The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Main Ideas

Allusions

Main Ideas Allusions

The Custom-House

Historical

The first time was three or four years since, when I favored the reader—inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine—with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old Manse.

This is an allusion to Hawthorne’s collection of essays, published in 1846, titled “Mosses from an Old Manse.”

Historical

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby; was a bustling wharf . . .

This is an allusion to Elias Hasket Derby (1739–1799), one of the wealthiest and most well-known merchants in Salem, Massachusetts.

Historical

From the loftiest point of its roof, during precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with the thirteen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally, and thus indicating that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle Sam’s government, is here established.

The name “Uncle Sam” is an allusion to the U.S. government. Some historians believe that the term is based on Samuel Wilson, a New York meatpacker who supplied rations for soldiers during the War of 1812.

Religious

These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom-House officers.

This is an allusion to Saint Matthew, who in Matthew 9:9 was seated with the tax collector “at the receipt of custom.”

Historical

All three give glimpses of the shops of grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers, and ship-chandlers; around the doors of which are generally to be seen, laughing and gossiping, clusters of old salts, and such other wharf-rats as haunt the Wapping of a seaport.

This is an allusion to a district of East London, hemmed in by the Thames and the Wapping Marsh, famous for its crime and poverty.

Historical/Political

But now, should you go thither to seek him, you would inquire in vain for the Loco-foco Surveyor.

The term “Loco-foco” is an allusion to a faction of the U.S. Democratic Party, also known as the Equal Rights Party, that stood up against New York City’s Tammany Hall organization and monopolies.

Mythological

[T]o detect, as one or another addressed me, the tremor of a voice, which, in long-past days, had been wont to bellow through a speaking-trumpet, hoarsely enough to frighten Boreas himself to silence.

This is an allusion to Boreas, the powerful Greek god of the cold north wind, depicted as an old man with long flowing hair and a violent temper.

Historical/Political

A tenderloin of beef, a hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of pork, a particular chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey, which had perhaps adorned his board in the days of the elder Adams, would be remembered[.]

This is an allusion to John Adams (1735–1826), the second president of the United States.

Historical

[R]eading the names of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea or rotted at the wharves, and those of merchants, never heard of now on 'Change, nor very readily decipherable on their mossy tombstones[.]

This is an allusion to the Boston Stock Exchange, which was established in 1834 and is the third oldest stock exchange in the United States. The BSE was acquired by NASDAQ in 2007.

Literary

Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and kept me, for a week or two, careering through the public prints, in decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman[.]

This is an allusion to Washington Irving’s gothic story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which features a character called the Headless Horseman.

Chapter I, The Prison-Door

Historical/Religious

[O]r whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door[.]

This is an allusion to Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), a highly educated religious reformer in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who was imprisoned and eventually banished from her colony for challenging the Puritan establishment.

Chapter II, The Market-Place

Religious

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity[.]

This quote contains two allusions: A Papist is an allusion to a Roman Catholic, someone who believes in the authority of the Pope; and the Divine Maternity is an allusion to the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus, a central image in the Christian faith.

Chapter III, The Recognition

Religious

“Of a truth friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting,” answered the townsman.

This is an allusion to Daniel, a wise and righteous prophet in the Old Testament of the Bible who interprets dreams and receives visions.

Chapter IV, The Interview

Mythological/Literary

“I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe,” remarked he[.]

This quote contains two allusions: In Greek mythology, Lethe is one of the five rivers in the underworld, and all who drink from it experience complete forgetfulness; in ancient Greece, nepenthe was a fictional medicine described in Homer’s The Odyssey that was used to treat sorrow as it induced forgetfulness.

Historical

“Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us?”

This is an allusion to Satan, who, according to witchcraft lore, haunts the forest at night.

Chapter V, Hester at Her Needle

Religious

With her native energy of character, and rare capacity, it could not entirely cast her off, although it had set a mark upon her, more intolerable to a woman's heart than that which branded the brow of Cain.

This is an allusion to Cain, one of Adam and Eve’s sons in the biblical book of Genesis.

Chapter VI, Pearl

Historical/Political

Luther, according to the scandal of his monkish enemies, was a brat of that hellish breed[.]

This is an allusion to Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German theologian who rejected the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. Those who considered him a heretic may have thought he was the child of Satan.

Chapter VIII, The Elf-Child and the Minister

Historical

[“]There used to be a swarm of these small apparitions, in holiday time; and we called them children of the Lord of Misrule.[”]

This is an allusion to a custom in medieval England: Groups of revelers appointed a Lord of Misrule to preside over their Christmas revelries.

Religious

“Nay, we might have judged that such a child's mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy type of her of Babylon![”]

This is an allusion to Babylon, a kingdom and its capital city in ancient Mesopotamia. In the biblical book of Revelation, the city is personified by a symbolic “Whore of Babylon,” a woman who is drunk on the blood of saints and rides on a scarlet beast with many horns.

Chapter IX, The Leech

Historical

The walls were hung round with tapestry, said to be from the Gobelin looms, and, at all events, representing the Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet[.]

This is an allusion to the Gobelin Manufactory in France, which produced exquisite tapestries that decorated many French government institutions.

Chapter X, The Leech and His Patient

Literary

Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physician's eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or, let us say, like one of those gleams of ghastly fire that darted from Bunyan's awful door-way in the hillside, and quivered on the pilgrim's face.

This is an allusion to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come (1678), a Christian allegory that describes a side entrance to Hell by way of a door in the Earth.

Chapter XI, The Interior of a Heart

Religious

All that they lacked was the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples, at Pentecost, in tongues of flame; symbolizing, it would seem, not the power of speech in foreign and unknown languages, but that of addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart's native language.

This is an allusion to the Christian holy day of Pentecost, celebrated fifty days after Easter Sunday, which commemorates the apostles being together in one place when “tongues as of fire” appeared.

Religious

[“]I, in whose daily life you discern the sanctity of Enoch[.”]

This is an allusion to the biblical character Enoch, who was the son of Jared and great-grandfather of Noah.

Chapter XII, The Minister’s Vigil

Religious

“At the great judgment day!” whispered the minister,—and, strangely enough, the sense that he was a professional teacher of the truth impelled him to answer the child so. “Then, and there, before the judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand together![”]

This is an allusion to the Christian belief that, on the world’s last day, Jesus will return to Earth to judge everyone who is living or dead.

Chapter XIII, Another View of Hester

Historical/Religious

She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world's heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result.

This is an allusion to the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns founded in 1831 in Dublin, Ireland.

Chapter XX, The Minister in a Maze

Historical

She made a very grand appearance; having on a high head-dress, a rich gown of velvet, and a ruff done up with the famous yellow starch, of which Ann Turner, her especial friend, had taught her the secret, before this last good lady had been hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder.

This is an allusion to Anne Turner (1576–1615), who was found guilty for her role in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury; her sentence required that she be hanged in the starched collar that she helped make popular.

Chapter XXII, The Procession

Historical

Its ranks were filled with gentlemen, who felt the stirrings of martial impulse, and sought to establish a kind of College of Arms, where, as in an association of Knights Templars, they might learn the science, and, so far as peaceful exercise would teach them, the practices of war.

This is an allusion to the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order founded in 1119 that produced soldiers who were the most skilled fighters during the Crusades.

Historical/Political

Even political power—as in the case of Increase Mather—was within the grasp of a successful priest.

This is an allusion to Increase Mather (1639–1723), a Puritan clergyman in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who also served as president of Harvard College for twenty years.