The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Page 1 of 4


Although written almost 150 years ago, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter contains concepts and insights relevant to contemporary readers. The themes of alienation and breaking society's rules are ones to which many teenagers can readily relate. Viewed in this light, the novel can be approached as the story of a woman who let her heart rule her head and suffered the consequences. Hester Prynne's plight can arouse sympathy, Arthur Dimmesdale's hypocrisy can provoke anger, and Roger Chillingworth's evil revenge can elicit disgust among today's high school readers.

This teacher's guide presents a teaching approach to The Scarlet Letter that encourages student involvement. Rather than treating The Scarlet Letter as an artifact we must study as a cultural obligation, this approach emphasizes the significance this classic literary work holds for the lives of its readers. Many of the activities suggested in this teacher's guide are inductive. They frequently focus primarily upon the individual reader's experience while reading the work and the sharing of these experiences with other readers. The approach incorporates reading, writing, speaking, listening, and creative thinking as they relate to the literary work.

This guide is divided into three sections. The first section offers an overview of the novel which includes a synopsis of the plot, a commentary on the novel, an introduction to Hawthorne's life, a description of the literary scene during Hawthorne's time, and some historical commentary about Puritan New England. This information is provided as a review for the teacher, to aid in answering questions students may ask, and to assist in directing interested students toward further research. The second section contains suggestions for teaching The Scarlet Letter. The activities are presented according to effective times to introduce them – either before, during, or after reading the novel. They are also keyed to indicate the ability levels of students for whom they are appropriate.

* means appropriate for all level students
+ means appropriate for nonacademic students
# means appropriate for all level students
@ means appropriate for academic students

The third section provides ideas for extending students' learning to include current events, literary criticism, and other literary works.

Because reading The Scarlet Letter can be difficult for many high school readers, it is important that teachers not expect all students to respond to the novel as literary scholars. Nurturing an interest in the parts of the novel which appeal to students and not dwelling on aspects beyond their comprehension or concern can enhance the reader's relationship with the novel. High school readers who enjoy some aspect of The Scarlet Letter may return to it later in life and discover deeper meanings for themselves. The suggestions offered here are designed to optimize the student's enjoyment of the novel. A preliminary suggestion is to have students skip "The Custom House," even though it is subtitled "An Introductory to The Scarlet Letter," and proceed directly to reading the novel itself.


The story takes place in the Puritan village of Boston, Massachusetts, during the first half of the 17th Century. Several years before the novel begins, Hester Prynne came to the New World to await the arrival of her husband who had business to conclude in Europe. However, Hester's husband was captured by Indians upon his arrival in New England and did not arrive in Boston as Hester expected. While living alone in Boston and believing her husband dead, Hester committed adultery and became pregnant. The village magistrates imprisoned her for this sin and decreed she must wear a scarlet "A" on the bodice of her dress for the rest of her life. While in prison, Hester, highly skilled in needlework, elaborately embroidered scarlet letter with gold thread.

Before her release from prison, Hester was forced to stand on the public scaffold where all the villagers could see her. As the story opens, Hester is leaving the prison to take her position on the scaffold. She wears the scarlet letter and carries with dignity her three-month-old daughter Pearl. As Hester endures this public disgrace, Roger Chillingworth, an old man new to the village, asks members of the crowd about her and learns as much of her story as is commonly known. When he asks the identity of the child's father, he discovers Hester has refused to divulge this information. From the balcony overlooking the scaffold, the young Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale also asks for this information and eloquently appeals to Hester to publicly name her partner in sin. She refuses.

Upon her return to prison, Hester is distraught, and Roger Chillingworth, a self-proclaimed physician, comes to calm her and the babe. Chillingworth, who is actually Hester's husband, refuses to publicly acknowledge her and share in her shame. He makes Hester promise to keep his true identity secret and vows to discover and avenge himself on the man who has wronged him.

Hester and Pearl take up residence in a small cottage at the edge of the village. Using her needlework skills, Hester supports herself and Pearl by sewing for the magistrates and wealthy villagers. She also sews for the poor as an act of charity. Although they live humbly, Hester's one extravagance is the way she dresses Pearl. Hester fashions scarlet, elaborately embroidered dresses for Pearl. The townspeople generally shun Hester and her daughter.

Three years pass, and Hester learns the magistrates are considering taking Pearl away from her. Hester passionately implores Governor Bellingham to allow her to keep Pearl, who is her sole joy as well as a constant reminder of her sin. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale speaks in behalf of Hester, and Pearl is allowed to remain with her mother. As Hester and Pearl leave the Governor's Mansion, Mistress Hibbins, the Governor's sister, invites Hester to meet the Black Man in the forest. Hester happily declines the offer because she must take care of Pearl.

The story now turns to Roger Chillingworth. Following his secret interview with Hester in prison, Chillingworth becomes a respected member of the community and personal medical advisor to Arthur Dimmesdale, whose health is failing. Chillingworth uses his medical knowledge to treat the minister's physical condition, but suspects some wound or trouble in Dimmesdale's soul is contributing to his declining health. Intent on discovering the truth about Arthur Dimmesdale, Chillingworth one day comes upon the minister in his sleep, pushes aside his shirt, and reads the secret of the minister's heart - the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is Hester Prynne's partner in adultery and the father of little Pearl. Chillingworth acknowledges Dimmesdale as his enemy and thus makes him the unsuspecting victim of his malevolent revenge.

Although Dimmesdale lacks the courage to confess his sin publicly and risk ruining his reputation as a man of God, he suffers privately. In addition to his constant mental torment, he punishes himself physically with a bloody scourge, fasts to the point of weakness, and keeps nightly vigils. On one of these vigil nights, seven years after Hester stood in solitary shame upon the scaffold, Dimmesdale, thinking the rest of the town is asleep, stands on that same scaffold. However, Hester and Pearl pass the scaffold as they return home from watching at the deathbed of Governor Winthrop. Dimmesdale invites them to ascend the steps and the three stand together on the scaffold. Pearl asks him if they will stand together tomorrow, but Dimmesdale tells her it cannot be. Chillingworth sees the trio on the scaffold. Dimmesdale appeals to Hester for support against the nameless horror he feels for Chillingworth. Hiding his hatred for Dimmesdale, Chillingworth approaches and leads the minister back home.

Hester is shocked by the decay of Dimmesdale's nerve and moral force. She infers Chillingworth to be the insidious cause of his weakened state. Realizing she has allowed this to happen by keeping Chillingworth's identity a secret, Hester resolves to talk to her former husband and try to rescue Dimmesdale from his evil influence. Soon after, Hester approaches Chillingworth and asks him to stop tormenting Dimmesdale. When Chillingworth refuses, she tells her former husband she must reveal the secret of his identity. Chillingworth tells her to do what she will with the minister.

Several days later, Hester intercepts Arthur Dimmesdale as he is walking through the forest. The two retreat to the seclusion of the woods and talk while Pearl plays among the nearby trees. Arthur tells Hester he detests living a lie and is relieved to look into the eyes of one who knows him for what he really is. Hester tells him that Chillingworth also possesses this knowledge, and that he was the husband she betrayed. Dimmesdale is initially horrified, but soon forgives Hester for keeping Chillingworth's secret. Fearing further revenge from Chillingworth, Dimmesdale asks Hester what he should do. She suggests they leave Boston and return to the Old World. Arthur agrees, and they plan to leave aboard the ship currently in the harbor. In their newly discovered freedom, Hester removes the scarlet letter and the cap which binds her hair. Hester wants Arthur to know Pearl and summons her from the trees. But Pearl, distressed by her mother's altered appearance, comes reluctantly. Pearl then bursts into a fit of passion and insists her mother don the letter and cap before she will behave civilly. Hester does this sadly. Dimmesdale gives the child a kiss, which she immediately washes off in the brook.

Upon returning to the village, Hester makes arrangements with the ship's captain for the passage. Arthur is secretly pleased they will not leave until after Election Day when he will have the honor of delivering the Election Sermon. When Election Day arrives, the ship's captain tells Hester that Chillingworth will be traveling with them. Hester cannot warn Dimmesdale of this new development because the Election Procession, of which he is part, is beginning. Reverend Dimmesdale's sermon is a brilliant triumph, but as the procession is leaving the church, he surprises everyone by inviting Hester and Pearl to ascend the scaffold with him once again, this time in front of the entire village. Chillingworth tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Dimmesdale from this action. Hester supports Arthur, and Pearl holds his hand as the three of them climb onto the scaffold. The scaffold is the only place Roger Chillingworth dares not follow Dimmesdale, and he looks on unhappily as Dimmesdale escapes his revenge.

On the scaffold, Dimmesdale confesses his sin and tears away his shirt to reveal what appears to be a scarlet "A" on his own breast. Chillingworth laments that Dimmesdale has escaped him, and Dimmesdale tells him he too has sinned deeply. Pearl kisses her father's lips and her tears fall on his cheek. A dying man, Dimmesdale bids Hester farewell, but cannot assure her they will meet again in Heaven, reminding her of the gravity of their sin.

Dimmesdale is buried in the village cemetery. Roger Chillingworth dies within the year, leaving Pearl a considerable amount of property. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, but years later, Hester returns and takes up residence in her old cottage where she lives until she dies. She is buried next to Dimmesdale, and although their graves do not touch, they share a common gravestone.

Although commonly called a novel, The Scarlet Letter is actually a romance. Hawthorne makes this distinction because at the time he was writing, novels were supposed to deal with realistic representations of human experiences or external truths. Romances, on the other hand, were concerned with internal truths, or "truths of the human heart," as Hawthorne states in his Preface to The House of the Seven Gables. Romances, therefore, allowed the author to deviate from reality in favor of imagination. Thus The Scarlet Letter is not an historical novel about Puritan Boston, but a romance set 200 years before Hawthorne's time in which he tells a tale that may have occurred, given some historical facts and many insights into human nature.

Writing a romance about the past gives Hawthorne the freedom to present several versions of what might have happened, depending on whose perspective is presented. This is why after the death of Arthur Dimmesdale, several theories are submitted as to how the scarlet "A" came to be imprinted on his breast. The insignia could have been self-inflicted, or wrought by Chillingworth's magic, or a manifestation of Dimmesdale's remorseful spirit. Hawthorne presents all three theories non-judgementally because what matters most is not how The Scarlet Letter got there, but that it confirms the truth about Dimmesdale's adulterous heart.

The genre of the romance also allowed Hawthorne to embellish the relationship between humans and nature. For example, the babbling brook in the forest scene appears to sympathize with Hester and Dimmesdale and adds "this other tale to the mystery with which its little heart was already overburdened ...." (p. 201). In addition, the "A"-shaped meteor which appears the night Governor Winthrop dies and Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold is interpreted as both a sign from heaven denouncing Dimmesdale as an adulterer and also as standing for "Angel" as the soul of a revered magistrate ascends into heaven, depending upon the orientation of its observer.

Hawthorne's Life

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His father and grandfather were both New England seafarers.

After his father died of yellow fever, Hawthorne (who was four years old), his mother, and sisters lived with his mother's relatives. Following his graduation from Bowdoin College, New Brunswick, Maine, in 1825, Hawthorne returned to Salem where he struggled as a short story writer for 12 years. He published Twice-Told Tales in 1837. From 1839 to 1841, Hawthorne worked as a measurer in the Boston Custom House. In 1842, he married Sophia Peabody. The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, brought him recognition as an author. He published The House of the Seven Gables in 1851. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, at Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Hawthorne's Literary Times

Hawthorne wrote during the Romantic Period in American literature which lasted from 1830 to 1865. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman were his literary contemporaries. The Scarlet Letter is considered a piece of American Romantic literature because it is set in a remote past, the Puritan era 200 years prior to Hawthorne's time, and because it deals with the interior psychology of individual characters.

Historical Commentary

A religious group which migrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England in the early 1600s, the Puritans believed in a "pure" interpretation of the Bible which did not include some of the traditional practices of the Church of England. Although the Church did not officially control the State in Puritan settlements, religion and government were closely intertwined. The ministers counseled the magistrates in all affairs concerning the settlement and its citizens. The Puritans had strict rules against the theater, religious music, sensuous poetry, and frivolous dress.

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