Michael J. Cummings...©
the plot of The Scarlet Letter is an essay called “The Custom-House.”
In it, narrator says he found a mysterious package—dating back two centuries—on
the second floor of the Salem Custom-House, where he worked as Surveyor
of the Revenue. The package contained a ragged piece of red cloth in the
shape of the letter “A” and a manuscript on foolscap outlining the story
of the woman required to wear the letter as a symbol of shame for committing
adultery. Hawthorne then informs the reader that the plot of The Scarlet
Letter tells the story of that woman as he imagines it to have unfolded.
Puritan Boston of the 1600's lives a beautiful woman named Hester Prynne,
a native of a village in England. The novel presents her background—through
dialogue and flashbacks—from time to time in the opening chapters. It is
marrying a man some years her senior—a scholar who spent long hours poring
over books—Hester and her husband moved to Amsterdam, Holland. There, they
lived for a time before deciding to begin a new life in colonial America.
He sent her ahead, alone, to the town of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay
Colony while he remained behind to conclude business before following her
across the sea. But in the next two years, he never arrived, and the citizens
of Boston presumed he went down with a ship. During these two years, Hester
committed adultery and bore a child.
action of the novel begins at the town prison, where Hester is being held.
According to the moral code of the Puritan settlers, adultery is a grave
offense; the punishment is death. However, Boston authorities decide to
spare her life. Instead of capital punishment, they
impose two humiliating penalties: First, she must, for the rest of her
life, wear on the bodice of her dress a patch of red cloth in the shape
of the letter “A,” standing for “adulteress.” Second, she must stand for
three hours on the platform of the pillory in the marketplace, there to
endure the burn of reproving eyes.
a seamstress, has made the scarlet letter herself, bordering it with gold
thread and fashioning it with such skill that it is verily a work of art.
When she emerges from the prison door to walk to the pillory, she carries
herself proudly, to the astonishment of the crowd gathered to observe her
ordeal. Hawthorne writes:
young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale.
She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine
with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity
of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging
to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the
manner of the feminine gentility of those days. . . .”
arriving in the marketplace and ascending the platform steps, she endures
the glare of the townspeople while cradling her infant, whom she has named
Pearl. Pearl is not more than four months old. A stranger, a white man
accompanied by a savage, enters the marketplace. Although he wears a peculiar
mixture of Indian and white man’s apparel, Hester recognizes him. He tells
an onlooker that he has been a wanderer, surviving trials at sea and on
land, including captivity by Indians, then asks why the young woman is
standing on the pillory. The onlooker explains everything.
her ordeal—observed by the governor and every other important dignitary
in Boston—the Rev. John Wilson, the oldest and one of the most revered
of Boston’s clergymen—repeatedly asks Hester to identify the father of
her child. She refuses. Further prodding brings further refusals, and it
becomes clear that she will never reveal the name of her partner in sin.
standing her three hours on the pillory, Hester returns to prison to await
release. The stranger from the marketplace visits her, telling the authorities
he is practiced in the medical arts and can attend to Hester and her child
if they require treatment. He is, of course, Mr. Prynne, Hester’s long-absent
husband. Taken captive by Indians after arriving in the New World, he eventually
gained release and was escorted to Boston by a tribesman. He claims to
be a physician of uncommon skill and assumes the name Roger Chillingworth.
When Hester continues to withhold the identity of her child’s father, Chillingworth
makes Hester swear not to tell anyone that he is her husband. His plan
is to remain incognito while taking up residence in Boston and attempting
to ferret out the scoundrel who bedded his wife.
time passes, Hester raises her child in a cottage on the outskirts of town,
supporting herself with sewing and stitchery. Little Pearl is wild and
unruly, characteristics which reflect the uncontrolled passion that gave
her life. When Governor Bellingham attempts to take Pearl from her, a young
minister, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, intervenes to enable her retain custody
of the child. Dimmesdale himself needs help because of declining health
with a variety of symptoms, including heart problems. What is the cause?
Because his friends revere him and regard him as saintly, they arrange
for Chillingworth—now established as a competent healer—to lodge with the
minister in the house of a “pious widow” in order to diagnose and treat
Dimmesdale’s illness. It was on Chillingworth’s recommendation that Dimmesdale’s
in the town is pleased with this arrangement. Almost everyone. For
there are townspeople who believe that Chillingworth had learned his medical
skills from the Indians during his captivity. He is, in effect, a practitioner
of black magic. These same townspeople notice a marked change in Chillingworth.
When he arrived in Boston, he seemed a quiet, scholarly, sensible sort.
Later, “something ugly and evil” possessed him; the fire in his laboratory
was the fire of hell itself—and he was the devil, or the devil’s agent.
Now, they believe, the good and godly Dimmesdale is under his spell.
has always suspected that something was not quite right about Dimmesdale.
Perhaps guilt is eating at him. Could it be that he was Hester’s secret
lover? Acting on his hunches, Chillingworth tortures the minister with
innuendoes. For example, one day, Dimmesdale inquires about herbs Chillingworth
gathered. They have dark, unsightly leaves. The sly physician says he found
them growing on a grave of a local man. Then he observes:
grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that
was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess in his lifetime.”
the searing eye and twisting probe of Chillingworth, Dimmesdale—who is
indeed ridden with guilt—continues to decline mentally and physically until
Chillingworth learns the truth: Arthur Dimmesdale is in fact Pearl’s father.
A mysterious image on his chest, which Chillingworth sees while Dimmesdale
is sleeping, confirms that the minister was Hester’s partner in sin. (Hawthorne
does not immediately reveal what the image is, but the reader later learns
that it is the letter “A”—possibly etched as a psychosomatic manifestation
of Dimmesdale's guilt.)
distressed and full of shame, Dimmesdale one evening mounts the platform
of the pillory to enact an imaginary scene in which the town looks on while
he bears his chest. When Hester and Pearl happen by and stand on the platform
with him, Pearl asks him to expose his chest in daylight, at noon, before
the townspeople. At that moment, a falling star illumines the marketplace,
and they see Chillingworth standing before the pillory. Hester then realizes
that he is a sinister, evil presence. Meeting weeks later with Dimmesdale
in the woods, she tells him her secret: The physician, Roger Chillingworth,
is her husband. Deciding to run off and begin a new life in Europe, they
book passage on a ship.
day before the ship is to embark is a holiday, Election Day, on which the
new governor of the colony is to take office. On this festive occasion,
the townspeople gather in the market-place for a procession to the meeting-house.
Curious onlookers include Indians and sailors from the ship—“rough-looking
desperadoes with sea-blackened faces,” who openly violate local laws by
smoking tobacco and drinking wine and strong liquor. One of the sailors,
the shipmaster, strikes up a conversation with Hester, noting that the
ship will be lucky to have not only the regular ship’s surgeon aboard but
also another doctor.
fear of scurvy or ship-fever, this voyage!” he says.
mean you?” inquires Hester.
shipmaster then identifies the other doctor as Chillingworth. Before Hester
has time to consider what to do about this alarming development, the procession
of magistrates and townspeople begins moving to the meeting-house, where
the Rev. Dimmesdale is to deliver an Election Day sermon. The church is
so crowded that Hester must stand outside. While little Pearl—now seven
years old—plays in the street, endearing herself to the mariners, Hester
listens to Dimmesdale’s sermon, which is eloquent and inspiring. Afterward,
to everyone’s surprise, he walks to the pillory and stands on the platform,
inviting Hester and Pearl to join him. Then he shocks the crowd by revealing
that he was Hester’s partner in sin; he is the father of Pearl. After opening
his shirt to reveal a scarlet letter imprinted on his chest, he collapses
the days that follow, the townspeople speculate on how the scarlet letter
came to appear on Dimmesdale’s chest. Some believe Dimmesdale inscribed
the letter himself as a form of punishment; others believe Chillingworth
caused it with magic or drugs. Still others think it was the work of Dimmesdale’s
guilty conscience. Finally, there are those who swear they saw no scarlet
letter on Dimmesdale’s chest.
for Chillingworth, Hawthorne writes, “All his strength and energy—all his
vital and intellectual force—seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that
he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal
sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun.” He dies within
a year and, in his will, leaves property in America and England to Pearl,
making her wealthy.
and Pearl disappear, and no one receives news of their whereabouts. One
day years later, however, Hester returns to Boston, still wearing the scarlet
letter, and resumes living in the same cottage where she reared Pearl.
Pearl is not with her. Although Hester never reveals what became of her
daughter, town gossips believe she is married and living in a foreign country.
They base their information on letters and expensive gifts that Hester
receives and on an elaborate infant’s garment she was observed embroidering.
time, the people deeply respect Hester, and many women seek her advice
on how to cope with their problems. After many years, Hester dies and is
buried near Dimmesdale. One slate gravestone serves both of them. On it
is a motto: ON
A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES.
Praised DVD Version Available at Amazon.com
Amazon Production Description:
An epic version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s enduring novel of Puritan America
in search of its soul. Hester Prynne overcomes the stigma of adultery to
emerge as the first great heroine in American literature. Hawthorne’s themes—the
nature of sin, social hypocrisy and community repression—still reverberate
through American society. Stars Meg Foster, John Heard and Kevin Conway.
Directed by Rick Hauser. Special DVD features include special video segments
that take viewders behind-the-scenes on the filming of The Scarlet Letter;
select cast filmographies; a Hawthorne biography. Discussion questions
for educators. Scene selection; English audiotrack; and closed captions.On
two DVD9 discs. Region coding: All regions. Audio: Dolby stereo. Screen
format: 4 x 3 Full-Frame. Average Customer Rating: 4½ Stars .Click
here for further information.
The action in The Scarlet
Letter takes place in Boston, a colony of the Massachusetts Bay Company,
in the years not long after the town's settlement in 1630. Boston's residents
were Puritans, members of a religious movement founded in England. Puritans
were so-called because of their attempt to purify Protestantism of Roman
Catholic and Anglican influence. Their government was theocratic, and they
emphasized divine guidance over human reason. Their moral code was strict
and rigid. For additional information, see Puritanism
Hester Prynne, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale
Roger Chillingworth, the Puritan Community, the Prevailing Religious Views
Hester Prynne: Boston
settler who commits adultery and bears a child while awaiting the arrival
of her husband from Europe. Authorities require her to wear a piece of
red cloth in the shape of an A (standing for adulteress)
on the bodice of her dress to identify her as a sinner. She refuses to
identify her partner in sin. Hester is named after the title character
of an Old Testament book. In that book, Esther—a Jew who marries the King
of Persia, Ahasuerus (Xerxes I)—and her cousin Mordecai persuade the king
to spare the lives of Jews previously singled out for annihilation. The
Jewish festival of Purim, also called the Feast of Lots, celebrates their
deliverance from the Persian sword.
Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale:
Respected minister who, unknown to townspeople, is the father of Hester’s
child. He is weak and cowardly but redeems himself in the end.
Mr. Prynne/Roger Chillingworth:
Hester’s husband—a man much older than she—who dedicates himself to discovering
and punishing Hester’s lover. His descent into the darkness of a monomaniacal
desire for revenge turns him into a devil figure. Because of his knowledge
of medicine and apparent dabbling in magic, he has been compared with Goethe's
most famous character, Faust.
Pearl: Hester’s child.
As her name suggests, she is something good that came from sin. She is
also a constant reminder—to Hester and to the townspeople—of Hester's sinfulness.
At times, she is an unruly child, a burden to her mother. But Hester loves
her just the same.
Rev. John Wilson:
Elderly minister who prods Hester to reveal the identify of Pearl’s father.
The eldest clergyman in
Boston in the novel. He is also based on an actual person, an English minister
who came to Boston in 1630. He convinces Dimmesdale to appeal to Hester
to reveal her lover's identity. Later, he delivers a sermon on the sin
of adultery. Like Governor Bellingham, he is present during all three scaffold
scenes. He represents the puritanical attitude and stands for the Church
in the novel.
Governor of colonial Boston, Bellingham represents the officialdom of Boston.
He attempts to remove Pearl from Hester’s custody.
Sister of governor Bellingham. She is a bad-tempered woman who invites
Hester to take part in evil rituals in the forest. Hester excuses herself,
saying she must return home to care for Pearl. The narrator comments that
"the child saved her from Satan's snare." Mistress Hibbins is eventually
executed for witchcraft.
Gossips: In Chapter
II, "The Market-Place," they are women who believe Hester's punishment
is too lenient. One of them thinks she should have been sentenced to death.
Another says, "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot
iron on Hester Prynne's forehead."
Townsman: Man who
greets Roger Chillingworth and identifies Hester (Chapter III, "The Recognition").
of Roger Chillingworth.
Sexton, Shipmaster, Magistrates,
of Work and Year of Publication
The Scarlet Letter
is a novel centering on the aftermath of an adulterous encounter in Puritan
Boston between a respected clergyman and a beautiful young woman who bears
his child. The novel focuses primarily on how public condemnation and scorn
affect the partners in sin—Hester Prynne, who refuses under pressure to
name her paramour, and the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, who lacks the courage
to identify himself as the father of Hester's child until guilt destroys
his resistance. The novel also considers the vengeful reaction of Hester's
husband and the rigid moral outlook of the Puritans, who force Hester to
wear a scarlet letter identifying her as an adulteress. The author does
not excuse the sin, but he sympathizes with the sinners. The novel was
published in Boston in March 1850 by Ticknor, Reed & Fields.
Sin, Rejection, and Redemption
Hester must wear a red badge
of shame, identifying her an adulteress and making her an outcast in her
community. On the pillory, she endures the glare of scornful eyes and thereafter
lives on the outskirts of town with her child, Pearl. However, though Hester
has committed a grave sin, she redeems herself by acknowledging her iniquity,
accepting her punishment, and living an exemplary life. In a way, the Rev.
Arthur Dimmesdale is also a pariah in that he lives as a coward outside
the favor of heaven and of his own conscience. However, at the end of the
novel, he too redeems himself by exposing his sin.
Hester proudly carries on
as she wears the scarlet letter, deciding to live according to the high
standards she sets for herself rather than the low standards others have
set for her. She takes responsibility for herself and establishes her own
identity, winning the admiration of the townspeople in the end.
Good From Evil
Hester's adultery, a heinous
crime in Puritan Boston, results in the birth of her daughter, Pearl. Though
unruly and wild when growing up, Pearl is a blessing—a little gem that
gives off a bright light at a time of darkness.
Roger Chillingworth is monomaniacal
and unremitting in his quest for revenge against the man who impregnated
Hester. The narrator writes of him, "Calm, gentle, passionless, as he appeared,
there was yet, we fear, a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but active
now, in this unfortunate old man, which led him to imagine a more intimate
revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy" (Chapter XI, "The
Interior of the Heart").
Rigidity and Legalism
The Puritan officials of
Boston judge wrongdoers with rigid adherence to the letter of their moral
code. The narrator this clear in Chapter III, "The Recognition," when he
describes the pillory scene and the Puritan leaders looking on:
It has already been
noticed that directly over the platform on which Hester Prynne stood was
a kind of balcony, or open gallery, appended to the meeting-house. It was
the place whence proclamations were wont to be made, amidst an assemblage
of the magistracy, with all the ceremonial that attended such public observances
in those days. Here, to witness the scene which we are describing,
sat Governor Bellingham himself with four sergeants about his chair, bearing
halberds, as a guard of honour. He wore a dark feather in his hat, a border
of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath—a gentleman
advanced in years, with a hard experience written in his wrinkles. He was
not ill-fitted to be the head and representative of a community which owed
its origin and progress, and its present state of development, not to the
impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered energies of manhood and
the sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much, precisely because it
imagined and hoped so little. The other eminent characters by whom the
chief ruler was surrounded were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging
to a period when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness
of Divine institutions. They were, doubtless, good men, just and sage.
But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select
the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable
of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's heart, and disentangling its
mesh of good and evil, than the sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester
Prynne now turned her face. She seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever
sympathy she might expect lay in the larger and warmer heart of the multitude;
for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman grew
pale, and trembled.
Hypocrisy and Cowardice
Dimmesdale continues to act
as a bulwark against sin in the Puritan community even though he has committed
a great sin that he lacks the courage to admit in public.
The Rational vs the Supernatural
Although otherworldly forces
seem to be at work in Puritan Boston, Hawthorne leaves room for rational
explanations of them. For example, in regard to the scarlet letter that
appears on the chest of Dimmesdale, the narrator writes in Chapter XXIV
Most of the spectators
testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET
LETTER—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the
flesh. As regarded its origin there were various explanations, all of which
must necessarily have been conjectural. Some affirmed that the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day when Hester Prynne first wore her ignominious
badge, had begun a course of penance—which he afterwards, in so many futile
methods, followed out—by inflicting a hideous torture on himself. Others
contended that the stigma had not been produced until a long time subsequent,
when old Roger Chillingworth, being a potent necromancer, had caused it
to appear, through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs. Others,
again and those best able to appreciate the minister's peculiar sensibility,
and the wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body—whispered their
belief, that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever-active tooth of
remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting
Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter.
The climax occurs when the
Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale stands on the pillory, confesses his sin, reveals
the scarlet letter on his chest, and dies.
The Letter A: The
scarlet letter obviously symbolizes a grave sin, adultery, that jeopardizes
the soul of Hester Prynne. To Hester herself, the letter also represents
the searing heat of the disapproving Puritan eyes that look upon it. The
narrator underscores the latter interpretation in the introductory chapter,
"The Custom-House," after he discovers the ragged piece of cloth emblazoned
with the A: "I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me—the reader
may smile, but must not doubt my word—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced
a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat,
and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered,
and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor." In Chapter V, "Hester at
Her Needle," the narrator writes, "When strangers looked curiously at the
scarlet letter and none ever failed to do so—they branded it afresh in
Hester's soul. . . . The letter also symbolizes the physical result of
her adultery, Pearl. In fact, Hester tells Rev. Wilson, "See ye not, she
is the scarlet letter . . . ? To the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the letter
represents not only the sin he committed but also its aftermath
of cowardice and corrosive guilt. Each time he sees it, a part of him dies.
Unlike Dimmesdale, Hester acknowledges her sin and bravely carries on with
her life as an outcast. In other words, she admits her guilt
and suffers agony and
abandonment, but then
The Rosebush: Growing
outside the prison, this shrub seems to represent pity, hope and survival.
In Chapter I, "The Prison Door," the narrator says of it,
On one side of the
portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered,
in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined
to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went
in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token
that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
The rosebush may also symbolize
the mixture of goodness (the roses) and evil (the thorns) in and around
each human being.
rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether
it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the
fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it, or
whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under
the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison-door,
we shall not take upon us to determine.
Dimmesdale: The minister's
name represents the state of his existence: dim, gloomy, dark.
Pillory: The pillory
represents the rigidity of the Puritan religious code that claps sinners,
regardless of mitigating circumstances or other considerations, into a
humiliating posture of penitence.
Pearl: Hester's daughter
Pearl symbolizes the shining goodness that can result from a sinful act.
She also symbolizes the burden and shame sinfulness imposes on the sinner.
Finally, because she is an unruly child, she symbolizes the wild passion
that led to the adulterous encounter. The narrator calls attention to this
unruliness in Pearl in the following passage:
If the children
gathered about her, as they sometimes did, Pearl would grow positively
terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to fling at them, with
shrill, incoherent exclamations, that made her mother tremble, because
they had so much the sound of a witch's anathemas in some unknown tongue.
Clothes of Roger Chillingworth:
When Roger Chillingworth appears in Boston with an Indian, he is "clad
in a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume (Chapter III, "The
Recognition"). His apparel seems to symbolize two sides of Chillingworth.
One is the enlightened Chillingworth who can allude to Greek mythology
and figures in history and who has knowledge of medicinal remedies. The
narrator says of him,
He was now known
to be a man of skill; it was observed that he gathered herbs and the blossoms
of wild-flowers, and dug up roots and plucked off twigs from the forest-trees
like one acquainted with hidden virtues in what was valueless to common
eyes. He was heard to speak of Sir Kenelm Digby and other famous men—whose
scientific attainments were esteemed hardly less than supernatural—as having
been his correspondents or associates. (Chapter IX, "The Leech")
The other Chillingworth is the
barbarous one who seeks revenge with diabolical persistence.
Blackness and darkness are important images in the novel, symbolizing the
sternness and rigidity of the Puritans, the somberness of life in colonial
Boston, and sinfulness and secrecy. Following are a several examples of
phrases and sentences using this imagery:
1. Stern and black-browed
Puritans (introductory chapter, "The Custom-House")
2. The black flower of civilised
society, a prison. (Chapter I, "The Prison Door")
3. The door of the jail
being flung open from within there appeared, in the first place, like a
black shadow emerging into ....sunshine, the
grim and gristly presence of the town-beadle (Chapter II, "The Market-Place")
4. Governor Bellingham .
. . . wore a dark feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his
cloak, and a black velvet tunic ....beneath
(Chapter III, "The Recognition")
5. There he stood, with
a border of grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap, while his grey eyes,
accustomed to the shaded ....light of his
study, were winking, like those of Hester's infant, in the unadulterated
sunshine. He looked like the darkly ....engraved
portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons. . . . (Chapter
III, "The Recognition")
6. Their immediate posterity,
the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of
Puritanism, and so ....darkened the national
visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear
it up. We have yet to learn
the forgotten art of gaiety. (Chapter XXI, "The New England Holiday")
Psychologist Carl Gustav
Jung (1875-1961) theorized that all humans share certain inborn impulses
and concepts residing in the mind at the unconscious level. For example,
all humans react to sunlight in the same way, perceiving it as a symbol
of joy, happiness, glory, optimism, truth, a new beginning, or God.
Likewise, humans associate dark forests with danger, obscurity, confusion,
secrecy, and the unknown or with evil, sin, and death. Jung termed external
stimuli (such as dark forests) primordial symbols—primordial meaning
from the beginning of time. In The Scarlet Letter, sunlight,
darkness, and the forest are primordial symbols. The sunlight usually represents
truth or exposure. The darkness—including the darkness of the forest—usually
represents secrecy, somberness, or evil. Examples of other primordial symbols
you may encounter in your study of literature include the following: a
river (the passage of time), overcast sky (gloom, depression, despair),
lamb (innocence, vulnerability), violent storm (wrath, inconsolable grief),
flowers (delicacy, perishability, beauty), mountain (obstacle, challenge),
eagle (majesty, freedom) the color white (purity, innocence), the color
red (anger, passion, war, blood), the color green (new life, hope), water
(birth or rebirth), autumn (old age), winter (death).
The Scarlet Letter
is one of the finest novels in American literature. Its structure is tight,
with all of the events interrelated and skillfully integrated into a logical
sequence. The imagery is vivid, and the writing is consistent in its evocation
of the somber reality of Puritan Boston. Examples of passages with memorable
imagery and effective allusions are the following:
Had there been a
Papist [Roman Catholic] among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen
in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with
the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine
Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another
to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast,
of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem
the world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred
quality of human life, working such effect, that the world was only the
darker for this woman's beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she
had borne. (Chapter II, "The Market-Place")
Author Brenda Wineapple describes
Hawthorne’s writing in The Scarlet Letter this way: “Though its
prose is slightly formal, its phrasings aphoristic and rhythmically exact,
the story’s smoldering emotions are so volatile that Hawthorne regulates
them in the book’s shapely design. The tale of Hester Prynne unfolds in
twenty-four chapters, with the first, twelfth, and the last symmetrically
organized around the scaffold on which Hester appears to suffer for the
crime of adultery. Similarly, the plot of the story shuttles between interior
and exterior locations—one chapter, for example, is called “The Interior
of the Heart”—suggesting how the private and public worlds are so often
at tragic variance.”—Wineapple, Brenda.
Hawthorne, a Life. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003 (Page 212).
Very soon, however, his [Roger
Chillingworth's] look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted
itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and
making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight.
(Chapter III, "The Recognition")
"I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe,"
remarked he [Roger Chillingworth]; "but I have learned many new secrets
in the wilderness, and here is one of them—a recipe that an Indian taught
me, in requital of some lessons of my own, that were as old as Paracelsus.
Drink it! It may be less soothing than a sinless conscience. That I cannot
give thee. But it will calm the swell and heaving of thy passion, like
oil thrown on the waves of a tempestuous sea." (Chapter IV, "The Interview")
Lethe: In Greek mythology,
a river in Hades. Drinking its water caused loss of memory. Lethe is used
in this passage as a synonym for a tonic that causes forgetfulness.
Nepenthe: In Greek mythology,
a drug that caused forgetfulness.
Paracelsus (1493-1541): Swiss-born
physician and alchemist.
The old minister [Mr. Wilson]
seated himself in an arm-chair and made an effort to draw Pearl betwixt
his knees. But the child, unaccustomed to the touch or familiarity of any
but her mother, escaped through the open window, and stood on the upper
step, looking like a wild tropical bird of rich plumage, ready to take
flight into the upper air. Mr. Wilson, not a little astonished at this
outbreak—for he was a grandfatherly sort of personage, and usually a vast
favourite with children—essayed, however, to proceed with the examination.
(Chaper VIII, "The Elf-Child and the Minister")
Be that as it might, the
scaffold of the pillory was a point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne
the entire track along which she had been treading, since her happy infancy.
Standing on that miserable eminence, she saw again her native village,
in Old England, and her paternal home: a decayed house of grey stone, with
a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half obliterated shield of arms
over the portal, in token of antique gentility. She saw her father's face,
with its bold brow, and reverend white beard that flowed over the old-fashioned
Elizabethan ruff; her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and anxious
love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since her
death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her
daughter's pathway. She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty,
and illuminating all the interior of the dusky mirror in which she had
been wont to gaze at it.
began in England in the late Sixteenth Century when Protestant reformers
attempted to purge the Church of England (or Anglican Church) of the elaborate
ceremonies, rituals, and hierarchical structure it retained from the Roman
Catholic Church after King Henry VIII established Anglicanism by acts of
Parliament between 1529 and 1536. The Act of Supremacy, approved in 1534,
officially established the Church of England as an independent Protestant
entity separate from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Church of
England retained Catholic rituals such as the mass and prelates such as
bishops. For the Puritans, the pure word of the Bible, presented in part
through inspired preaching, took precedence over rituals while direct revelation
from the Holy Spirit superseded reason. After Queen Elizabeth I died in
1603, the Puritans petitioned the new monarch, King James I, to adopt their
reforms. In January 1604 at a special conference at Hampton Court Palace
near London, the king rejected most of the proposed Puritan reforms but
he did grant a Puritan request for a new translation of the Bible, which
resulted in publication of the King James Version in 1611.
Many disenchanted puritans
left the country. Those who remained behind joined with members of Parliament
opposed to the crown's economic policies. Together they defeated the king's
forces in the English Civil War. With the king out of the way, the Puritans
became a dominant faction in the new Commonwealth government headed by
Oliver Cromwell. However, after Cromwell's death in 1558, a movement to
restore the monarchy began, and King Charles II was restored to the throne
in 1660. Under the Clarendon Code, approved in 1662, the Church of England
expelled all Puritan ministers who refused to accept church tenets. Many
Puritans then emigrated to America and established their brand of religion
in Massachusetts and other colonies.
ministers were generally well educated, and Puritan congregations promoted
ideals that helped lay the foundation for American democracy.
because of their strict moral code, the Puritans were ever on the lookout
for satanic influence and, unfortunately, sometimes saw evil where none
existed. In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, more than 150 people were accused
of witchcraft and jailed. Twenty of them were executed. Nineteen were hanged
and one was pressed to death. In a pressing, the executioners secured the
condemned person, facing upward, on a bed of nails. Then they loaded weights
onto his or her body. American dramatist Arthur
Miller wrote a play,
The Crucible, about these trials. Belief
in evil forces such as witches, warlocks, and diabolical spirits was widespread
in America and Europe during and before the 17th Century.
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the
novel do you most admire? Which character do you least admire? Explain
2. Which is Hester Prynne's
most admirable quality? Which is her least admirable? Explain your answer.
3. Write an informative
essay that explains the mindset of Puritans.
4. What caused the letter
A to appear on the chest of the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale?
5. Write an informative
essay that describes Boston in the time when it was under Puritan control.
6. Was Hester Prynne's exposure
on the pillory an appropriate punishment?
7. Write an essay explaining
the significance of colors in The Scarlet Letter.
8. What was Nathaniel Hawthorne's
attitude toward the beliefs of the Puritans?
9. Write an essay explaining
how Hawthorne uses dark and light imagery to underscore his themes.
of the Last Words
The last words of the novel—ON
A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A GULES—describe
a coat of arms on a shield. The sable field is a black background;
means red. Thus on this shield, the coat of arms is a red letter (letter
gules) appearing against a black background (sable field).