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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 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...

(The entire section is 407 words.)