The Scarlet Letter is one of the most widely taught novels in high schools and colleges. This story of young adults whose passions are thwarted in a society governed by codes of conduct inimical to natural human emotions has generated discussion and debate for decades. Most readers recognize that adultery is wrong, and yet they cannot help but sympathize with Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale; somehow, readers find their head and heart at odds, especially when they consider that Hester's husband, Chillingworth, is a cold prig intent on revenge and seemingly devoid of any real feelings for his wife. Hawthorne uses a number of subtle literary devices to emphasize the dichotomy of law versus feeling, and his tale continues to evoke powerful emotional reactions.
1. Hawthorne makes extensive use of the historical background of Puritan New England to set a tone for his novel. How accurate is his portrait of the period? What details does he highlight? What aspects of Puritan society does he downplay?
2. How does Hawthorne use images from the natural world to highlight the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of Puritan society?
3. Numerous critics have argued about the "real hero" of The Scarlet Letter. While many have seen Hester as the strong figure in which the novelist embodies the highest qualities of human nature which he admires, a number believe Hawthorne intended readers to see Dimmesdale as the central figure in this tragedy. Which one seems a more appropriate protagonist? Why?
4. When Hester reveals to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband, the minister accuses the physician of being a greater sinner than he and Hester, since Chillingworth has violated "the sanctity of a human heart." What does Dimmesdale mean by this remark? Is he correct in his claim regarding Chillingworth's sin?
5. In a climactic scene in the forest, Pearl refuses to come near her mother after Hester has removed The Scarlet Letter from her breast. What is the significance of this action? What does this scene tell readers about Hester? about Pearl?
6. Hester Prynne's story is preceded by a lengthy autobiographical reminiscence titled "The Custom House." Why does Hawthorne include this material in his novel? Can the story of Hester and Dimmesdale be read effectively without this prefatory section?
7. A number of critics have noted the exceptional care Hawthorne has given to the structure of the novel. What does the reader learn from the three key scenes set on the scaffold in the center of town (Chapters 3,12, and 23)?