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Contents• Cover Page i• About the Author 1-2• The Time Period 3• Major Themes 4-6• Synopsis 7-9• Character Analysis 10 - 15• Critical Appreciation 16 - 17• Conclusion 18
About the AuthorThe Scarlet Letter was written by American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He wasborn in 1804 in the city of Salem, Massachusetts to Nathaniel Hathorne, Sr., and theformer Elizabeth Clarke Manning. He was a descendant of a long line of Puritanancestors. In order to distance himself from his familysshameful involvement in Salem Witch Trials, Hawthorneadded the "w" to his last name.After his father, a ship captain, died of yellow fever at seawhen Nathaniel was only four, his mother became overlyprotective and pushed him toward relatively isolatedpursuits. Hawthornes childhood left him overly shy andbookish, which molded his life as a writer. Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne turned to writing after his graduation from Bowdoin College. His firstnovel, Fanshawe, was unsuccessful and Hawthorne himself disavowed the work asamateurish. However, Hawthorne returned to Salem where he struggled as a shortstory writer for 12 years. He published Twice-Told Tales in 1837.His insufficient earnings as a writer forced Hawthorne to enter a career as a BostonCustom House measurer in 1839. In 1842, he married Sophia Peabody and moved toThe Manse in Concord. Hawthorne returned to Salem in 1845. Hawthorne thendevoted himself to his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter wasan immediate success that allowed him todevote himself to his writing. He publishedThe House of the Seven Gables in 1851.Hawthorne passed away on May19, 1864, in Plymouth, NewHampshire, after a long period of illnessduring which he suffered severe bouts of Grave of Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Time PeriodThe story of the Scarlet letter is set in 17th-century Puritan Boston during the years1642 to 1649. The Puritans had settled in New England to practice their religiousbeliefs after leaving the Old World, where they had been persecuted. The Puritanswere a legalistic sect of Protestant Christians influenced by Calvinism. Their beliefsemphasized God’s omnipotence and the concept of election, the idea that salvation ispredestined. Religious behavior was seen as both a result of salvation and evidenceof it. Thus, Puritan communities were centered on the idea of purity in thought anddeed, and sins were rooted out and punished harshly.The physical setting of The Scarlet Letter reflects the beliefs and habits of thePuritans. Throughout the book, we are taken on a mini tour of the most importanttown buildings and structures. Law and religion form the heart of the town.
Major ThemesSinSin is clearly a matter of great importance in the mid-17th century Puritancommunity of The Scarlet Letter, as religious sin is associated with breaking thelaw. In the novel, we see a hierarchy of sins. It consistently calls into question thenotion of sin and what is necessary for redemption.Roger Chillingworth’s pursuit of revenge is deemed a "worse sin" than the passionthat led Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale to commit adultery. No characterin the book questions the idea that sin should be punished, and all recognize thatsin will be punished, if not here on earth by man, than by God after death.Committing sin is regarded as willfully allowing the Black Man (Satan) to placehis mark upon your soul.
Women and FemininityThe Scarlet Letter follows several strong women in an era when women wereexpected to be subordinate to their male counterparts. Hester Prynne is willing totake on her own shame while protecting the man she loves from his share of thepublic condemnation. She keeps his secret faithfully, for seven long years.Women, although the "weaker sex" in this heavily religious society, prove to beincredibly strong in this novel.IsolationThe novel tells the story of a society that is as good at excluding people as a middleschool clique. Hester Prynne lived in isolation for years and years, cast out ofPuritan society for having a child out of wedlock. Her isolation leads her to see hersociety in a new light and allows her to think outside of the box. Ironically, it seemscharacters who are the most appreciated by and involved in this society seem to bethe most conflicted and alone.
Fate and Free WillThe world of The Scarlet Letter is a religious one that believes in fate and in theidea that each person’s life follows a specific and set path. Puritans believed inDivine Providence, or the idea that God was a guide who controlled every aspectof life. Characters in this novel constantly struggle between letting fate run itscourse and choosing a path for themselves. Those who are ostracized by societyseem more able to forge a life of their own.Memories vs. the PresentHester Prynnes offense against society occurred seven years earlier, but sheremains punished for it. Hester learned to forgive herself for her adultery, butsociety continues to scorn her for it. Indeed, Hester reaches peace with her affairand in that peace comes to see the town as insufficiently forgiving in its thoughtsand attitudes. Pearl is enough of a reminder of the wild choices in her past, and asPearl grows up, Hester continues to live in the present rather than in the past.
SynopsisThe Scarlet Letter follows the public shaming and punishment of a young womannamed Hester Prynne in mid-17th century Boston , i.e., the Massachusetts BayColony. When Hester becomes pregnant, everyone believes her to be guilty ofadultery: she has been separated from her husband for two full years, and thebaby cannot be his. The magistrates (local law enforcers) and ministers order herto wear a scarlet letter “A" on the bodice of her dress, so that everyone can knowabout her adultery.The Scarlet Letter begins when Hester is briefly released from prison so that shecan be paraded through town, displaying her scarlet "A" while standing on top ofthe town scaffold (a public stage). She carries her baby daughter, Pearl, in herarms. Pearl was born in prison. Hester steadfastly refuses to reveal the name ofPearl’s father, so that he might be saved from punishment.
Hester Prynne’s long lost husband arrives in the midst of this parade throughtown. He visits her in prison before her release and asks her not to tell anyone thathe’s in town. His plan is to disguise himself so that he can ferret out and seekrevenge on her lover.Hester’s husband tells the townspeople that he’s a physician, and he adopts a fakename: Roger Chillingworth. Hester keeps his secret. Chillingworth soon realizesthat the minister, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, is the likely father ofHester’s baby, and he haunts the minister’s mind and soul, day and night, for thenext seven years.The minister is too afraid to confess his sin publicly, but his guilt eats away at him;Chillingworth’s constant examination really makes him antsy. Seven years passand, finally, Hester realizes the evil her husband has done to the man sheloves, the father of her child. She reveals Chillingworth’s true identity toDimmesdale, and the two concoct a plan to leave Boston and go toEngland, where they might hide from Hester’s husband and create a new life
The minister is ultimately unable to go through with the plan. Dimmesdaleconfesses his sin to the townspeople on the scaffold that had, seven yearsearlier, been the scene of Hester’s public shaming. His dying act is to throw openhis shirt so that the scarlet ”A” that he has carved onto his chest is revealed to hisparishioners. Dimmesdale finds peace through confession.When Chillingworth dies approximately a year after his rival, Dimmesdale, heleaves all his money and property to Pearl. Hester and Pearl finally escape thecommunity where they have been outcasts for so many years and return to theOld World, i.e., England. However, many years later, Hester returns to the NewEngland community that had been the site of her shame, resuming the scarletletter of her own will.When she dies, she is buried near the minister, and they share a gravestone. Thegravestone contains an image, described as follows: "On a field, sable, the letterA, gules." In other words, marked on the headstone is a scarlet letter ”A” drawnover a black background.
Character AnalysisHester PrynneHester is the book’s protagonist and the wearer of the scarlet letter that gives thebook its title. The letter, a patch of fabric in the shape of an “A”, signifies thatHester is an adulterer. She is like a Swiss Army Knife. She constantly makes herselfuseful, and she is powerful. She uses her innate talents and gifts to transform themeaning of her punishment, and she ultimately becomes a legend in her Puritansociety. She is sharp as a knife, adventurous (she crosses the big blue oceanalone, leaving her family behind to live on the frontier), and she is a self-sufficientsingle mother in one of the gloomiest, most austere moments in America’s history.She finds a way to support her daughter in a time when women were expected toeither serve men through marriage or to serve God.
Reverend Arthur DimmesdaleDimmesdale is a young man who achieved fame in England as a theologian andthen emigrated to America. He was Hester’s illicit lover and the father of herchild, Pearl. He remains silent about his sin, even while he publicly urges Hester toreveal the name of her lover. He deals with his guilt by tormenting himselfphysically and psychologically, developing a heart condition as a result.Dimmesdale is an intelligent and emotional man, and his sermons are thusmasterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness.PearlHester’s illegitimate daughter Pearl is a young girl with a moody, mischievousspirit and an ability to perceive things that others do not. The townspeople say thatshe barely seems human and spread rumors that her unknown father is actuallythe Devil. She is wise far beyond her years, frequently engaging in ironic playhaving to do with her mother’s scarlet letter.
Roger ChillingworthRoger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband in disguise. He is much older than she isand had sent her to America while he settled his affairs in Europe. He lusts forrevenge when he finds Hester and her illegitimate child being displayed on thescaffold, and thus decides to stay in Boston despite his wife’s betrayal and disgrace.He is a scholar and uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent ondiscovering and tormenting Hester’s anonymous lover. His single-minded pursuitof retribution reveals him to be the most malevolent character in the novel.Governor BellinghamGovernor Bellingham is a wealthy, elderly gentleman who spends much of his timeconsulting with the other town fathers. Despite his role as governor of a fledglingAmerican society, he very much resembles a traditional English aristocrat. Hetends to strictly adhere to the rules, but he is easily swayed by Dimmesdale’seloquence. He remains blind to the fact that his sister, Mistress Hibbins, is a witch.
Mistress HibbinsMistress Hibbins is a widow who lives with her brother, Governor Bellingham, in aluxurious mansion. She is commonly known to be a witch who ventures into theforest at night to ride with the “Black Man”. Her appearances at public occasionsremind the reader of the hypocrisy and hidden evil in Puritan society. She wasexecuted as a witch during the Salem Witch trials during the time span of the book.Reverend John WilsonBoston’s elder clergyman, Reverend Wilson is scholarly yet grandfatherly. He is astereotypical Puritan father, a literary version of the stiff, starkly painted portraitsof American patriarchs. Like Governor Bellingham, Wilson follows thecommunity’s rules strictly but can be swayed by Dimmesdale’s eloquence. UnlikeDimmesdale, his junior colleague, Wilson preaches hellfire and damnation andadvocates harsh punishment of sinners.
Minor Characters• Mr. Wilson : A pastor in the Boston area; an old man who respects and is respected by Arthur Dimmesdale.• Three Ladies at the Prison Door : Female, married residents of Boston who are waiting at the prison door to see Hester as she appears for the first time with her daughter, Pearl.• Master Brackett : The jailer and town officer who announces Hester’s appearance from the prison, and who pushes Hester out the door of the jail when she first emerges.• Deacon : A pious old man confronted by Arthur Dimmesdale while he is struggling not to say evil things inspired by the devil..• Narrator : Surveyor of Revenue: The narrator is assumed to be the direct voice of the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
• Commander of the Spanish Pirate Ship : A colorful character who has license, simply because of his station, to wear outrageous things and act inappropriately by Puritanical standards.• Permanent Inspector : A man who inherited his position in the Customs House from a long line of men in his family. This is his career, from which he has complete job security.• General Miller : Collector: A former hero from the War of 1812, who retired to a job in the Salem Custom House. A man with a great deal of presence, but very frail and old when we meet him.• Collector’s Junior Clerk : Assistant to General Miller. The only person educated and interested enough to have literary conversations with Nathaniel Hawthorne.• Jonathan Pue Surveyor : A Custom House employee from a number of years ago who died suddenly, leaving some undiscovered personal papers in the Custom House building.
Critical AppreciationThe Scarlet Letter is a romance. Writing a romance about the past gives Hawthornethe freedom to present several versions of what might have happened, dependingon whose perspective is presented. This is why after the death of ArthurDimmesdale, several theories are submitted as to how the scarlet “A” came to beimprinted on her bodice of dress. The insignia could have been self-inflicted, orwrought by Chillingworth’s magic, or a manifestation of Dimmesdale’s remorsefulspirit. Hawthorne presents all three theories without judging them because whatmatters most is not how the scarlet letter got there, but that it confirms the truthabout Dimmesdale’s adulterous heart.The genre of the romance also allowed Hawthorne to embellish the relationshipbetween humans and nature. For example, the babbling brook in the forest sceneappears to sympathize with Hester and Dimmesdale and adds “this other tale tothe mystery with which its little heart was already overburdened”.
In addition, the A - shaped meteor which appears the night Governor Winthropdies and Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold is interpreted as both a sign fromheaven denouncing Dimmesdale as an adulterer and also as standing for “Angel”as the soul of a revered magistrate ascends into heaven, depending upon theorientation of its observer.Why I liked the Book?The Scarlet Letter, being a romantic one, is also a touching subtle story of a timethat made me wonder how far religious and moral extremes could take us. Thestruggling story of a woman intertwined with the magic realism and vivid imagerymade me admire the book and the author.Hawthornes writing is refreshing and real. He has portrayed the Puritan mindsetso well that I found myself in plethora of the 17th century New England completewith witches who fly on broomsticks, people who meet the Devil in the woods andthe scarlet letter “A” imprinted in the flesh of Hesters secret lover.
ConclusionHawthorne’s detailed and vivid imagery provided background for the novel, TheScarlet Letter. His story criticizes the framework of Puritan society in ways sosubtle that the reader may very well miss them amidst the fast-moving plot andintriguing, dynamic characters. This classic has not only survived but flourished.More than 150 years after its publication, this book contains a message that is asrelevant and poignant as the day it was written. Its as much about the abuses ofwomen in a society too rigid in its moral and religious ideals to still be human asit is about two peoples will to survive. With the vivid imagery, magic realism andthe profound symbolism that mark a Hawthorne novel, The Scarlet Letter is isstill read by scholars and laymen alike after its publication.