The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter

3.9 2520
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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When it first appeared in 1850, The Scarlet Letter enjoyed scandalous success. New England critics condemned its passionate subject matter. One critic complained that Nathaniel Hawthorne invested adultery with all the fascination of genius, and all the charms of a highly polished style. My preliminary chapter, wryly noted the author, has caused the greatest…  See more details below


When it first appeared in 1850, The Scarlet Letter enjoyed scandalous success. New England critics condemned its passionate subject matter. One critic complained that Nathaniel Hawthorne invested adultery with all the fascination of genius, and all the charms of a highly polished style. My preliminary chapter, wryly noted the author, has caused the greatest uproar that has happened here since witch-times.

As she emerges from the prison of a Puritan New England town, Hester Prynne defies the dark gloom much as the rose blooms against the prison door. With her illegitimate baby, Pearl, clutched in her arms and the letter A—the mark of an adulteress—embroidered in scarlet thread on her breast, Hester holds her head high as she faces the malice and scorn of the townsfolk. Her powerful, bittersweet story is an American classic that continues to touch the hearts of modern readers with its timeless themes of guilt, passion and repentance.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Nathaniel Hawthorne] recaptured, for his New England, the essence of Greek tragedy." —Malcolm Cowley
D. H. Lawrence
There could be not be a more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter.
Henry James
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.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Penguin Classics Series
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Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Chapter 1

The Prison-Door

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it,-or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door,-we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

Chapter 2

The Market-Place

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man's fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanor on the part of the spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for from such by-standers, at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty, which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.

It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue. The age had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother has transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not a character of less force and solidity, than her own. The women who were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth1 had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone.

"Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!"

"People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation."

"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch,—that is a truth," added a third autumnal matron. "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she,-the naughty baggage,-little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!"

"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart."

"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!"

"Mercy on us, goodwife," exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips! for the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself."

The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final and closest application to the offender. Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison.

When the young woman-the mother of this child-stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true, that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it. Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,-so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,-was that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated5 upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

"She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain," remarked one of her female spectators; "but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?"

"It were well," muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, "if we stripped Madam Hester's rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I'll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!"

"Oh, peace, neighbors, peace!" whispered their youngest companion; "do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart."

The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff.

"Make way, good people, make way, in the King's name!" cried he. "Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel, from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!"

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What People are saying about this

Henry James
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.

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The Scarlet Letter (Illustrated + FREE audiobook link + Active TOC) 3.9 out of 5 based on 2 ratings. 2520 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you can remember the discussions from high-school English class about this book--read it again and see how much you've grown up! If you've been married, betrayed, or have children- it's a totally different read from when your only worry is breaking curfew and going to the mall.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the most well known pieces of literature, and it definitely deserves its title as an American classic. Set in a puritan colony in Massachusetts, the book depicts the life a young woman named Hester Prynne as she commits the ignominious crime of adultery. However, not only does she commit this sin with just anybody, her partner in crime turns out to be the town’s church minister. Then on top of this, Hester conceives a child she names Pearl. With the scarlet letter of shame she is now forced to where upon her breast, and with the child that was a direct result of her crime, she becomes the towns’ outcast. These elaborate conflicts carry on throughout the plot as Hester struggles to prevail over her disgrace and to keep incognito her fellow sinner. The third person narrative focuses on the development of Hester as she gains independence, and strives to achieve forgiveness and a normalcy back into her life. She starts work as a weaver in order to provide for Pearl, and help give back to the community. The piece also concentrates on Pearl, how she is the representation of a devil child, and her fascination and constant attraction to Hester’s scarlet letter. In addition, although Hester loves her with all her heart, she did not like the way Pearl was conceived. Pearl, along with her mother, is an outcast but develops into a strong, multifaceted child who in some minds, even sometimes in Hester’s, is evil. Pearl’s father is also developed in the story, as he deals with extreme guilt. He is driven almost insane with the knowledge that he should be sharing the same fate as Hester. Hawthorne writes in a way so well thought out, that the reader can feel many different emotions and conjure so many different opinions. Hawthorne pinpoints the themes of evil, sin, and the identity in society throughout the novel, really highlighting a psychological, as well as sociological, way of writing. He depicts these difficult subjects in such intricate ways through the different characters in his story. For example, the scarlet letter A helped Hester daringly analyze herself and her position in society, further letting her accept the awful she has committed. Arthur Dimmesdale on the other hand—Pearl’s father—had the internal burden of keeping his adultery a secret, thus displaying an alternative view and perhaps even a worse off way, to cope with his wrongdoing. Nevertheless, this is only one of the numerous interpretations of the different themes in the book, solidifying that the novel really does have a great deal of complexity. Although the novel is a fantastic classic, it does like anything else have a few weaknesses; some including the loquacious tone Hawthorne turns to when describing in depth different settings, people, and events. The narration during this lags on for a bit before it gets back into more interesting events. In addition, it is a classic, and the writing is obviously written with a different mannerism, which can be taken as a pain to read, or a very poetic technique. Even so, the Scarlet Letter’s benefits outweigh its flaws. The captivating plot, interesting characters, and complex themes keep the attention of the reader and make them want to keep reading to find out what will happen next. That is why the Scarlet Letter is a classic, and that is why it will be read for many more generations to come.
Vovo More than 1 year ago
I moaned, groaned, and complained about reading The Scarlet Letter for a literature class, but as I turned the first page, my attention was seduced. The writing itself is very unique in its style. Mostly, the chapters critically analyze the characters therin, delving into the abyss of thought. As well as displaying a fantastic portrayal of Puritan society, the symbols, the emotions, and the dialogue are masterful. The Scarlet Letter is well-wriiten, thought-provoking, and definitly a book that should continue to be read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first 17 pages of this particular version of Scarlet Letter is basically a "Cliff-Note" version of the book. Try not to read through it, otherwise you'll have no reason to read the actual novel. I read through the rest of the book, skipping through pages because, well, I already knew what was going to happen.
mmsSC More than 1 year ago
I read at least one classic each summer - some are good and some are actually as bad as I remember from High School. But I really enjoyed the Scarlet Letter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a required read in high school, which was quite some time ago, I had to read this story and if I needed a quick nap all I needed to do was pull out Scarlet Letter. Many years later I read it again. I knew there was a reason that Hawthorne had this grip on me. His writing is so dark, yet wonderfully illuminating. No one utilizes symbols better than Hawthorne. The idea that Hester lives on the edge between the city and the woods is a great example of how that represents her situation. It's absolutley brilliant. Also, there has to be a connection to Hawthorne's anguish through the character of Pastor Dimmesdale. The idea of living with so much guilt in a community that was intolerant of 'mortal' sins reveals the soul of Hawthorne and the quiet cry of a man tortured with his past.
I would highly recommend other stories of his, novels or short stories, in order to better understand his anguish and desire for perfection. Once I read other stories it made this novel so much easier to understand. This is on level with Romeo and Juliet without the feud.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read a banned or previously banned/challenged book for class, I chose this book to do the report on, however as I was doing the report I realized that this version definitely is not at all like the original. So if you're looking for the original make sure you choose a different book. There is chapters cut out and sentences changed to edit it so it's not banned anymore. The original is a great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this for my English Lit. Class. Although the story is a decent one, the book is so slow moving and filled with a lot of unnecessary details and happenings that didnt help the story progress, they were just there, like a lot of filler. It was difficult for me to get through.
Bookjunkie40 More than 1 year ago
Well I finally finished The Scarlet Letter. I have to admit it was slow to begin, but then the mystery of who was the father was caught my interest. I did figure it out before the book confirmed it, but I have to admit it was the mystery I liked best. The writer did his job, I thought her husband was a jerk which I would guess was the writers intent. I guess the only reason why I read it was because it was on the classic list, and it did stand the test of time for it to remain in today's society, but who am I to judge?!?!?!?
kotachi More than 1 year ago
Ever since my first intro to the Scarlet Letter I have been moved by the way it was written. Knowing how sensitive this issue was during that time frame it was a heart-wrenching story. And it was totally believable. I love the classics but I think this has become my favorite. Sparks the imagination where infidelity is concerned amongst the clergy ranks; tears for the lost innocence of the heroine and ache for the shame and degradation she faced. And it still is happening today!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey. I'm thirteen and an obsessive reader, and l loved this book. It's an interesting exploration of American's odd relationship with scandal and sex, even today. But be warned: It's tough going. I suggest reading it in ebook form like I did so you can look up words. I would still, however, highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And the movie was awesome. I honestly have the movie on dvr or did dont know if its still on there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good im jusboredt
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Princess Zelda to anybody                                                                                                                                                                                                       Has Lacy been on lately? I haven't been on myself either, so please let me know.-looks at time- DAM! It's already 7:30am?! Bleh, I have to go really soon..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a unwed woman becomes pregnant and refuses to tell who the father is . she is made to where a red A on her clothes symbolizing that she is a adultress because she isnt married
Guacamole More than 1 year ago
Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter represents a dark blend of forbidden love, unspeakable crime, and malevolent revenge. Revolving around one powerful act of passion, the novel addresses the permanent damage inflicted upon Hester Prynne, Reverent Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingforth. Set in the Puritan community, Hester's adultery with Dimmesdale renders her an outcast denounced by society. While her crime is of the utmost severity, I found myself sympathizing with her throughout the retributions. Dimmesdale's suppressed guilt torments him, but his position in society prevents confession. Again, my sympathy extended to these helpless figures, human beings defeated by the overwhelming power of love. With an insatiable thirst for vengeance, Chillingforth, while the victim of the initial crime, becomes the aggressor and loses sympathy quickly. Blurring the line of morality, The Scarlet Letter seems to justify sin with a pure devotion, subtly commending the powerful act of passion by making the two involved the subject of one's pity. While the setting of this novel is in Puritan America, its themes are universal. The natures of sin, of guilt, and of penitence are addressed in the novel's carefully crafted plot. Despite societal scorn, regret never seemed to haunt Hester Prynne, making her oddly respectable. Her dedication to fulfilling her destiny was, instead, what won my affection. Determined to overcome the public's animosity, she devoted her time to mothering Pearl and giving back to the community. The series of good deeds following her sin redeemed her in my eyes, and the adultery only served to make her more human, and thus, more admirable. Exploring another fundamental aspect of human nature, the novel raises a question regarding public personas versus private lives. Despite being a high-standing member of the Puritan society, Reverend Dimmesdale failed to abide by the purity he preaches. Unable to ignore his love for Hester, he chose a path other than the Straight and Narrow, dooming himself to a lifetime of penitence. As the two sinners cope with the repercussions of their actions, Chillingforth, the victim of the crime, engages in a ruthless pursuit of revenge. His malevolence and desire to destroy seem to reverse the crime and justify the adultery; rather than acting out of hatred, at least Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale sinned out of love. The juxtaposition of these two crimes blends black and white, and leaves one to ponder the true meaning of sin.
Anonymous 2 days ago
Anonymous 3 days ago
Stumbles in, lost
Anonymous 6 days ago
Watches them quietly from the streets
Anonymous 3 months ago
Yeah. Sorry.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Sad how these losers have to converse on the nook
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous 6 months ago
Meep. *She bounced in.*
Anonymous 6 months ago
Walks from behind a tree and yawns