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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Before engaging in the discussions or activities that follow, provide students opportunities to respond to the book as a whole. * A class discussion about students' reactions to the novel allows them to express their initial thoughts and feelings about the work. Encouraging students to write their responses and discuss these in small groups before whole class discussions take place may make class discussions less intimidating and projects less anxiety producing. Students understand that their personal responses are valued, and they have had a chance to share and discuss them in small groups without the teacher. An effectively led class discussion about initial reactions to the book can set the stage for subsequent lively and creative expressions based on rich literary transactions with the text. Many of the topics which emerged as first responses during class discussions can be explored through the following suggestions.


Hawthorne uses precise language to provide his readers with vivid descriptions depicting the time, place, and mood, or the setting for The Scarlet Letter. The images he presents can be visually represented through students' artistic interpretations of the novel's setting. Here are some suggestions for activities designed to enhance student's appreciation of Hawthorne's detailed descriptions of setting.


The time period in which the novel is set is important. The following activities are designed to acquaint students with the Puritan era in New England.

1. Create a documentary about the Puritans that traces their religious struggle in Europe, migration to the New World, and establishment of Puritan villages throughout New England. # @

2. Select characters from The Scarlet Letter to represent the clergy, the magistrates, and the townspeople. Have students assume the identity of these characters and take part in a panel discussion about the religious beliefs, laws, social customs, and attitudes of the Puritans of Boston during the period in which the novel is set. # @


Boston and the adjacent forest provide distinctly different physical settings for the novel. Here are some activities designed to heighten the student's sense of place in The Scarlet Letter.

1. Design a miniature set for a theatrical performance of The Scarlet Letter. Provide rationale for the props and backdrops selected for each scene. + #

2. Based on Hawthorne's written descriptions, draw or paint a scene from The Scarlet Letter and explain to your classmates why you choose that particular scene. + @

3. Draw a map of the town and surrounding areas. Include both natural and manmade landmarks important to the story. *


Hawthorne cloaks The Scarlet Letter in a mood of somberness and foreboding. These activities are designed to help the student understand the relationship between the mood and the story itself.

1. Take a poll in the class to determine which students expected The Scarlet Letter to end happily and which students expected it to end unhappily. Ask the respondents to explain their expectations. + #

2. Create or select a piece of music which captures the mood of The Scarlet Letter. *

3. Choose the color which reflects the predominant mood of The Scarlet Letter. Why is this an appropriate choice? For which scenes might different colors be appropriate? What are those colors and why are they appropriate? + #


1. The town magistrates sentenced Hester to wear the scarlet "A" for the rest of her life so all would recognize her as an adulteress. Over time, however, newcomers did not know the history of Hester's badge and asked its significance. Some townspeople remembered its origin, but others forgot, or transformed its meaning to indicate "able" in deference to Hester's steady performance of tasks benefiting the sick and needy. Just as the scarlet letter took on new significance during Hester's lifetime, so may it hold meanings beyond those associated specifically with Hester's sin. Within the novel, the "A" might be enlarged to embrace all those who, like Hester, have been alienated or who feel alone. It might even be interpreted to symbolize America, a country born in the sin of revolution but which eventually prospered - just like Pearl.

Sometimes rich symbols like Hester's "A" take on contemporary meanings never imagined by the author. Could the scarlet letter "A" have any possible association with AIDS, or drug addicts or abortion? Explore these possible associations and/or think of other meanings the "A" could encompass. @

2. Although the "A" is the most prominent symbol in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne uses many other symbols throughout the novel. Select one or more of the following symbols and explain its meaning within the context of the story:

black (pp. 116, 129, 132, 168) + #
the forest (pp. 175, 189) # @
the brook (pp. 178) # @
the roses (pp. 56, 112) # @
Indians (pp. 66) # @
Hester's clothing, particularly her formal cap (p. 192) # @
Pearl's clothing (pp. 102-103) # @
Pearl's name (p. 91) @
meteor (p. 149) # @
golden embroidery on the "A" (p. 60) # @


Upon reflection it becomes apparent that Hawthorne has included a good bit of irony in The Scarlet Letter. The following occurrences might be explored according to their ironic aspects.

1. Roger Chillingworth is punished more than Hester. (p. 138) # @

2. Pearl is dressed as a lady of great wealth, and she eventually becomes a lady of great wealth. (p. 103) #

3. Even though Hester could have left Boston, she chooses to remain in the town where she committed and was punished for her sin. (p. 83) @

4. Pearl's name implies purity and serenity. (p. 91) @

5. The Scarlet Letter gains Hester respect in the community. (pp. 156-157, 190) # @

6. Dimmesdale was deceived by Chillingworth because "Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared." (p. 128) @

Literary Allusions

The scarlet letter that Hester was required to wear on her breast is frequently referred to in other literary works as well as in everyday speech. For example, the lyrics in the song "The Sadder but Wiser Girl" in The Music Man say "I hope, I pray for Hester to win just one more 'A.'/The sadder but wiser girl's the girl for me."

In Where the Kissing Never Stops by Ron Koertge, Walker's mother sarcastically answers his question about what she told the neighbors about her new job with the following:

Well, I thought of telling them the truth and saying that I was making a hundred dollars a might as an actress and a dancer in a revival of old-time burlesque, but I knew they would sew a scarlet A on my best sweater and dunk me in the river, so I said I was drowning kittens for a dollar an hour and that seemed to satisfy them. (p. 14)

1. Make a list of other literary allusions to The Scarlet Letter. @

2. Discuss more modern uses of the word scarlet such as Scarlett O'Hara and scarlet woman. # @

Other Activities

1. Produce a session of Nightline in which you try to piece together the story from the various characters' points of view. One student can take the role of Ted Koppel and interview other students playing Hester, Arthur, Roger, Pearl, and any other characters involved in the story. Characters may question each other, and Ted may point out discrepancies in the stories, all in the spirit of understanding the effect their actions had on each character. Videotape this program and show it to your classmates. @

2.Working in a group or four, choose one of the major characters and write his or her version of what happened between Hester and Arthur. Have this character provide a rationale for his or her explanation. Although some of the information presented may extend beyond the facts given in the book, try to imitate the character by using his or her voice (style of speaking, word choice) and incorporating his or her philosophical or religious viewpoint. Compile these accounts into a volume and submit it to your classmates as an appendix to The Scarlet Letter. @

3. Choose one of the character profiles you created and draw or paint a portrait of that character. Share your artistic decisions with your classmates, so they understand why you chose to represent the character as you did. *

4. Consider the implications of each of the major character's names, beginning with Hester Prynne which rhymes with "sin." *

5. Research historical facts relating to the Puritan settlement of Boston. # @

6. Conduct research on Hawthorne's ancestors and their connection with the Puritans of early New England. @

7. Read "The Custom House" and explore its relationship to The Scarlet Letter. @

8. Read "Endicott and the Red Cross", included at the end of the Signet Classic edition of The Scarlet Letter, and summarize Hawthorne's general attitudes toward the Puritans. @

9. Watch the television/video of The Scarlet Letter available from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and compare and contrast this version to the book. + #

10. Select one character and after analyzing his or her actions, beliefs, and moral code, decide whether or not you respect that character. Through a position paper or an oral debate, try to convince a classmate that your decision is wall founded. #

11. Hester Prynne held some unorthodox thoughts about the relationship between men and women. Describe her assessment of the situation in her day and her thoughts about how it would have to change to meet what she felt would be a more ideal situation. (Note: see page 245.) @

12. Explain how The Scarlet Letter is a mystery novel. + #

13. Explain how The Scarlet Letter is the story of a love triangle. Explain the relationship between each of the people involved. + @

14. Divide the class into small groups and have each group select an important scene and dramatize it for the class. *

15. In small groups choose a section of the book, adapt it for reader's theater, and perform it for the class. # @

16. Pin the name of a character from The Scarlet Letter on the back of each class member. Each student then tries to guess which character he or she is by the way other characters treat him of her. Because there is more than one student bearing the identity of each character, students cannot guess their character through the process of elimination. + #

17. Write a newspaper account which features Hester or one of the other main characters. *