calm
expostulation: act of reasoning with a person to change his or her opinion
insubordination: defiance; not submitting to authority
intimate: verb suggest, imply
ligament: tie, connection
misbegotten: badly planned, illegitimate
peremptory: definitive, final
quietude: stillness, tranquility
rebuke: reprimand, reproach
requital: return, repayment
sagamores: Native American chiefs
scrutiny: close examination
(The entire section is 366 words.)
annihilate: destroy completely
ascetic: austere, disciplined
averred: declared, asserted
contumaciously: disobediently, defiantly
emolument: salary, income
inopportuneness: bad timing
morbid: unhealthy, unpleasant; relating to death
repugnance: disgust, aversion
reviled: criticized abusively
succor: assistance, support
superfluous: redundant; more than enough; unnecessary
1. Why do you think there would be “a more real torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshold of the prison” than when Hester was...
(The entire section is 707 words.)
anathemas: those which are intensely disliked, cursed
caprice: fancy, whimsy
disporting: enjoying oneself in a light or playful way
invariably: always, unchangingly
inviolable: sacred, never to be broken
smote: struck, hit
1. Why does Hester name her daughter Pearl?
A pearl is a beautiful treasure of great value. Hester’s daughter is “of great price,—purchased with all [Hester] had, —her mother’s only treasure!”
2. Discuss Pearl’s personality? Why does Hester think Pearl behaves as she does?
Pearl does not like convention. She is “in...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
cabalistic: having secret or mystical meaning
eminence: position of great prominence and superiority; distinguished person
panoply: impressive array, complete collection
wayfarers: ones who travel on foot
1. Why does Hester go to visit the Governor?
Hester has heard a rumor that her child may be taken away from her. She visits the Governor to ask him not to allow this to happen.
2. Pearl is likened to “a little jet of flame” and has a “fire in her and throughout her.” What does this metaphor...
(The entire section is 330 words.)
clew: ball of yarn
indefeasible: cannot be annulled or made void
mountebank: charlatan, one who deceives others
sundering: splitting apart
temporal: earthly, secular (as opposed to spiritual)
1. Describe the opening scene at the Governor’s mansion.
Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, Roger Chillingworth, and Reverend Dimmesdale have all been walking in the garden. They enter the house, where Hester is waiting, half hidden behind a curtain. Pearl is standing in the entrance, and the Governor sees her first.
2. When asked what she can do for the child, Hester points to the...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
commodiousness: comfort, spaciousness
emaciated: extremely thin, bony
imminent: about to happen
importunate: persistent; intrusive
opportune: favorable, well timed
pilloried: scorned, ridiculed
propounded: proposed, put forward
providential: fortunate; resulting from divine foresight
refutation: act of disproving, counter-argument
sagacity: shrewdness, wisdom
vindicate: prove right
1. What is Mr. Dimmesdale’s reputation? How is this ironic?
Mr. Dimmesdale has...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
armorial: related to bearing arms
askance: with disapproval
demerit: failing, shortcoming
inimical: hostile, harmful
ordinance: a command, a decree
palliate: soothe, allay
sexton: caretaker of a church
somniferous: inducing sleep
1. When speaking to Roger Chillingworth, how does Mr. Dimmesdale justify keeping secrets?
Dimmesdale believes that if certain evil secrets are revealed, then the sinful person can no longer do any good within his community. Their revelation will tarnish anything he tries to do going forward. It is better to endure the “unutterable torment” of...
(The entire section is 584 words.)
abhorrence: hatred, repulsion
abstruse: obscure, difficult to understand
apostolic: relating to the Apostles
attestation: confirmation, affirmation
etherealized: made intangible and heavenly
ineffectual: ineffective, not creating the desired effect
iniquity: immorality, injustice
latent: hidden, dormant
malice: cruel, ill-intentioned
presentiments: intuitive feelings, foreboding
smiting: inflicting a heavy blow, conquering
1. Now that Roger Chillingworth is certain that he has found Hester’s lover, why does he not expose Dimmesdale?
(The entire section is 516 words.)
defunct: deceased; no longer valid
despondency: melancholy, despair
erudite: well spoken, scholarly
impute: ascribe, assign value to something
malevolence: evil intention; vindictiveness
portent: omen, foreboding
scurrilous: insulting, rude with the intention of harming someone
zenith: the point in the sky right above an observer, the highest point
1. What does Mr. Dimmesdale decide to do? What do you think of his decision?
Dimmesdale decides to stand on the scaffold in the public square where Hester stood in full view of...
(The entire section is 612 words.)
abased: shamed, humiliated
effluence: that which flows out
meed: a fitting reward
obviated: removed, prevented, avoided
stigmatized: branded as disgraceful
1. What does it mean that Hester “did not weigh upon [the community’s] sympathies”?
Hester does not ask anything of others. She does not ask for sympathy or understanding and gives no one in the community reason to hate her.
2. How has public opinion of Hester changed over the years?
Hester has been so pure and so accepting of her punishment that the community believes she...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
bane: curse; cause of great distress
conferred: given, bestowed (as in a title)
derisively: disrespectfully, scornfully
propinquity: proximity, closeness
purport: appear or claim to be or to do something (often falsely)
usurping: unrightfully taking someone’s place or a position of power by force
1. Why does Hester not respond with any enthusiasm when Roger Chillingworth tells her that the magistrate has been considering whether her scarlet letter might be taken off?
Hester knows the scarlet letter itself is not the issue. If she were worthy enough for it to be gone, “it would fall away of...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
acrid: pungent, sharp
ascertain: determine, establish
beneficence: kindness; quality of being charitable
enigma: mystery, puzzle
petulant: ill-humored, sulky
precocity: maturity, early development, ahead of one’s years
sedulous: careful, diligent
talisman: good luck charm
upbraided: reproved, found fault with
1. Hester concludes, “[Chillingworth] has done me worse wrong than I did him!” In what way is this true?
The fact that he persuaded her to marry him at all was a...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
listlessness: lacking energy or will
loquacity: quality of being wordy or talkative
repining: unhappy, yearning for something
scintillating: sparkling, clever
ulterior: hidden, underlying (often as in motive)
1. Why do you think Hawthorne set this encounter in the forest? Why is it an appropriate place for Hester and Dimmesdale to meet?
The forest is literally and figuratively outside the boundaries of society. It is a wilderness where the rules do not apply. They could never meet in the town where they would be seen; also, it is too confining for the thoughts that Hester needs to express. They can only...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
contiguity: continuous state
epoch: era, period
estranged: separated, no longer close (as with a spouse)
malignity: wishing ill upon others, hatred
misanthropy: hatred of humankind
penance: act of self-punishment to demonstrate regret for a sin
1. When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest, the narrator describes their reunion in the following way: “Each a ghost, and awe-stricken by the other ghost!” What does he mean?
The narrator describes them as ghosts for several reasons. Both Hester and Dimmesdale are shadows of their former selves, much...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
extenuation: justification, excuse to explain circumstances
irrevocably: in a manner that cannot be changed or revoked
1. “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.” Interpret the meaning of this passage.
Banished from society, Hester has been living in a “moral wilderness” and is therefore free of society’s constraints. Not shackled by the same rules as other women, she has learned from her solitude and shame and is now the stronger for it.
2. What symbolic act does Hester perform? What is the result of her...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
alloy: verb moderate; temper
cankered: infected with corruption
deportment: behavior, conduct
mollified: soothed, appeased (often as in appeasing anger)
1. Hester repeats several times that Dimmesdale will love Pearl and that she will love him back. Why do you think she says this so many times?
She hopes it will be so, she wishes that it would be so, but she is perhaps not entirely certain how Pearl will feel about Dimmesdale and whether Dimmesdale will understand Pearl. Her repetition suggests that she is trying to convince herself that they will love each other, not that she truly believes that...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
blight: verb destroy; noun plant disease
potentate: monarch, ruler
vicissitude: change, mutation
1. Where do Hester and Dimmesdale decide to go? Why? When?
They decide to return to the Old World, which will afford them better shelter and concealment. Besides, Dimmesdale is too weak to live in the wild. They plan to leave on a ship in four days, after Dimmesdale preaches the Election Sermon.
2. How does Dimmesdale’s state of mind change upon his return to town? Give an example of an...
(The entire section is 299 words.)
animadversion: strong criticism
depredations: attacks, ravages, despoilments
galliard: a lively dance once popular in France
jocularity: playfulness in a joking manner
mirthful: cheerful, merry
periled: endangered, at risk
unbenignantly: done without kindness or beneficial intent
1. What is Pearl’s impression of Dimmesdale?
Pearl finds it strange and confusing that Dimmesdale can be so affectionate and kind in the dark of night and in the gloom of the forest but not in the bright light of day.
2. Who stands out among the crowd at the...
(The entire section is 263 words.)
pathos: feeling of pity or sadness
plaintiveness: expressing sorrow
undulating: in a wavelike motion
unscrupulous: without morals, unprincipled
vivacity: liveliness, high spirits
1. How is the order of the parade representative of the Puritans’ values? What is the most-respected category?
Members of the military come first (least important), followed by the civil leaders, who, though not brilliant, are a dignified and respectable lot. Last of all comes Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, representing the highest, most revered tier of society.
2. Why do you think...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
afflictions: cause of mental or bodily pain; sickness or loss
imperceptible: very slight, not perceived by the senses
irreverent: lacking respect, defiant
stigma: a mark of disgrace or reproach
1. What is the subject of Mr. Dimmesdale’s sermon?
Dimmesdale speaks about the relationship between man and God. He speaks about the New England that the people are creating and the “high and glorious destiny” ahead.
2. What is the response to Dimmesdale’s sermon? Why do you think this is so?
The congregation finds Mr. Dimmesdale more elevated than ever before. He is revered...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
consummation: completion, fulfillment
escutcheon: shield on which a coat of arms is depicted
gules: heraldic color red
impediments: obstructions, obstacles
nugatory: worthless, ineffective
parable: short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson
transmuted: changed from one state into another
1. What do people claim they saw the day of Dimmesdale’s death, and why? What is the significance of the fact that they saw different things?
Some claim to have seen the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale’s chest, and there is much conjecture...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
1. What is the setting of the story?
A. Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch trials of the late seventeenth century
B. Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-1600s
C. Salem, Massachusetts in 1850
D. An unnamed town on the eastern seaboard right before the American Revolution
E. Concord, Massachusetts just after the American Revolution
2. What purpose does the chapter on the Custom-House serve?
A. It informs the reader how the narrator came upon the scarlet letter, giving the story credibility.
B. It establishes the narrator as Hester’s...
(The entire section is 2214 words.)
1. The settings of certain pivotal scenes in the story are important physically as well as figuratively. Give three examples of scenes in the novel in which the physical setting plays a metaphoric role, and explain what that role is.
In the opening scene, Hester is forced to stand on a scaffold in the marketplace so that everyone can scorn her publicly. This scene is fraught with symbols. The marketplace is the heart of the town, and the setting is a metaphor for the townspeople’s Puritan outlook. A strict moral code prevails in town. Hester’s punishment takes place in a public space, indicating that punishment in the Puritan era is a group undertaking and an active part of daily life. In town, Hester is entirely...
(The entire section is 2394 words.)