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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Study Questions

1

Discuss the relationship between the scarlet letter and Hester’s identity. Why does she repeatedly refuse to stop wearing the letter? What is the difference between the identity she creates for herself and the identity society assigns to her?

For Hester, to remove the scarlet letter would be to acknowledge the power it has in determining who she is. The letter would prove to have successfully restricted her if she were to become a different person in its absence. Hester chooses to continue to wear the letter because she is determined to transform its meaning through her actions and her own self-perception—she wants to be the one who controls its meaning. Society tries to reclaim the letter’s symbolism by deciding that the “A” stands for “Able,” but Hester resists this interpretation. The letter symbolizes her own past deed and her own past decisions, and she is the one who will determine the meaning of those events. Upon her return from Europe at the novel’s end, Hester has gained control over both her personal and her public identities. She has made herself into a symbol of feminine repression and charitable ideals, and she stands as a self-appointed reminder of the evils society can commit.

2

In what ways could The Scarlet Letter be read as a commentary on the era of American history it describes? How does Hawthorne’s portrayal of Europe enter into this commentary? Could the book also be seen as embodying some of the aspects it attributes to the nation in which it was written?

Typically, America is conceptualized as a place of freedom, where a person’s opportunities are limited only by his or her ambition and ability—and not by his or her social status, race, gender, or other circumstances of birth. In the Puritan society portrayed in the novel, however, this is not the case. In fact, it is Europe, not America, that the book presents as a place of potential. There, anonymity can protect an individual and allow him or her to assume a new identity. This unexpected inversion leads the characters and the reader to question the principles of freedom and opportunity usually identified with America. Hester’s experiences suggest that this country is founded on the ideals of repression and confinement. Additionally, the narrator’s own experiences, coming approximately two hundred years after Hester’s, confirm those of his protagonist. His fellow customs officers owe their jobs to patronage and family connections, not to merit, and he has acquired his own position through political allies. Thus, the customhouse is portrayed as an institution that embodies many of the principles that America supposedly opposes.

Much of the social hypocrisy presented in the book stems from America’s newness. Insecure in its social order, the new society is trying to distance itself from its Anglican origins yet, at the same time, reassure itself of its legitimacy and dignity. It is a difficult task to “define” oneself as a land of self-defining individuals. But it is this project of defining America that Hawthorne himself partially undertakes in his novel. He aims to write a text that both embodies and describes “Americanness.”

3

This novel makes extensive use of symbols. Discuss the difference between the Puritans’ use of symbols (the meteor, for example) and the way that the narrator makes use of symbols. Do both have religious implications? Do symbols foreshadow events or simply comment on them after the fact? How do they help the characters understand their lives, and how do they help the reader understand Hawthorne’s book?

The Puritans in this book are constantly seeking out natural symbols, which they claim are messages from God. Yet these characters are not willing to accept any revelation at face value. They interpret the symbols only in ways that confirm their own preformulated ideas or opinions. The meteor that streaks the sky as Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold in Chapter 12 is a good example of this phenomenon. To Dimmesdale and to the townspeople, the “A” that the meteor traces in the sky represents whatever notion already preoccupies them. To the minister, the meteor exposes his sin, while to the townspeople it confirms that the colony’s former governor, who has just died, has gone to heaven and been made an angel.

For the narrator, on the other hand, symbols function to complicate reality rather than to confirm one’s perception of it. The governor’s garden, which Hester and Pearl see in Chapter 7, illustrates his tactic quite well. The narrator does not describe the garden in a way that reinforces the image of luxury and power that is present in his description of the rest of the governor’s house. Rather, he writes that the garden, which was originally planted to look like an ornamental garden in the English style, is now full of weeds, thorns, and vegetables. The garden seems to contradict much of what the reader has been told about the governor’s power and importance, and it suggests to us that the governor is an unfit caretaker, for people as well as for flowers. The absence of any flowers other than the thorny roses also hints that ideals are often accompanied by evil and pain. Confronted by the ambiguous symbol of the garden, we begin to look for other inconsistencies and for other examples of decay and disrepair in Puritan society.