The Scarlet Letter

Use a teaching guide that includes a synopsis of the plot of The Scarlet Letter, historical commentary about Puritan New England, and suggested activities.
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Updated on: December 4, 2000
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To ease students into the world of The Scarlet Letter, have them respond orally or in writing to one or two, not all, of the following open-ended questions.

1. Sometimes people hear about a book before actually reading it themselves. Perhaps some of your friends or relatives already have read The Scarlet Letter, or maybe you have heard or read about it elsewhere. If so, what have you heard about The Scarlet Letter? *

2. Have you ever heard someone talk about being branded with a scarlet letter or call someone a scarlet woman? What might this mean? *

3. What is adultery? Where have you heard the term? *

4. Describe any stories, plays, or novels you have read, either as a child or a teenager, which have to do with the Puritans in New England. # @

5. How would you describe the difference between a "sin of passion" and a "sin of principle?" (Hawthorne mentions these terms on page 190.) @

There are several possible follow-up activities to these responses. They can be used separately or in combination.

1. Students share their responses in small groups. *

2. Students share their responses in a whole class discussion. *

3. The teacher reads student responses and writes back to each student. *

The last two activities allow the teacher to note each student's readiness and/or expectations for the study of The Scarlet Letter.


Many ideas Hawthorne explores in The Scarlet Letter are still important today and frequently recur in other literary works. Acquainting students with themes found in The Scarlet Letter before they read the novel can facilitate their engagement with the work. Activities designed to heighten awareness of a specific theme as well as including The Scarlet Letter in theme-centered units which include less complex literature, such as literature written for contemporary young adults, can increase student involvement, understanding, and appreciation when they later read the novel. There is a bibliography of literary works grouped by themes found in The Scarlet Letter at the end of this guide. The following activities relate to themes in The Scarlet Letter.

Theme #1: Alienation

Pin a label on each student's back without letting him or her see what is written on it. Most labels say "Community Member" and a few say "Ostracized." As students mill around the room, they are not allowed to talk to each other. Instead they must use nonverbal language to communicate the social status indicated by the other students' labels. After students have guessed what their individual label says, have the "Ostracized" students discuss what it felt like to be shunned by their classmates. *

1. Have students write about a time when they felt lonely or left out. *

Theme #2: Appearance versus Reality

1. Have students cite examples, either from their reading or experience, of people who were not really what they seemed to be. *

2. Have students cite examples, perhaps from recent history, of events that were not what they seemed to be. # @

Theme #3: Breaking Society's Rules

1. Have students list the rules society sets concerning sexual relationships. What happens when these rules are broken? *

2. Discuss historical events in which groups of people broke society's rules. What were the outcomes of these events? (Possible events to consider might be draft resistance during the Vietnam War, the Boston Tea Party, antinuclear protests, burning the U.S. flag.) @


Reading parts of the novel aloud can be enjoyable and instructive for students at all levels. An expressive reading of Chapter 1, "The Prison Door," acquaints students with Hawthorne's literary style. Continuing on with Chapter 2, "The Market Place," helps them enter both the external and the internal worlds of Hester Prynne.


In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne tells the story using vocabulary and a writing style familiar to readers in 1850. The speech of the characters in the story, however, is that of Puritans in the early 1600s. Yet to many of contemporary readers, the speech of the Puritans seems more familiar than the "more modern" language of Hawthorne's time. This is because the Puritans left England around the time when the King James Version of the Bible was written. Therefore, their language is similar to Jacobean (Jacobus is the Latin word for James) English of the King James Bible.

Although the Puritan speech may seem familiar to readers of the King James Bible, the overall difficulty of the language in The Scarlet Letter frequently frustrates students and hinders their appreciation and enjoyment of the story. Rather than belabor the problem by explicating passages at length, encourage students to become involved with the novel's language through one or more of these activities.

1. Find a line or passage in the King James Version of the Bible that uses words or phrases characteristic of the speech of the characters in the novel. # @

2. Keep a list of interesting, impressive, and/or amusing words, phrases, or passages used by the novel's narrator or characters. Two examples of such passages occur when the townspeople call Hester a "brazen hussy" (p.61) and when the children say:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of The Scarlet Letter, and, of a truth moreover, there is the likeness of The Scarlet Letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them! (p. 103)

Words such as "ignominy," "labyrinth," "propensity," and "precipice" may be included also.

Students share their lists in small-group or class discussions, pointing out the appeal of the words, phrases, and passages, and trying to discover what they mean. # @

3. Have students read parts of the novel aloud to appreciate the cadence of Hawthorne's language. Discuss his use of commas and length of sentences. # @

4. Devise a list of Hawthorne's "words of wisdom" which could be discussed or used as topics for writing. Here are possible passages to include in the list:

•In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it. (p. 62) @

•When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived. When, however it forms its judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and warm heart, the conclusions thus attained are often profound and so unerring, as to possess the character of truths supernaturally revealed. (p. 125) @

•Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared. (p. 128) # @

•To the untrue man, the whole universe is false. (p. 142) # @

•It is remarkable that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society. (p. 159) @

•No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. (p. 203) *

•It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. (p. 242) # @


The major characters in The Scarlet Letter may seem difficult to understand, even though, or perhaps because, Hawthorne provides so much information about them. The following activities are suggested as a means to help students discover, as they read, the complex natures, motivations, and relationships between the characters.

1. Keep a journal in which you develop profiles of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl. *

2. Keep a journal in which you respond to the actions, thoughts, and beliefs of one or more of the characters. Explain why you respond as you do. # @

3. Try to figure out who is Pearl's father before Hawthorne actually tells you. Keep a record of your guesses with your reasons. *

4. Keep a journal as if you were one of the main characters. Record your activities, thoughts, and feelings. #