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Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, The Scarlet Letter has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it has its challenges—difficult language, adultery, and sexism—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying The Scarlet Letter will give them insight into symbolism and important themes exploring transgression, guilt, and alienation. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1850
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9th and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 64,600
  • Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Historical Novel
  • Literary Period: American Romantic
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person
  • Narration: Third-Person Omniscient
  • Setting: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Structure: Prose Novel
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Symbolism, Allusion
  • Mood: Complex, Condemnatory, Foreboding

Texts that Go Well with The Scarlet Letter

The Crucible (1953), by Arthur Miller, is a play set in Puritan New England during the Salem witch trials. The Crucible explores the dangers of religious extremism and hypocrisy in its veiled criticism of the Red Scare, in which the United States government persecuted suspected communists without sufficient evidence.

Elmer Gantry (1926), by Sinclair Lewis, satirically examines religious hypocrisy among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who had gained popularity in the United States during the 1920s. The novel follows Reverend Dr. Elmer Gantry, a man who embraces evangelism while also engaging in drinking and illicit sex with women.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), by Margaret Atwood, is a dystopian novel set in Gilead, a fictional theocracy established after the United States government is overthrown by a group of fundamentalist Christians. Like The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale portrays the destructive effects of religious extremism and the subjugation of women.

Jude the Obscure (1895), by Thomas Hardy, is a novel about Jude Fawley, a stonemason who fantasizes about becoming a scholar. Like The Scarlet Letter, Jude the Obscure describes the social consequences of illicit love. Early in the novel, Jude sleeps with Arabella, a woman who then pretends to be pregnant in order to coerce him into marriage. Later, he has three children out of wedlock with Sue Bridehead, the woman he truly loves.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), by Oscar Wilde, follows Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man who sells his soul to avoid aging. Dorian’s beauty never fades, despite his debauched lifestyle. However, an oil painting that immortalizes his image records every hedonistic sin. Like The Scarlet Letter, The Picture of Dorian Gray examines the dichotomy between private and public transgression.

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Key Plot Points