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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.
The Story .
.......In 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 as follows:
.......After 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.
.......The 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.
.......Hester, 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:
.......“The 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. . . .”
.......After 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.
.......During 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.
.......After 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.
.......As 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 friends acted.
.......Everyone 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.
.......Chillingworth 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:
.......“They 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.”
.......Under 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.)
.......Deeply 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.
.......The 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.
.......“No fear of scurvy or ship-fever, this voyage!” he says.
.......“What mean you?” inquires Hester.
.......The 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 and dies.
.......In 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.
.......As 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.
.......Hester 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.
.......In 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,
Highly 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 below.
Protagonists: Hester Prynne, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale
Antagonists: Roger Chillingworth, the Puritan Community, the Prevailing Religious Views
Villain: Roger Chillingworth
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.
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 Bellingham: Governor of colonial Boston, Bellingham represents the officialdom of Boston.
He attempts to remove Pearl from Hester’s custody.
Mistress Hibbins: 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.
Master Brackett: Jailer.
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").
Indian: Companion of Roger Chillingworth.
Sexton, Shipmaster, Magistrates, Citizens
Type 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 ("Conclusion'),
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
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 and
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.
.......This 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
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, Darkness: 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") Primordial Symbolism
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")
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
....again 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 existing 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). Style and Structure
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
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
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.
.......Puritanism 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.
.......Puritan ministers were generally well educated, and Puritan congregations promoted ideals that helped lay the
foundation for American democracy.
.......However, 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.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the novel do you most admire? Which character do you least admire? Explain your answers.
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.
Meaning 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; gules means red. Thus on this shield, the coat of arms is a red letter (letter gules) appearing
against a black background (sable field).