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...
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