Introductory Lecture and Objectives

The Scarlet Letter eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

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.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

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.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

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.)

The Custom-House


adversity: misfortune

alacrity: eagerness

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

dilapidated: decrepit

disinclined: reluctant

effusion: outpouring

evanescent: fleeting

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 manner


(The entire section is 916 words.)

Chapters One and Two


abashed: embarrassed

beadle: parish officer

congenial: pleasant, friendly

contumely: rudeness; harsh language or treatment

disposition: character, nature

flagrant: glaring, obvious

gentility: refinement characterized by good manners

immaterial: irrelevant

impediment: obstacle

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

mien: appearance

penal: relating to punishment

petrified: terrified; solidified into stone


(The entire section is 663 words.)

Chapter Three


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

impending: looming

intervolutions: coils

obstinacy: stubbornness

peradventure: perhaps, without certainty

tremulous: quivering, nervous

unadulterated: pure, unmixed

unavailingly: in a futile and hopeless manner

Study Questions

1. Who does Hester perceive in the crowd?...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Chapter Four


amenable: open to, accepting

besmirches: soils, dishonors

composure: serenity, calm

expostulation: act of reasoning with a person to change his or her opinion

inquest: investigation

insubordination: defiance; not submitting to authority

intimate: verb suggest, imply

ligament: tie, connection

misbegotten: badly planned, illegitimate

peremptory: definitive, final

quell: suppress

quietude: stillness, tranquility

rebuke: reprimand, reproach

requital: return, repayment

sagamores: Native American chiefs

scrutiny: close examination

Study Questions


(The entire section is 366 words.)

Chapter Five


annihilate: destroy completely

ascetic: austere, disciplined

averred: declared, asserted

contumaciously: disobediently, defiantly

emolument: salary, income

inopportuneness: bad timing

morbid: unhealthy, unpleasant; relating to death

plebeian: vulgar

repugnance: disgust, aversion

reviled: criticized abusively

sable: dark

succor: assistance, support

superfluous: redundant; more than enough; unnecessary

Study Questions

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 forced to...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Chapter Six


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

placidity: calmness

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.)

Chapter Seven


cabalistic: having secret or mystical meaning

eminence: position of great prominence and superiority; distinguished person

imperious: arrogant

ingenuity: cleverness

panoply: impressive array, complete collection

pestilence: plague

wayfarers: ones who travel on foot

Study Questions

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 say about...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Chapter Eight


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)

Study Questions

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 scarlet...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Chapter Nine


chirurgical: surgical

commodiousness: comfort, spaciousness

concord: agreement

emaciated: extremely thin, bony

emissary: messenger

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

Study Questions

1. What is Mr. Dimmesdale’s reputation? How is this ironic?

Mr. Dimmesdale has come to be revered...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Chapter Ten


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

Study Questions

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 deception than...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Chapter Eleven


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

Study Questions

1. Now that Roger Chillingworth is certain that he has found Hester’s lover, why does he not expose Dimmesdale?

Chillingworth derives great...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Chapter Twelve


defunct: deceased; no longer valid

despondency: melancholy, despair

erudite: well spoken, scholarly

expiation: atonement

impute: ascribe, assign value to something

malevolence: evil intention; vindictiveness

portent: omen, foreboding

replete: full

scurrilous: insulting, rude with the intention of harming someone

zenith: the point in the sky right above an observer, the highest point

Study Questions

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 town. This...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

Chapter Thirteen


abased: shamed, humiliated

auspicious: favorable

effluence: that which flows out

meed: a fitting reward

obviated: removed, prevented, avoided

stigmatized: branded as disgraceful

Study Questions

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 must feel...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Chapter Fourteen


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

Study Questions

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 its own...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Chapter Fifteen


acrid: pungent, sharp

ascertain: determine, establish

asperity: harshness

beneficence: kindness; quality of being charitable

enigma: mystery, puzzle

petulant: ill-humored, sulky

precocity: maturity, early development, ahead of one’s years

propensity: inclination

sedulous: careful, diligent

talisman: good luck charm

unwonted: unusual

upbraided: reproved, found fault with

Study Questions

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 “fouler offence”...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Chapter Sixteen


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)

Study Questions

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 speak...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapter Seventeen


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

penitence: remorse

Study Questions

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 diminished since...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Chapter Eighteen


extenuation: justification, excuse to explain circumstances

irrevocably: in a manner that cannot be changed or revoked

trammelled: restrained

Study Questions

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 action?


(The entire section is 301 words.)

Chapter Nineteen


alloy: verb moderate; temper

cankered: infected with corruption

deportment: behavior, conduct

mollified: soothed, appeased (often as in appeasing anger)

Study Questions

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 to be...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Chapter Twenty


blight: verb destroy; noun plant disease

irrefragable: indisputable

mutability: changeability

potentate: monarch, ruler

vicissitude: change, mutation

Study Questions

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 interaction that...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

Chapter Twenty-One


animadversion: strong criticism

depredations: attacks, ravages, despoilments

galliard: a lively dance once popular in France

jocularity: playfulness in a joking manner

manifold: various

mirthful: cheerful, merry

periled: endangered, at risk

unbenignantly: done without kindness or beneficial intent

Study Questions

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.)

Chapter Twenty-Two


cadence: rhythm

pathos: feeling of pity or sadness

plaintiveness: expressing sorrow

undulating: in a wavelike motion

unscrupulous: without morals, unprincipled

vivacity: liveliness, high spirits

Study Questions

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 Hester...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Chapter Twenty-Three


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

Study Questions

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 by all,...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapter Twenty-Four


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

Study Questions

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 about how...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

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 great-grandson.


(The entire section is 2214 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

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 at...

(The entire section is 2394 words.)