full title The Scarlet Letter
author Nathaniel Hawthorne
type of work Novel
genre romance, historical novel
time and place written Salem and Concord, Massachusetts; late 1840s
date of first publication 1850
publisher Ticknor, Reed, and Fields
narrator The narrator is an unnamed customhouse surveyor who writes some two hundred years after the events he describes took place. He has much in common with Hawthorne but should not be taken as a direct mouthpiece for the author’s opinions.
point of view The narrator is omniscient, because he analyzes the characters and tells the story in a way that shows that he knows more about the characters than they know about themselves. Yet, he is also a subjective narrator, because he voices his own interpretations and opinions of things. He is clearly sympathetic to Hester and Dimmesdale.
tone Varies—contemplative and somewhat bitter in the introduction; thoughtful, fairly straightforward, yet occasionally tinged with irony in the body of the narrative
tense The narrator employs the past tense to recount events that happened some two hundred years before his time, but he occasionally uses the present tense when he addresses his audience.
setting (time) Middle of the seventeenth century
setting (place) Boston, Massachusetts
protagonist Hester Prynne
major conflict Her husband having inexplicably failed to join her in Boston following their emigration from Europe, Hester Prynne engages in an extramarital affair with Arthur Dimmesdale. When she gives birth to a child, Hester invokes the condemnation of her community—a condemnation they manifest by forcing her to wear a letter “A” for “adulteror”—as well as the vengeful wrath of her husband, who has appeared just in time to witness her public shaming.
rising action Dimmesdale stands by in silence as Hester suffers for the “sin” he helped to commit, though his conscience plagues him and affects his health. Hester’s husband, Chillingworth, hides his true identity and, posing as a doctor to the ailing minister, tests his suspicions that Dimmesdale is the father of his wife’s child, effectively exacerbating Dimmesdale’s feelings of shame and thus reaping revenge.
climax There are at least two points in The Scarlet Letter that could be identified as the book’s “climax.” The first is in Chapter 12, at the exact center of the book. As Dimmesdale watches a meteor trace a letter “A” in the sky, he confronts his role in Hester’s sin and realizes that he can no longer deny his deed and its consequences. The key characters confront one another when Hester and Pearl join Dimmesdale in an “electric chain” as he holds his vigil on the marketplace scaffold, the location of Hester’s original public shaming. Chillingworth appears in this scene as well. The other climactic scene occurs in Chapter 23, at the end of the book. Here, the characters’ secrets are publicly exposed and their fates sealed. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth not only acknowledge their secrets to themselves and to each other; they push these revelations to such extremes that they all must leave the community in one way or another.
falling action Depending on one’s interpretation of which scene constitutes the book’s “climax,” the falling action is either the course of events that follow Chapter 12 or the final reports on Hester’s and Pearl’s lives after the deaths of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.
themes Sin, experience, and the human condition; the nature of evil; identity and society
motifs Civilization versus the wilderness; night versus day; evocative names
symbols The scarlet letter; the town scaffold; the meteor; Pearl; the rosebush next to the prison door
foreshadowing Foreshadowing is minimal, because the symbols tend to coincide temporally with events, enriching their meaning rather than anticipating their occurrence.