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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 most of 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 and 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 mindset that 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 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 his relationship with Hester 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.

Literary Style

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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, “I have allowed myself . . . nearly or altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention” and says that 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 in symbols. 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 of religious dissenters in colonial Massachusetts. It also symbolizes Hester and even anticipates the scarlet letter that she wears.

Individuals in the novel can also be understood as symbols. For instance, Arthur Dimmesdale, with all of his profound pain and suffering, is symbolic of the high value of truth and the irony of its unattainability.


Another of Hawthorne’s techniques, one that so effectively immerses us in the atmosphere of his story, is his use of setting. The entire novel takes place in and around the small colonial town of Boston, Massachusetts. As Hawthorne describes it, the town is situated precariously between the sea and the great “wilderness” of unsettled America. What lies outside the town is a “black forest,” strongly symbolic of moral absence and evil. Thus, the narrator describes a “footpath” that straggled onward into the “mystery of the primeval forest. This [forest] hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side . . . that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.” (©eNotes) Here we see an almost claustrophobic pressure being evoked, which alludes to not only Hester but also the community of which she is a part, always facing the possibility of moral failure.

As seen above, Hawthorne uses color adeptly in his description of settings. Besides the black wilderness, there is the gray of the village and its inhabitants, who, as the narrator describes, “seemed never to have known a youthful era.” Even though the town was in fact a young settlement, the jail “was already marked with weather stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its . . . gloomy front.” In fact, it is precisely the dark and gloomy depiction of the town that helps to provide a tension with the forest, as if the town were already much like the forest and therefore more liable to be absorbed by its influence.


While the importance of ambiguity as a theme has already been emphasized, it must still be described as one of Hawthorne’s most important techniques. Repeatedly, where the reader expects to be given sure information, Hawthorne qualifies and withdraws assurance to the point that the reader is often left frustrated. In chapter 16, even the small forest brook by which Hester discards the scarlet letter hint at ambiguity: the

giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool.

Hawthorne pens this beautiful passage to remind the reader, seemingly at every turn, that meaning, or truth, will be profoundly difficult to uncover.

Literary Techniques

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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 reference Hawthorne makes explicit at one point in the text. Seen by some as a symbol of shame for an adulterous union, Pearl is instead the embodiment of the natural joy that 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 sign of her sin. The symbol not only appears on Hester’s clothes embroidered in cloth; it is seen in the sky when Hester and Dimmesdale meet by night near the scaffold, and it appears (to some, at least) on Dimmesdale’s breast when the two are united again on the scaffold in broad daylight before the community. In the course of the narrative, Hawthorne transposes the scarlet letter into a symbol of honor and defiance against a system that denies human feeling.

Literary Precedents

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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 that 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 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 each represents one of the principal figures in Hawthorne’s story.

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Historical and Social Context