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 Athe mark of an adulteressembroidered 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.
About the Author
One of the greatest authors in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist and short story writer born in Salem, Massachusetts. Hawthorne’s best-known books include The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter, works marked by a psychological depth and moral insight seldom equaled by other writers.
Date of Birth:July 4, 1804
Date of Death:May 19, 1864
Place of Birth:Salem, Massachusetts
Place of Death:Plymouth, New Hampshire
Education:Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1824
Read an Excerpt
Introduction by Kathryn Harrison
Why should the fate of a fictional seventeenth-century adulteress named Hester Prynne concern us? After all, we live in an age when marriage is understood more as a lifestyle choice than as a sacrament and children are routinely conceived not only out of wedlock but out of body. When grandmothers can give birth to their own grandchildren and paternity can remain forever invisible, hidden behind the bar code of a sperm bank deposit, isn't the notion of a public outcry against adultery a bit quaint, even irrelevant? Isn't Hester Prynnethe invention of a writer notoriously preoccupied with guiltmerely a historical curiosity?
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. . . . And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like . . . than as she issued from the prison. . . . 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 on her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.
Hester might be forgotten, were she not unforgettable. She might, like countless real-life unwed mothers, have simplysuffered and vanished, were she no more than an unwed mother. After all, Hester's crime is irrelevant. She survives in the reader's imagination because of her punishment and what she makes of it: a spell that removes her from "the ordinary relations with humanity," from the realm where her story begins.
The plot of The Scarlet Letter is that which typically proceeds from a lovers' triangle. Having escaped a confining marriage to an older man whose intellect has eclipsed his soul, Hester Prynne falls into the ready arms of a man whose soul has burned away his reason, only to discover that fate is, indeed, biology. Despite the courage of her convictions, despite an evolved understanding that what she "did had a consecration of its own," Hester's freedom, both sexual and societal, ends with pregnancy. After bearing her child within the comparatively forgiving shelter of a prison, she is released into the murderously intolerant community of Salem, Massachusetts, populated by Puritans, politicians, witcheseach group defined and afflicted by its own set of judgments. Hester is condemned by the townspeople, her estranged husband consumed by jealousy, her lover sacrificed to guilt and self-recrimination. As we see, human experience guarantees suffering, but of particular kindsto each his own torment.
Nathaniel Hawthorne called The Scarlet Letter a romance, identifying (in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables) the genre as one that offers more "latitude" than the novel, which he defined as preoccupied with "fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary." In contrast to more realistic forms, the romance is free to map an eccentric interior landscape: the brilliant and revelatory terrain of the unconscious, where truth is gauged not by probability but by depth of feeling. With Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, readers follow Hester Prynne into a dreamscape where names are clues (dim, chilling), where a witch lives in the governor's mansion and men who hide their sins will find them writ upon the skya primeval land whose sun shines not so much to warm as to illuminate.
To what end? What will we see by its preternatural light? Nothing less than the triumph of a pure heart, convention and conformity overcome by passion and exploration, shame and secrecy banished by honesty and confession, the spirit outliving the letter of the law, the radical assault of the New Testament on the Old. Utopia? In the second sentence of The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne uses the word, holds it up like a sign in ironic reference to such a place, to the intrinsic human desire to start over, to make the world anew and better, to honor the life we are given rather than once again fail that promise. Instead of "a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical," a society in its moral infancy and thus dependent on literalness, on patriarchy, couldn't we hope to evolve into a people who can gracefully manage our own interior lives? Couldn't we, perhaps, take Hester Prynne as our model?
The central figure of the romance is immediately identified by the "mystic symbol"; and, in case readers are so dull as to somehow miss Hester's significance, Nathaniel Hawthorne does two astonishing things when introducing us to his heroine. He costumes a sexual deviant as the Virgin, an "image of Divine Maternity," and he tells us that the scarlet letter A on Hester's breast, the representation of her sin, has transfigured the woman who wears it. Of course the very purpose of her punishment, the pilgrim fathers might have asserted, was to change Hester Prynne, to remake the sinner into "a living sermon against sin." But beware: once humans take judgment, the prerogative of the divine, into their fallible mortal hands, they rend the veil between natural and supernatural. In the novels and short stories of Hawthorne, a writer as preoccupied with enchantments as Poe and as obsessed with culpability as Dostoyevsky, verities have a tendency to shape-shift. Or, to put it another way, in the land of romance, existing as it does on the savage and wonder-filled frontier of the unconscious, revelation is yet possible. No sooner is Hester given her stigma than she uses her feminine skill to make it into a stigmata, illuminating her blood-red stain with gold thread "fantastically embroidered." Glinting from the courthouse steps, raised like an icon above the crowd, her breast resembles nothing so much as that of the rent heart of Jesus projecting rays of righteousness.
From the Paperback edition.
Table of Contents
Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel tells the story of adultery, revenge, and redemption, set against the harsh backdrop of the strict Puritan colonies of 17th Century Boston. Hester Prynne's suffering and resourcefulness teach the lesson that faith is stronger than despair and love more powerful than revenge.
What People are Saying About This
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.
Reading Group Guide
About the Book:A stark and allegorical tale of adultery, guilt, and social repression in Puritan New England, The Scarlet Letter is a foundational work of American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne's exploration of the dichotomy between the public and private self, internal passion and external convention, gives us the unforgettable Hester Prynne, who discovers strength in the face of ostracism and emerges as a heroine ahead of her time. As Kathryn Harrison points out in her Introduction, Hester is "the herald of the modern American heroine, a mother of such strength and stature that she towers over her progeny much as she does the citizens of Salem."Discussion Questions:
Question: Hawthorne came from a long line of Puritans (one of his forefathers was a judge during the Salem witch trials), and Puritan beliefs about subjects like guilt, repression, original sin, and discipline inform the book on every level. What is your impression of how the Puritan worldview is taken up and treated by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter?"
Question: Kathryn Harrison, in her Introduction to this volume, asserts that Hester Prynne can be seen in many ways as the first great modern heroine in American literature. Do you agree?
Question: Dimmesdale is in many ways as central a character as Hester in the novel; for you as a reader, is he equally important to the story?
Question: The highly charged symbolism of The Scarlet Letter is one of its most distinctive features. Discuss the central symbol of the story - the scarlet letter itself. What does it signify? How does it function in the novel? How does its meaning change over time?
Question: Critics have sometimes disagreed about whether Hawthorne condones or condemns the adultery of Hester and Dimmesdale in the novel. Can either view be supported? Which do you feel is the case?
Question: Describe and discuss the character of Roger Chillingworth in the novel. What does he represent in terms of the larger themes explored by the book?
Question: How does Hester change over time in the novel-and how does she change in the eyes of the society around her?
Question: The final scaffold scene brings the various themes, characters, and plotlines woven throughout the novel to a powerful conclusion. Describe your response to this scene, and to the disputed event that occurs near its end.