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
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts. He was educated at the Bowdoin College in Maine (1821-24). Between the years 1825 and 1836 Hawthorne worked as a writer and contributor to periodicals. His first novel, Fanshawe, appeared anonymously at his own expense in 1828. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody, an active participant in the Transcendentalist movement. His marriage to Sophia provided the inspiration for the noble character of Hester Prynne. He died in 1864.
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
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, aprison. 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.
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!"
Table of Contents
Why read The Scarlet Letter? 8
Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804-1864 10
Timeline of the novel 12
The Custom-House 15
Hawthorne's Customs House 50
The Scarlet Letter 53
The Prison-Door 53
The Market-Place 55
Early Boston 64
The Recognition 66
The Interview 74
Hester at Her Needle 82
The Governor's Hall 100
The Elf-Child and the Minister 107
The Leech 115
Puritan religion 124
The Leech and His Patient 126
The Interior of a Heart 135
The Minister's Vigil 141
Another View of Hester 152
Puritan women 158
Hester and the Physician 160
Hester and Pearl 166
Crime and punishment 172
A Forest Walk 174
The Pastor and His Parishioner 180
A Flood of Sunshine 188
The Child at the Brook-Side 194
TheMinister in a Maze 202
The New England Holiday 212
The Procession 222
The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter 232
Discussion questions 268
Further reading 270
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
Hailed by Henry James as "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country," Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter reaches to our nation's historical and moral roots for the material of great tragedy. Set in an early New England colony, the novel shows the terrible impact a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the community: the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.
With The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne became the first American novelist to forge from our Puritan heritage a universal classic, a masterful exploration of humanity's unending struggle with sin, guilt and pride.
From the Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Scarlett Letter is about a woman named Hester Pyrnne who is forced to live with the fact that she had a child out of wedlock. Although she is faced with many trials along her journey throughout life she still overcomes all of them to become a good mother to her child. This novel portrays many things; one of the more important things, which it portrays, is the love Hester shows toward Pearl (her daughter) throughout the entire novel. She may be sorry for her actions forever, but one thing is for sure, she will never be sorry for the consequences of those actions. The main theme of this novel is a tale of judgement, shame and redemption.
Hawthorne takes us to puritanical New England, where a woman is outcast and forced to wear a letter "A" to mark her crime of adultery. However, the story is not primarily about evil social norms. Rather, it is an exploration of openness and guilt. The woman refuses to name her lover. She allows him to escape social stigma -- or much worse. On the face of things, it seems he did better of the two, but Hawthorne explores the notion that a life of constant pretense can wear a person down. How much more carefree is the woman who has nothing more to hide. Self-esteem is tied to openness about oneself. A man with much to hide, who keeps pretending to be something he isn't, constantly chips away at his sense of self. The woman's lover is tormented by this lack of visibility to other people. "Thou little knowest what a relief it is", he confides to her, "after the torment of a seven years' cheat, to look into an eye that recognises me for what I am! Had I one friend--or were it my worst enemy!--to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby." Hawthorne makes his message explicit: "Be true!... Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred." Surely, interesting advice to ponder: honesty about your worst, sets you free from pandering to the expectations of others. In short: be yourself. It's a short, novel with a narrow theme, but well plotted, well written and well worth reading.
Sad to say, I did not particularly enjoy this well-known classic. The story and symbolism were interesting but actually trudging through the book was oh so tedious! One thing I did like was the old English spoken by the characters. All in all, I would have preferred a much condensed version of this book.
An extremely well-written book about the tensions that rock a small puritan town. Though it may not be to everyone's taste, it is a definite must-read for any fan of the classics.
This is the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who came over to Boston in it's infancy waiting for her husband to follow her from Europe. However, her life changes forever when she becomes pregnant long before her husband reaches the new world. In the strict Puritan world of 17th century Boston Hester must be punished. The town leaders decide to make her wear a scarlet letter A on her clothing, so that everyone will know her crime. The book looked at the religious aspects of that time and painted a vivid picture of life back then. I enjoyed the author's style of narration, Hawthorne writes like he is in the audience with the reader. Maybe a bit predictable, but definitely worth the read. It's an iconic classic that deserves to be.
One of the most moving books I've read. Hester is carrying a child. Hester is not married and won't reveal the name of the father. In a time ruled by severe church authorities, this is not to be tolerated. The courage of Hester, her dignity, make her heroic to me. The father of the child is despicably weak, unable to own up to his sin and willing that she should be the one to suffer. A good example to show that if Christ is not ruling the heart it does no good for a person to have the appearance of godliness.
My favorite most favorite book ever. Thank you Coach for making us reading it in the 11th grade.
One of the easier to read classics that I've encountered thus far. I enjoyed the imagery and the symbolism in the book, but the slow parts were a struggle to get through.
I really enjoyed this novel. I enjoy the time period in which it was set, and I also really like the characters. Each character was dealing with so much. Hawthorne wrote the characters' developments compellingly.
The Scarlet Letter is about a young woman by the name of Hester Pyrnne and she gives birth to a child out of wedlock. At the begging f the book it seems to be as if she is a lonely,reserved women but yet she was a very hard working and willing person. Hawthorne stresses that she when times get hard, she can always pull herself out and she holds her head up the whole way. From th reader's point we see and feel Hester's pain and we also see and understand how she holds her head up high and pulls herself through any and every obstacle that may or has come alone in her life time. As a child she was forsed to wear a scarlet 'A' o her bosom and has to wea it for the rest of he life.At the time Hester is tkaen back to prison she is almost forsed to give up her daughter, Pearl. Not too long after that Pearl became ill and a doctor miracalously had a cure for it. Being the perosn Hester is she try her damnedest to stay with he in her ime of need.
In the novel The Scarlett Letter Hester Pyrnne gives birth to a child out of wedlock leading everyone in the town to look down upon her. In the beginning of the novel Hawthorne portrays Hester as a lonely, reserved woman and later she is portrayed as an independent, outgoing and strong-willed person. This novel tells the many understandings and feelings of the human race. Hawthorne proves that anyone, even in their most difficult times, can overcome anything if they believe they can. A novel should draw the reader into the story as though they too are a character in the book. In The Scarlett Letter the reader feels as though they are on of the town's people observing Hester's pain. Hester is told to stand on a pedestal to confess her sin to the townspeople and when she refuses to answer who the father of her child is they force her to wear a scarlett 'A' on her bosom for the rest of her life. Hester is then taken back to prison and is threatened to give up her child, Pearl. Pearl became ill and a doctor supplied her with a draught to cure her illness, but would not administer the draught himself for fear that Pearl would have fatherly aspirations from such a gesture. Hester slowly begins to stop taking care of herself because she sees no reason to go on, but then she realizes that Pearl needs her and so she continues to raise Pearl as best she can. Hester may be sorry for her actions forever, but she will never be sorry for the consequence of those actions and that is Pearl. The main theme of this novel is a tale of judgement, shame and redemption.
I GIVE THIS A BOOK A FIVE STAR RATING BECAUSE IT IS ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS IN THE WORLD.