The Scarlet Letter Intro

The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
“I believe that The Scarlet Letter, like
all great novels, enriches our sense of
human experience and complicates
and humanizes our approach to it.”
from Solitude, Love, and Anguish: The Tragic Design of the
Scarlet Letter by Seymour L. Gross
Nathaniel Hawthorne
 1804-1864
 Friends with
transcendentalists, though
wasn’t one himself
 Believed that evil was a
dominant force in the world
and his fiction expressed a
gloomy version of human
 Great-great-great-great
grandfather, John Hathorne,
was judge at Salem witch
“I do not want to be a
doctor and live by
man’s diseases, nor
a minister to live by
their sins, nor a
lawyer and live by
their quarrels. So, I
don’t see that there
is anything left for
me but to be an
The Custom House
 Appointed surveyor at Salem
Custom House (which accounts for
the first part of The Scarlet Letter)
This is where he wrote (and
grained great success with) The
Scarlet Letter.
Describes the interior/exterior of
the Custom House
Describes Hawthorne’s feelings
about his native town of Salem
Makes critical comments about the
Whig party/ reveals Hawthorne’s
involvement as a Democrat
Historical Context
 Boston Colony founded 1630
 1000 Puritans
 John Winthrop (leader)
 Puritans (established during reign
of Queen Elizabeth – thus the
reference to her) sought to “purify”
the church and wipe out all traces
of Catholicism (thus the negative
Catholic comments)
Boston was ruled by a theocracy
and the government was not
intended to provide religious
freedom to all
Recognized the Bible as the sole
source of religious authority
Public humiliation (34)
 Those who didn’t fit in (i.e. Quakers)
were dealt with harshly.
 All things are controlled beforehand by God.
 All deserved damnation because of original sin; however,
God elected to save some anyway.
 One could not influence that destiny by good works or
alter the divine plan.
 Nonetheless, Puritans fought to remain righteous,
suppressing the desires of the flesh (which is why what
Dimmesdale and Hester do is sooooo bad).
 Harsh discipline wasn’t necessary to punish, since God
would do that. It was to show others what would
happen if they did the same thing. This is why Hester is
pointed out all of the time.
Fact or Fiction?
 Although Hester Prynne is
fictional, she may have been
derived by a woman to whom
Hawthorne’s ancestor meted
out punishment.
 Hester Craford, for
fornication with John Wedg,
as she confessed, was ordered
to be severely whipped. The
whipping was delayed until
six weeks after she gave birth
to the illegitimate child.
The Scarlet Letter as Argument
 The consequences of sin as
Sin and its effect on the
seen through Hester (58),
Chillingworth and
Dimmesdale (82)
 What are the consequences
of sin? Are they just?
The Scarlet Letter as Argument
What does sin allow
Hester? (59)
Chillingworth? (85)
Mistress Hibbins (the resident
 Pearl (isn’t a sinner but who
is born as the result of sin)?
Structure of the Novel
 Characters interact in few fully developed
 There are a series of dramatic scenes with
some expository chapters interspersed –
focusing Hester.
 The Scaffold Scenes (3)
 They underscore the unity of the novel
 Unite the four major characters and show
 Pay attention to these!
 Third-Person Omniscient
 Reveals the inner and outer workings of the
 Provides social criticism, history, and
 Hester Prynne- wearer of the scarlet letter
 Pearl- child of Hester; living symbol of Hester’s sin
 Roger Chillingworth- learned scholar; doctor
 Arthur Dimmesdale- admired young minister
 Governor Bellingham- governor and magistrate of
Massachusetts Bay Colony
 Rev. John Wilson- senior minister of colony
 Mistress Hibbins- Gov. Bellingham’s sister
 Some symbols keep the same significance throughout –
the scaffold, which represents public notice, and weeds
and unsightly vegetation which stand for moral evil (90).
 Others, like the forest, which represents both nature and
the threatening powers of the Black Man, are ambivalent
 The central symbol, the Scarlet Letter, does change in
meaning, as Hester works her way towards absolution.
As you read 12-18:
 Chapter 12 – The Minister’s Vigil
* 2nd of 3 scaffold scenes, bringing all 4 characters
* duality of light in the sky – what is the real meaning?
* Art’s subconscious – he does not go willingly to the
scaffold, sleepwalks there; barely resists his impulses –
wants to shriek out
 Chapter 13 – Another View of Hester
• States the changes that have occurred in Hester over time and
the way the community sees her
Chapter 14 – Hester and the Physician
• Evokes reader’s sympathy for Rog, who with the potential of being a
good man, has turned into a fiend.
• At the end of the chapter he shows his admiration and sympathy for
 Chapter 15 – Hester and Pearl
* Hawthorne explores Hester’s inner world.
* Here she looks a little negative because of her expressed
hatred for Rog and her lie to Pearl.
 Chapter 16 – A Forest Walk
* Symbolic chapter – rays of sunshine that disappear for
Hester, Pearl resembling the brook – even if unlike the brook
she is sparkling – this is because, as Pearl says, “I wear nothing
on my bosom yet!”
 Chapter 17 – The Pastor and His Parishioner
* 1st chapter of a love story
* 1st time Art and Hester are alone together
* Shows the depth of Hester’s feelings for Art
 Chapter 18 – A Flood of Sunshine
* Setting of the forest plays important role, representing an
oasis of freedom
* Allows Hester to let down hair and throw off her letter
* Hester, Art, and Pearl plan to follow natural laws instead
of laws of mankind
* Weird relationship between Pearl and Art – his fear and
her reluctance