Teaching Approaches

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Themes Developed Through Hester’s Characterization: As the protagonist, Hester Prynne develops from an abandoned wife and community pariah into a fiercely independent, kind, courageous heroine who operates outside society’s harsh strictures. Aside from perhaps Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, whose traits seem to emphasize the hypocrisy and cowardice of Puritan society, Hester is the primary character through whom Hawthorne directly challenges Puritan values. Other characters, including Pearl, serve auxiliary roles to Hester’s development. This specific use of characterization makes The Scarlet Letter an excellent text for students to analyze how characterization develops themes in works of literature.

  • For discussion: How does Hester develop over the course of the text? What are some of the key turning points for Hester’s character? What does she learn? How does she change? Draw on specific examples from the novel.
  • For discussion: How do specific locations and places affect Hester’s character development? Consider her home, the scaffold, and the forest in your answers.
  • For discussion: The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale can be read as a character foil for Hester. Compare and contrast Hester with Dimmesdale in terms of bravery, independence, and responsibility. What do the contrasts between Hester and Dimmesdale reveal about Hester? What do they reveal about the text’s themes?

Themes Developed Through Symbolism: In The Scarlet Letter, people and objects carry symbolic meaning: Pearl, the red letter “A” that Hester must wear, the meteor, and the rose bush. The prevalence of symbolism in the text invites readers to consider both the literal and connotative importance of each object and how it relates to the novel’s larger themes.

  • For discussion: Identify concrete objects or people in the novel that you find significant. What are the figurative associations of these objects or people? Which themes do these objects or people points towards and help reveal?
  • For discussion: Which objects in the book are red? Which objects are black? Compare and contrast the connotative meanings of red and black objects in the text. How do red and black objects develop themes in The Scarlet Letter? What does the inclusion of the color red—or “scarlet”—in its title suggest about the novel’s most important theme?

Alienation and Ostracization: Hester’s community shames and then ostracizes her after she is released from jail. She refuses to leave Boston, opting instead to support herself and her daughter, Pearl. However, Puritanism apparently offers no opportunities to make amends for committing adultery. Hester remains an outcast for years, even among the people who hire her for her skilled needlework. It is the harshness of alienation that deters the hypocritical Dimmesdale from accepting his share of the blame for his affair with Hester.

  • For discussion: Based on what happens to Hester, when, how, and why does alienation seem to happen among the Puritans, based on the novel’s portrayal of their community?
  • For discussion: What are the effects of alienation on Hester and Pearl? How do they cope with being ignored and mistreated?
  • For discussion: Why does Hester stay in a community that hates her? Does her decision to remain in Boston make her noble or courageous? Why or why not?
  • For discussion: Is Hester’s community justified in alienating her? When and why might any community be justified in banishing someone?

Examining Gender Roles: Hester is subjected to a harmful double standard in The Scarlet Letter. She is held responsible for committing adultery, while the identity of her lover is not seriously pursued by anyone but Chillingworth, whose vengeful search is driven by self-interest. Dimmesdale, Hester’s secret lover and Pearl’s father, refrains from confessing his role because he does not want to suffer the same punishment as Hester. Both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale initially blame Hester for their miseries, though they eventually tell Hester they forgive her.

  • For discussion: Why do Chillingworth and Dimmesdale blame Hester for bringing shame and misery upon them? What might their treatment of her reveal about how women were treated at the time?
  • For discussion: Do you think Dimmesdale would have been punished as harshly as Hester if he had confessed his sin from the start? Why or why not?
  • For discussion: Though Hester is shamed and punished for committing adultery, the narrator often portrays her in a positive light. What does the language used to describe Hester suggest about the novel’s attitude towards women’s rights and gender roles?
  • For discussion: At the end of the novel, Dimmesdale thanks God for putting him through misery as a penance for committing adultery. How does Dimmesdale’s private punishment compare to Hester’s public punishment? Do both characters experience the same degree of suffering? Why or why not?

Transgression and Justice: At the heart of The Scarlet Letter is the subject of social transgression and the consequences that follow it. Hester, a confident and talented young woman, is punished for violating the Puritanical rules of Boston society when she has an extramarital affair. She then refuses to be bullied into leaving Boston, inviting further scorn and judgment.

  • For discussion: What are some of the rules that people are expected to follow in Hester’s community? Include some examples from the text to support your answer.
  • For discussion: What happens to people who break the rules in Hester’s community? How are they punished? What seems to be the goal in punishing rule-breakers?
  • For discussion: Why is it so important to Hester’s community that she be punished and alienated for committing adultery? Why do the Puritans deem adultery such a dire transgression?

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • Why is it important that Pearl does not recognize Hester when she is not wearing the scarlet letter?
  • Why does Pearl initially refuse to acknowledge Dimmesdale as her father? What does her refusal suggest about the novel’s stance on guilt and the assumption of responsibility for one’s actions?
  • Why is it important that Dimmesdale dies at the end of the novel, after confessing that he is Pearl’s father? How would the story have unfolded differently if his health were restored and he were able to return to Europe with Hester and Pearl?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne Uses Difficult Language: Though Hawthorne’s literary language would have been familiar to 19th-century readers, students might find his diction and style confusing or frustrating. They might also struggle to understand the characters’ speech, which is meant to reflect how Puritans spoke in the 17th century.

  • What to do: Have students keep an outline of major plot events and new characters that emerge. Before beginning each lesson, have students share and discuss plot points to ensure that everyone understands what is happening.
  • What to do: Instruct students to keep a journal of unfamiliar vocabulary words. Have them look up and write definitions of these words, and then make a class-generated vocabulary list for future quizzes and lessons.

Adultery and Desire Are Important Parts of the Plot: The premise of The Scarlet Letter centers on the sexual relationship between Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Messages about Puritan conceptions of sex, desire, and adultery play prominent roles in the text and might be upsetting or confusing to some students.

  • What to do: Read sensitive selections of the book in class together. Model close reading for students and engage critically with the events in the text.
  • What to do: Make use of sentence frames and structured class discussions to ensure that students are equipped and supported when engaging with sensitive subject matter. Additionally, consider asking students to respond through reflective writing.

There Are Many Adaptations of The Scarlet Letter: There are numerous film, play, and television adaptations of The Scarlet Letter. As is common with classic texts, many students will have already seen an adaptation before reading the book. Still others may watch one of these adaptations in lieu of reading the story. Due to so many adaptations, students may experience confusion with characters and plot.

  • What to do: Remind students that film, theater, television, and novels are different media. Even if another adaptation recounts the events of the text faithfully, reading the text is an experience that cannot be substituted.
  • What to do: Emphasize to students that an adaptation offers a subjective interpretation of the text, not a perfect reconstruction of it. Films, television shows, and plays are thus no substitute for the novel.
  • What to do: Consider using a reliable film adaptation as an in-class resource for comparison to the text. Encourage students to identify the differences and similarities and voice their views on which are well done, which are poorly done, and which are confusing.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Scarlet Letter

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching The Scarlet Letter, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.

  • Focus on the scarlet letter “A” as a symbol of empowerment. Hester’s community forces her to wear the letter “A” in order to shame her for committing adultery. Track how the meaning of the scarlet letter changes over the course of the story. How might Hester’s repeated demonstrations of courage, resourcefulness, and kindness alter the letter’s significance? Why does Hester wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life, even after she is no longer required to? Does the scarlet letter symbolize shame and guilt by the end of the novel, when Dimmesdale reveals the letter “A” marked upon his chest? Why or why not?
  • Focus on the character of Hester’s community. Hester’s Puritan community enforces strict norms and rules regarding how people can live their lives, especially regarding sexuality and desire. How does Hawthorne portray the community? What kind of language does he use? Does the novel seem to approve or disapprove of the Puritans? Are there circumstances in which any society is justified in controlling the sexual behavior of its citizens? Why or why not?
  • Focus on Pearl as a symbol of Hester’s triumph over the oppressiveness of Puritan culture. Pearl’s existence exposes Hester’s illicit affair and publicizes her private sin. However, Hester treasures Pearl throughout The Scarlet Letter. Why does Hester value Pearl, even after Pearl’s birth results in public humiliation? What does Hester’s devotion to Pearl reveal about her attitude toward her affair with Dimmesdale?
  • Focus on the occult. Supernatural evil always looms as a threat to Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter. Ask students to consider how Hawthorne depicts supernatural forces like witchcraft and demonic or satanic possession. Which characters are associated with the occult? Why? Why is Pearl thought to be possessed? Why is the occult a bad thing in the eyes of Puritan culture?

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