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The Scarlet Letter  
Title page for The Scarlet Letter.jpg
Title page, first edition, 1850
Author Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Ticknor, Reed & Fields
Publication date 1850
Pages 232

The Scarlet Letter (1850) is a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, considered to be his "magnum opus", or most famous work.[1] Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who gives birth after committing adultery and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt.


Plot summary

The novel takes place during the summer in 17th-century Boston, Massachusetts in a Puritan village. A young woman, named Hester Prynne, has been led from the town prison with her infant daughter in her arms and on the breast of her gown "a rag of scarlet cloth" that "assumed the shape of a letter." It was the uppercase letter "A". The Scarlet Letter "A" represents the act of adultery that she has committed and it is to be a symbol of her sin—a badge of shame—for all to see. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester's husband, who is much older than she, and whose real name is unknown, has sent her ahead to America whilst settling affairs in Europe. However, her husband does not arrive in Boston, and the consensus is that he has been lost at sea. It is apparent that, while waiting for her husband, Hester has had an affair, leading to the birth of her daughter. She will not reveal her lover's identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her subsequent public shaming, is the punishment for her sin and secrecy. On this day Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child's father.[2]

The elderly onlooker is Hester's missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself Roger Chillingworth. He settles in Boston, intent on revenge. He reveals his true identity to no one but Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and her daughter Pearl grows into a willful, impish child—in Hawthorne's work, Pearl is more of a symbol than an actual character—and is said to be the scarlet letter come to life as both Hester's love and her punishment. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, an eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister's torments and Hester's secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers something undescribed to the reader, supposedly an "A" burned into Dimmesdale's chest, which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.[2]

The Scarlet Letter. Painting by T. H. Matteson. This 1860 oil-on-canvas may have been made with Hawthorne's advice.[2]

Dimmesdale's psychological anguish deepens, and he invents new tortures for himself. In the meantime, Hester's charitable deeds and quiet humility have earned her a reprieve from the scorn of the community. One night, when Pearl is about seven years old, she and her mother are returning home from a visit to the deathbed of John Winthrop when they encounter Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. Hester and Pearl join him, and the three link hands. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl's request that he acknowledge her publicly the next day, and a meteor marks a dull red "A" in the night sky. It is interpreted by the townsfolk to mean Angel, as a prominent figure in the community had died that night, but Dimmesdale sees it as meaning adultery. Hester can see that the minister's condition is worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale's self-torment. Chillingworth refuses. She suggests that she may reveal his true identity to Dimmesdale.[2]

Later in the story, while walking through the forest, the sun would not shine on Hester, although Pearl could bask in it. They then encounter Dimmesdale, as he is taking a walk in the woods that day. Hester informs Dimmesdale of the true identity of Chillingworth and the former lovers decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release, and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. The sun immediately breaks through the clouds and trees to illuminate her release and joy. Pearl, playing nearby, does not recognize her mother without the letter. She is unnerved and expels a shriek until her mother points out the letter on the ground. Hester beckons Pearl to come to her, but Pearl will not go to her mother until Hester buttons the letter back onto her dress. Pearl then goes to her mother. Dimmesdale gives Pearl a kiss on the forehead, which Pearl immediately tries to wash off in the brook, because he again refuses to make known publicly their relationship. However, he too clearly feels a release from the pretense of his former life, and the laws and sins he has lived with.

The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday put on in honor of an election and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever. Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing the mark supposedly seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead just after Pearl kisses him.[2]

Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows what has happened to them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resumes her charitable work. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who was rumored to have married a European aristocrat and established a family of her own. Pearl also inherits all of Chillingworth's money even though he knows she is not his daughter. There is a sense of liberation in her and the townspeople, especially the women, who had finally begun to forgive Hester of her tragic indiscretion. When Hester dies, she is buried in "a new grave near an old and sunken one, in that burial ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both." The tombstone was decorated with a letter "A", for Hester and Dimmesdale.

Major themes



The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge—specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as "her passport into regions where other women dared not tread", leading her to "speculate" about her society and herself more "boldly" than anyone else in New England.[3]

As for Dimmesdale, the "cheating minister" of his sin gives him "sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his chest vibrate[s] in unison with theirs." His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy.[3] The narrative of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is quite in keeping with the oldest and most fully authorized principles in Christian thought. His "Fall" is a descent from apparent grace to his own damnation; he appears to begin in purity. He ends in corruption. The subtlety is that the minister is his own deceiver, convincing himself at every stage of his spiritual pilgrimage that he is saved.[4]

The rosebush, its beauty a striking contrast to all that surrounds it—as later the beautifully embroidered scarlet A will be–is held out in part as an invitation to find "some sweet moral blossom" in the ensuing, tragic tale and in part as an image that "the deep heart of nature" (perhaps God) may look more kindly on the errant Hester and her child than her Puritan neighbors do. Throughout the work, the nature images contrast with the stark darkness of the Puritans and their systems.[5]

Chillingworth's misshapen body reflects (or symbolizes) the anger in his soul, which builds as the novel progresses, similar to the way Dimmesdale's illness reveals his inner turmoil. The outward man reflects the condition of the heart.[5]

Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is as a symbol. Pearl herself is the embodiment of the scarlet letter, and Hester rightly clothes her in a beautiful dress of scarlet, embroidered with gold thread, just like the scarlet letter upon Hester's bosom.[3] Parallels can be drawn between Pearl and the character Beatrice in Rappaccini's Daughter. Both are studies in the same direction, though from different standpoints. Beatrice is nourished upon poisonous plants, until she herself becomes poisonous. Pearl, in the mysterious prenatal world, imbibes the poison of her parents' guilt.

Past and present

The clashing of past and present is explored in various ways. For example, the character of the old General, whose heroic qualities include a distinguished name, perseverance, integrity, compassion, and moral inner strength, is said to be "the soul and spirit of New England hardihood". Now put out to pasture, he sometimes presides over the Custom House run by corrupt public servants, who skip work to sleep, allow or overlook smuggling, and are supervised by an inspector with "no power of thought, nor depth of feeling, no troublesome sensibilities", who is honest enough but without a spiritual compass.[5]

Hawthorne himself had ambivalent feelings about the role of his ancestors in his life. In his autobiographical sketch, Hawthorne described his ancestors as "dim and dusky", "grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steel crowned", "bitter persecutors" whose "better deeds" would be diminished by their bad ones. There can be little doubt of Hawthorne's disdain for the stern morality and rigidity of the Puritans, and he imagined his predecessors' disdainful view of him: unsuccessful in their eyes, worthless and disgraceful. "A writer of story books!" But even as he disagrees with his ancestors' viewpoint, he also feels an instinctual connection to them and, more importantly, a "sense of place" in Salem. Their blood remains in his veins, but their intolerance and lack of humanity becomes the subject of his novel.[5]

Publication history

Hawthorne originally planned The Scarlet Letter to be a shorter novelette which was part of a collection to be named Old Time Legends. His publisher, James Thomas Fields, convinced him to expand the novelette to a full-length novel.[6] Hawthorne's wife Sophia later disputed that Fields had a larger role than this, complaining that "he has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She noted that her husband's friend Edwin Percy Whipple, a critic, approached Fields to consider its publication.[7]

The Scarlet Letter was published as a novel in the spring of 1850 by Ticknor & Fields, beginning Hawthorne's most lucrative period.[8] When he delivered the final pages to Fields in February 1850, Hawthorne said that "some portions of the book are powerfully written" but doubted it would be popular.[9] In fact, the book was an instant best-seller[10] though, over fourteen years, it brought its author only $1,500.[8] Its initial publication brought wide protest from natives of Salem, who did not approve of how Hawthorne had depicted them in his introduction "The Custom-House". A 2,500-copy second edition of The Scarlet Letter included a preface by Hawthorne dated March 30, 1850, that he had decided to reprint his introduction "without the change of a word... The only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor... As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives".[11]

The book's immediate and lasting success are due to the way it addresses spiritual and moral issues from a uniquely American standpoint.[citation needed] In 1850, adultery was an extremely risqué subject, but because Hawthorne had the support of the New England literary establishment, it passed easily into the realm of appropriate reading. It has been said that this work represents the height of Hawthorne's literary genius; dense with terse descriptions. It remains relevant for its philosophical and psychological depth, and continues to be read as a classic tale on a universal theme.[12]

The Scarlet Letter was also one of the first mass-produced books in America. Into the mid-nineteenth century, bookbinders of home-grown literature typically hand-made their books and sold them in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of The Scarlet Letter, 2,500 volumes, sold out within ten days,[8] and was widely read and discussed to an extent not much experienced in the young country up until that time. Copies of the first edition are often sought by collectors as rare books, and may fetch up to around $6,000 USD.

Critical response

On its publication, critic Evert Augustus Duyckinck, a friend of Hawthorne's, said he preferred the author's Washington Irving-like tales. Another friend, critic Edwin Percy Whipple, objected to the novel's "morbid intensity" with dense psychological details, writing that the book "is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them".[13] On the other hand, 20th century writer D. H. Lawrence said that there could be no more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter.[14] Henry James once said of the novel, "It is beautiful, admirable, extraordinary; it has in the highest degree that merit which I have spoken of as the mark of Hawthorne's best things--an indefinable purity and lightness of conception...One can often return to it; it supports familiarity and has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art."[15]


In popular culture

  • 1917: A black-and-white silent film directed by Carl Harbaugh with Mary G. Martin as Hester Prynne
  • 1926: A silent movie directed by Victor Sjostrom and starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
  • 1934: A film directed by Robert G. Vignola and starring Colleen Moore
  • 1958–59: An opera by Robin Milford
  • 1973: Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe, a film in German directed by Wim Wenders
  • 1979: PBS version starring Meg Foster and John Heard
  • 1994: A rock musical, "The Scarlet Letter", written by Mark Governor, is produced in Los Angeles.
  • 1995: The Scarlet Letter, a film directed by Roland Joffé and starring Demi Moore as Hester and Gary Oldman as Arthur Dimmesdale. This version is "freely adapted" from Hawthorne according to the opening credits and takes liberties with the original story.
  • The Red Letter Plays (In The Blood produced in 1999, and F---ing A, produced in 2000) by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, adapts elements and themes from the novel as the basis for the two contemporary plays.
  • 2001: A musical stage adaptation which premiered at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Stacey Mancine, Daniel Koloski, and Simon Gray
  • 2001: The band Tool alludes to the novel in the song "The Grudge" on their album Lateralus with the line "unable to forgive your scarlet letterman."
  • 2004: The Scarlet Letter, a Korean noir-thriller featuring an adulteress's monologue that mentions a plan to raise her unborn child as Pearl in America in a desperate plea to exit her obsessive affair
  • 2004: Quoted in One Tree Hill Season 2 episode "Don't Take Me For Granted" "Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote: 'no man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without getting bewildered as to which one may be the true' "
  • 2005: The Christian band Casting Crowns released a song titled "Does Anybody Hear Her", which mentions the Scarlet Letter and matches up with the story of Hester Prynne almost perfectly.
  • 2005: The Brooklyn Follies novel by Paul Auster involves a plot to forge an original manuscript of The Scarlet Letter. One of the characters claims that the original manuscript was lost—possibly "burned, either by Hawthorne himself, or in a warehouse fire. Others say the printers simply threw the sheets in the garbage—or else used them to light their pipes".
  • 2007: The deathcore band As Blood Runs Black released a song titled "Hester Prynne" on their album Allegiance.
  • 2007: The Terpsicorps Ballet Company of Asheville, NC interprets The Scarlet Letter.
  • 2007: It is featured in the movie Dan in Real Life being read by Dan's daughter, Jane.
  • 2008: shAme, a rock opera by Mark Governor based on "The Scarlet Letter" premieres in Los Angeles. It is a major reworking of his 1994 stage musical that was also produced in Boston in 2000 and as a radio production in Berlin in 2005. The 2000 version was endorsed and presented by the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society.[16]
  • 2008: University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas presents the first regular opera adaptation of The Scarlet Letter.
  • 2008: Mudvayne released a song called "Scarlet Letters" in the album "The New Game" which was released November 18, 2008.
  • 2008: Mystery Dope wrote a song called "The Ballad Of Hester Prynne".
  • 2008: Taylor Swift wrote the song "Love Story," mentioning "a scarlet letter."
  • 2010: Easy A a film adapted from the book, directed by Will Gluck and starring Emma Stone. A high school girl sees her life reflecting Hester Prynne.
  • 2010: Paula Reed published the book "Hester, The Missing Years of 'The Scarlett Letter'", a novel/fantasy, filling in the missing years between Hester and Pearl's disappearance from Boston and Hester's return late in life.
  • 2010: Hester Prynne A Crunk/Death Metal/Metal band from Kansas City, Kansas.

See also



  1. ^ National Public Radio (NPR): March 2, 2008, Sunday. SHOW: Weekend All Things Considered. "Sinner, Victim, Object, Winner" ANCHORS: JACKI LYDEN (quote in article refers to it as his "masterwork", listen to the audio to hear it the original reference to it being his "magnum opus")
  2. ^ a b c d e Hawthorne, Nathaniel (May 2, 1994). The Scarlet Letter (reissue ed.). New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-28048-9. 
  3. ^ a b c The Scarlet Letter - Sparknotes
  4. ^ Davidson, E.H. 1963. Dimmesdale's Fall. The New England Quarterly 36: 358–370
  5. ^ a b c d e The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - CliffNotes from Yahoo!Education
  6. ^ Charvat, William. Literary Publishing in America: 1790–1850. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993 (first published 1959): 56. ISBN 0-87023-801-9
  7. ^ Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 209–210. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.
  8. ^ a b c McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004. p. 136. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
  9. ^ Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 299. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
  10. ^ Cheevers, Susan (2006). American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau; Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. Detroit: Thorndike Press. Large print edition. p. 181. ISBN 0-7862-9521-X
  11. ^ Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 301. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
  12. ^ The Classic Text: Traditions and Interpretations
  13. ^ Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 301–302. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
  14. ^ Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 284. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
  15. ^ James, Henry (1901). "it+has+in+the+highest+degree+that+merit" Hawthorne. Harper. pp. 108, 116."it+has+in+the+highest+degree+that+merit". Retrieved 18 February 2010. 
  16. ^


  • Brodhead, Richard H. Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.
  • Brown, Gillian. "'Hawthorne, Inheritance, and Women's Property", Studies in the Novel 23.1 (Spring 1991): 107-18.
  • Cañadas, Ivan. "A New Source for the Title and Some Themes in The Scarlet Letter". Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 32.1 (Spring 2006): 43–51.
  • Korobkin, Laura Haft. "The Scarlet Letter of the Law: Hawthorne and Criminal Justice". Novel: a Forum on Fiction 30.2 (Winter 1997): 193–217.
  • Gartner, Matthew. "The Scarlet Letter and the Book of Esther: Scriptural Letter and Narrative Life". Studies in American Fiction 23.2 (Fall 1995): 131-51.
  • Newberry, Frederick. Tradition and Disinheritance in The Scarlet Letter". ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 23 (1977), 1–26; repr. in: The Scarlet Letter. W. W. Norton, 1988: pp. 231-48.
  • Reid, Alfred S. Sir Thomas Overbury's Vision (1616) and Other English Sources of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter. Gainesville, FL: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1957.
  • Reid, Bethany. "Narrative of the Captivity and Redemption of Roger Prynne: Rereading The Scarlet Letter". Studies in the Novel 33.3 (Fall 2001): 247-67.
  • Ryskamp, Charles. "The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter". American Literature 31 (1959): 257–72; repr. in: "The Scarlet Letter", 3rd edn. Norton, 1988: 191–204.
  • Savoy, Eric. "'Filial Duty': Reading the Patriarchal Body in 'The Custom House'". Studies in the Novel 25.4 (Winter 1993): 397–427.
  • Sohn, Jeonghee. Rereading Hawthorne's Romance: The Problematics of Happy Endings. American Studies Monograph Series, 26. Seoul: American Studies Institute, Seoul National University, 2001; 2002.
  • Stewart, Randall (Ed.) The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Based upon the original Manuscripts in the Piermont Morgan Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932.
  • Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne: A Critical Study, 3rd edn. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

External links


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