At a Glance

  • Hester's scarlet letter is a symbol of sin: the "A" literally stands for adultery and visibly marks her a sinner in the eyes of Boston's Puritan population. In Hester's religious community, sinners are outcasts, making the scarlet letter a symbol not just of sin but of isolation. While Hester wears the letter, she has no companionship other than Pearl's. Eventually, she internalizes and embraces the scarlet letter, wearing it even after there's no need to.
  • Color plays an important role in the novel. Both red and scarlet symbolize sin or evil, but also fire and passion and love. Hester's drab clothes hide her passionate nature and sharply contrast with the rich, embroidered finery that Hester sews for Pearl. Pearl's spectacular red dress makes her the visual embodiment of her mother's sins and passions.
  • Given the Puritan setting, there is a surprising amount of deceit in the novel. Hester refuses to reveal the identity of Pearl's father, Dimmesdale doesn't confess, and Hester's husband assumes the name Chillingworth with her promise not to reveal his secret. These acts of deceit become evidence of sins that would not be character flaws were the novel set somewhere other than Puritan Boston.


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was an 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

The prison and courtyard are the 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.


The forest is the 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 is the 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.


The scaffold is the 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.

Historical Context

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1882 Woodcut Published by Gale Cengage

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

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Literary Style

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One of the most obvious problems when discussing The Scarlet Letter is determining the identity of the...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Hawthorne organizes the story of Hester and Dimmesdale around three key scenes, each of which takes place on the scaffold outside the prison...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Scarlet Letter is one of the most widely taught novels in high schools and colleges. This story of young adults whose passions are...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Nathaniel Hawthorne has been described as the chronicler of America's Puritan heritage. The Scarlet Letter is the best known of dozens...

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Compare and Contrast

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  • 1640s: The Puritans believed in their mission to establish a model community for the Protestant world....

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Topics for Further Study

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  • Research the role of Hawthorne's relative, John Hathorne, in the Salem witch trials and discuss how this influences your interpretation of...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The principal precedents for Hawthorne's stories lie in two areas: the tragedies of classical and Renaissance literature and the romances of...

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Related Titles

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Many of Hawthorne's novels and stories share some affinities with The Scarlet Letter. A number of his short stories, notably "The...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Not surprisingly, The Scarlet Letter has been a favorite subject for movie makers, television producers, and the growing market in...

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Media Adaptations

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Scene Starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson Published by Gale Cengage
  • The Scarlet Letter has received several film adaptations beginning with director Victor Seastrom's 1926 silent version...

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What Do I Read Next?

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. This volume is an excellent source book for historical and critical texts relating to Hawthorne’s novel.

Gerber, John C., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “The Scarlet Letter”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Twenty essays for the beginning student that explore background, form, techniques, and interpretations. Includes a useful chronology that pairs dates in Hawthorne’s life with historical events.

Gross, Seymour, ed. A “Scarlet Letter” Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960. A discussion of Hawthorne’s earlier fiction, followed by a collection of brief essays on themes, characters, symbolism, and structure. Includes topics for discussion and student papers and an annotated bibliography.

Thomas, Brook. “Love and Politics, Sympathy and Justice in The Scarlet Letter.” In The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Richard H. Millington. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. This essay examines the question of marriage as it relates to the Puritan tradition and to Hawthorne’s novel.

Turner, Arlin. The Merrill Studies in “The Scarlet Letter.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. Essays for the general reader, including pieces on Hawthorne’s process of composition, reviews of the novel dating back to its publication in 1850, nineteenth century commentary, and a sampling of twentieth century approaches.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Baym, Nina. "Plot in Hawthorne's Romances." In Ruined Eden of the Present, edited by G. R. Thompson...

(The entire section is 668 words.)