Abbey Li, Xuelin Liang, Maria Mahin - AP English Band 6 Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Historical Information about the Period of Publication and Setting:
The Scarlet Letter is set in 17th century Boston, Massachusetts. Puritanism was initially founded under Queen Elizabeth, and came from the intent to purify the Church of England by making laws and following practices that closely followed the word of God. To accomplish this, Puritans were generally literate, for they stressed the importance of reading the Bible rather than relying on someone else’s interpretation. However, during this period the Puritans frequently faced religious persecution in England, and thus traveled on the Mayflower to establish a colony in the New World. Puritanism (established in the New World by John Winthrop as part of the Massachusetts Bay Company) became a dominant religion in Massachusetts, and is attributed to the strict moral standards that governed the Boston community in The Scarlet Letter. Puritan society believed that they should turn their new colony into a “city upon a hill,” suggesting that they would serve as a model for other societies to come. Religion and politics were almost synonymous, and the Bible was of great importance, essentially becoming the law. Most notably, Puritan society is remembered by its little tolerance for nonconformity and disobeying the law. This is displayed in its intolerance of other groups such as the Quakers and Native Americans, and their strict punishment for Hester’s sin.
The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850 in Salem, Massachusetts. This period was influenced by a literary movement called Transcendentalism which emphasized the power of the human mind to shape and determine experience. The Transcendentalists view of religion contrasted that of the Puritans, for Transcendentalists believed in a more personal view of religion, in which its followers could connect directly with God. The movement was also known for its belief that divinity manifests itself everywhere, especially in nature. Hawthorne himself was not considered a Transcendentalist, but many of his works feature the literary movement’s distinguishing characteristics, such as having characters stand for ideas and symbols rather than be completely realistic.
Biographical Information about the Author:
Nathaniel Hawthorne is an American writer born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. His original family name is Hathorne. However Hawthorne added the 'w' to differentiate himself from John Hathorne, a judge of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 - 1693. In 1821, Hawthorne enrolled in Bowdoin College and studied the classics, math, philosophy, composition, and natural science. After graduating in 1825, Hawthorne returned to Salem and wrote many short stories. Unfortunately Hawthorne failed to get his stories published. In 1837, Hawthorne garnered some success with his publication of Twice-Told Tales. However it was his novel The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850 that brought him immediate renown and distinction. After traveling to England and Italy for four years, Hawthorne returned to Massachusetts in 1860 and died four years later at Plymouth, New Hampshire.
Characteristics of the Genre:
Stories under the genre of historical fiction are set in a particular era in the past, and the characters may be real or imaginary. While plots points are sometimes fictional, they are usually still realistic in the way they portray the dominant beliefs and ideas of the time. Romantic stories typically involve the trials and tribulations of love; sometimes they end on a happy note, and other times, they end on a tragic note. Whatever the outcome is, romance novels reveal an intriguing, unique notion about the concept of love.
In the bleak Puritan town where even petty crimes are not forgiven, Hester Prynne's adultery is considered a grave sin. For her punishment, she must wear the scarlet letter, 'A', upon her breast as a symbol of ignominy, and she must undergo a public shaming. Although the widely respected Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and later, her ex-husband Roger Chillingworth, who had been presumably lost at sea, implore her to reveal the man in the affair, she staunchly refuses. Chillingworth then darkly hints at his plan for revenge.
A couple of years later, Hester and her daughter, Pearl - who had been borne from the affair, have moved into a cottage on the outskirts of town. When Hester hears that the town leaders want to take Pearl away from her, Chillingworth notes Dimmesdale's overly earnest insistence that Hester keep Pearl. Chillingworth befriends Dimmesdale, suspecting him of being the other man, and finally confirms it when he discovers a mark on Dimmesdale's chest.
Seven years after Hester's public shaming, Dimmesdale visits the scaffold again, half-hoping that someone will discover him and therefore his sin he has been so burdened by guilt that he frequently tortures himself. Hester, whose continued kindness has by now won her some respect from the townspeople, and Pearl come across the scaffold to stand with Dimmesdale, the three of them forming the shape of the letter 'A'. A falling meteor then passes by, leaving the traces of a red 'A' in the sky.
Hester, empowered by the new ideas and strength she had developed while being shunned, meets with Dimmesdale in the forest, and convinces him to run away with her to Europe. When Dimmesdale returns from the forest, he realizes that he had nearly fallen into Satan's trap by attempting to escape due punishment for his sin. After giving the Election Sermon, he impulsively reveals the truth, that he is Pearl's father, and dies on the scaffold.
In the epilogue, Chillingworth dies soon after for his cause in life, revenge, had been fulfilled. Hester and Pearl move away, but Hester later returns to Boston, and becomes a confidant and adviser for women.
Hawthorne writes in a formal style, from a third-person omniscient point of view. His writing is characterized by three traits: 1) lengthy, occasionally periodic sentences in which detailed modifiers are frequently set off by dashes, 2) complex, archaic language in which words have slightly different connotations from their modern usage, and 3) highly symbolic descriptions.
Examples of Style:
1. "On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A." (50)
2. “Full of concern, therefore – but so conscious of her own right that it seemed scarcely an unequal match between the public, on the side, and a lonely woman backed by the sympathies of nature, on the other – Hester Prynne set forth from her solitary cottage.” (95)
1. "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!" (246)
1. The narrator states that the moral of Dimmesdale's tragic story is to present yourself in your true form, flawed as you may be. Hiding your flaws will chain you to an image of perfection that you will never be able to maintain.
2. "What we did had a consecration of its own." - Hester (186-7)
2. Despite being ostracized and criticized by society for her affair, Hester still believes that the union between her and Dimmesdale is sacred because their feelings for each other are true. Moreover, God's blessing is manifested in Pearl's very existence would He have given them a healthy daughter had he not approved of the union?
3. "To the untrue man, the whole universe is false, it is impalpable, it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or indeed, ceases to exist." (137)
3. This quotation explains why Dimmesdale is so utterly consumed by his guilt: the hypocrisy of a reverend who sins, yet preaches against sin, renders himself a living ghost. The reverend must continue to live as the idealized reverend that the public sees, even though that perfect reverend does not exist.
4. "The scarlet letter had not done its office." (157)
4. The Puritan community had intended that the shame of the scarlet letter rid Hester of her proud defiance and force her to reflect on her sin. Although Hester seems to have been outwardly humbled, in reality, the scarlet letter has actually fostered rebellious ideas of feminism and suicide in her.
5. "Stretching for the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will." (50)
5. Although Hester is being publicly shamed for adultery, she remains dignified and defiant, brusquely brushing the prison guard aside as she steps out of the jail. Hester's demeanor here, independent and bold, establishes the basis for the feminist beliefs that she later develops.
Name: Hester Prynne
Role in the Story: Hester is the female protagonist in The Scarlet Letter. After giving birth to Pearl as a result of her relationship with Reverend Dimmesdale, she is forced to wear a letter ‘A’ on her breast, as a symbol of shame for the adultery she has committed.
- Initially the Puritan community intends for the letter ‘A’ to punish Hester for her adultery. However, Hester's inner strength and resilience allows for her to gradually earn the respect of the townspeople, transforming the meaning of the letter from 'adulteress' to 'able'.
- Hester's seclusion in the outskirts of town allows for her to develop her own ideas and morals. Although externally, she appears to be following the Puritan code, internally, she realizes the gender inequalities and excessive severity of Puritan society. Her thoughts on the injustices faced by women make her one of the first feminists in American history.
Role in the Story: Dimmesdale is the popular reverend whom many of the townspeople blindly admire; Pearl's father; Hester's lover in an illicit affair
- Dimmesdale's struggle with his conscience brings forth the question of whether it is worse to be a public sinner living in ignominy, or a private sinner living with the heavy burden of guilt.
- While the townspeople are mistaken in their belief that Dimmesdale is perfect, and he is not a direct representation of good (unlike Chillingworth, who is a direct representation of evil), Dimmesdale does represent a flawed human being who seeks to right his wrongs.
- When Hester urges Dimmesdale to run away with her and Pearl, Dimmesdale suddenly feels liberated by the chance to start anew. However, his impulsive actions on his way back home and his conversation with Mistress Hibbins force him to realize that running away would be wicked and sinful, and that his only path to salvation is a public confession (211-2). The significance in Dimmesdale's confession is that it represents a triumph over the temptation of escape.
Role in the Story: Born out of wedlock and from a scandalous affair, Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
- As the personification of the scarlet letter, Pearl is a living reminder of Hester's sinful affair.
- Pearl's naturally intuitive personality allows her to perceive people for who they really are and accurately judge them. For example, she immediately recognizes Chillingworth's sinister intentions, and she denies Dimmesdale a kiss in the forest because she recognizes his cowardice.
Adjectives: physically beautiful, capricious, defiant, curious, elfish, intuitive, irreverent, mischievous, obstinate
Name: Roger Chillingworth (previously, Roger Pyrnne)
Role in the Story: antagonist against whom Dimmesdale must struggle; Hester's ex-husband, on whom she cheated
- Despite being the victim of cuckoldry, Chillingworth is the story's villain, embittered, vengeful, and sustained on hatred; in a novel whose characters live by God, Chillingworth is depicted as Satan (120).
- Chillingworth also serves as a literary foil to Dimmesdale as a physician, Chillingworth represents science while Dimmesdale represents religion; Chillingworth is so bent on revenge that he does not realize his own sins while Dimmesdale repents through self-punition; Chillingworth seeks the demise of others while Dimmesdale seeks salvation for both others and himself.
The Scarlet Letter takes place in a 17th century Puritan community in Boston, Massachusetts. The forest, the marketplace, Dimmesdale's home, and Hester's cottage serve as the major settings in this novel.
Forest: The forest acts as an antithesis to the rigid principles that govern Puritan society. The forest is frequently associated with Satan's converts, and it symbolizes wilderness, a loss of the order and responsibilities of civilization; however, the forest is also liberating, for it gives both Hester and Dimmesdale a chance to be themselves, to freely express their feelings while they're away from the scrutiny of the townspeople.
Marketplace (Scaffold):The marketplace, home to the scaffold upon which sinners are publicly shamed, resonates with the same sense of strict order and severe punishment of the Puritan community. The scaffold is where Hester first receives her punishment, where Dimmesdale later returns in the middle of the night when he hopes to be relieved of his guilt, and where he ultimately confesses his sin to the townspeople. The marketplace, a location of civilization contrasts the unruliness of the forest; ironically, it is the wilderness that highlights the stiflingly harsh order that makes the Puritan civilization rather uncivilized.
Dimmesdale's and Hester's homes: Dimmesdale's home serves as the setting for both the psychological torture he receives from Chillingworth and the physical torture he inflicts upon himself. While Dimmesdale's abode stifles him under Chillingworth's watch, the location of Hester's cottage is symbolic of her own role in the Puritan town as neither a town-member nor an outsider, Hester is able to widen her perspective on the Puritan beliefs.
Prison-door vs. Rosebush: The rosebush, representing Nature and the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, provides a stark contrast to the prison-door, representing the strict, severe Puritan society of the17th-century. The prison-door's bleak hopelessness symbolizes society's refusal to forgive, but the rosebush's beauty gives the prisoner a sense of redemption and comfort.
The scarlet letter: Initially, the "A" is intended as a punishment for Hester, to be a constant reminder of her sinful adultery, a symbol of ignominy. However, Hester's selfless nature gradually wins the townspeople over, and they eventually interpret the "A" as "able," rather than "adulteress" (154).
Themeteor: When Dimmesdale sneaks out to the scaffold in an attempt to relieve his guilt, he sees a meteor flash across the sky, seemingly tracing out an ‘A’ in the night sky. To Dimmesdale, the A is symbolic of the shame faced by Hester, and the ignominy that he too should face. However, the townspeople believe that the 'A' stands for 'angel', a symbol of Governor Winthrop’s acceptance into heaven.
The "Black Man": The "Black Man," or Satan, is symbolic of the lurking evil that tempts the members of the Puritan community. Hester refers to the scarlet letter as "the black man's mark" ( ); Chillingworth is likened to Satan for being bent on revenge; Mistress Hibbins notes that Dimmesdale is very close to becoming the Black Man's "servant" (229).
Pearl: A biblical reference, Pearl's name represents the price Hester paid to have her. Also, as the personification of the scarlet letter, Pearl is both a blessing - for Pearl gives Hester the strength to bear the weight of her sin and allows her a chance at redemption - and a punishment, for Pearl is a constant reminder of Hester's adultery.
Significance of the Opening Scene
- The opening scene serves to introduce the serious, weighty tone that permeates the novel's Puritan setting by describing the rusty, iron-made prison-door
- The irony of constructing a prison while hoping to build a "utopia" indicates the Puritan belief that sinning is inevitable
- Like 17th-century Puritan society, the prison-door is staunchly conservative, unforgiving, and sinister; in contrast, like the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, the nearby rosebush is liberally rebellious, comforting, and hope-giving
Significance of the Closing Scene
- The closing scene serves to redeem Dimmesdale from his earlier cowardice.
- While standing on the scaffold after his sermon, he publicly confesses his sin. By finally overcoming his cowardice, he heroically triumphs over temptation and weakness.
- When Pearl kisses Dimmesdale and begins to cry, both are baptized by her tears, both finally becoming human.
- In the epilogue, the scarlet letter becomes a legend, no longer derided, but instead, revered. Similarly respected, Hester acts as an adviser for women, assuring them that the day when women are equal to men will come.
- The words "On a field, sable*, the letter A, gules**," engraved on Hester and Dimmesdale's tombstone serve as a reminder of Hester's struggle against the judgmental nature of Puritan society; moreover, the fact that the Puritans allows Hester and Dimmesdale to be buried near each other (though they are not buried together, they do share a tombstone) suggests that Hester has won against the Puritan's judgmental conservatism (*sable = black, **gules = red)
Possible Themes Topics of Discussion
1. Although Dimmesdale is often viewed as cowardly and spineless, he is ultimately a good human being whose constant repentance and eventual confession make him heroic; in contrast, the unrepentant Chillingworth embodies evil.
2. Although this Puritan society lauds itself as a model of civilization, its stifling conformity and suppressive punishments makes it, ironically, rather uncivilized. On the other hand, nature and wilderness, like the rosebush and forest, offer comfort, escape, and the freedom to be honest, allowing for more peace and ease than in a Puritan town.
3. The private sinner burdened by a guilty conscience, suffers more than the public sinner condemned to infamy, for the public sinner may seek to be forgiven, whereas the private sinner can never fully repent without an outright confession.
4. The concept of sin propels the story forward without the sin of adultery, Dimmesdale's guilt and Hester's shame would not have existed. However, both are ultimately relieved of their burdens Dimmesdale's guilt is relieved through his confession and Hester's symbol of shame becomes a symbol of womanhood, suggesting that a sin like theirs, rooted in mutual love, is not a sin at all.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Signet Classics, 1959. Print.
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