The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.


Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804,in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of a sea captain and the descendant of prominent Puritans. William Hathorne (Hawthorne added the "w" when he began writing), Hawthorne's great-great-great grandfather, emigrated to the New World in 1630 with John Winthrop's company; William Hathorne's son, John, was a magistrate who was part of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Hawthorne's father died when Nathaniel was 4, and he and his mother moved to Maine when he was 14. He attended Bowdoin College, where he met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, the man who would become president of the United States. He began to write, publishing a collection of short stories under a pseudonym, and then published his first novel, Fanshawe in 1829, which was unsuccessful. He published a series of short stories, which he later collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837-first series, 1842-second series). He took a job at the Boston Custom House to fund his writing and during this time he met Sophia Peabody. She encouraged his involvement with the group of writers, including Emerson and Thoreau, who established Brook Farm, an artists' commune devoted to Transcendentalist thinking. Hawthorne, although affected by Transcendentalist thinking, which would show itself in his work--especially The Scarlet Letter , grew disenchanted with the group and left Brook Farm after about six months. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody and they settled in Concord, where Hawthorne wrote the stories gathered in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He became a surveyor at the port in Salem in 1846, which he satirically recounts in "The Custom House," the introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850), which he began to write while working at the custom house. He next wrote The House of Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), which draws on his experience at Brook Farm. After Franklin Pierce's election as president, Hawthorne gained the post of consul in Liverpool, England, where he lived from 1853-1857. He wrote The Marble Faun (1960), which was partially based on his travels in Italy, and Our Old Home (1863), about his time in England. He returned to the United States, where he failed to finish several romances. He died in 1864 on a trip to the White Mountains with Franklin Pierce.

Historical Context

As a historical fiction, the novel has two distinct historical contexts: Massachusetts of the mid-seventeenth century--the setting in which the novel takes place, and New England of the mid-nineteenth century--the setting in which novel was written, and in which the introductory chapter, "The Custom House" takes place. The main action of the story is set within the Puritan settlement of Boston. The Puritans were a religious group first established in England as a result of a wish to purify (hence, their name) the Anglican church of its misguided or unnecessary doctrine and ceremony. They arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 under the guidance of John Winthrop (included in this original group of emigrants was Nathaniel Hawthorne's great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne). The Puritans are often noted for their extreme intolerance for religious dissent, though some sources of the current day suggest that many early negative illustrations involving the Puritans (such as Hawthorne's) were unduly harsh.

One famous example of the Puritan response to religious dissent involved Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643). Hutchinson had emigrated to Massachusetts with her family in 1634, and once there, formed a religious discussion group in which she supported the idea of a "covenant of grace" rather than a "covenant of works." She was excommunicated for her beliefs, after which she moved to Rhode Island, and then to Long Island where she was killed by Indians. Though tolerance and equality were not major elements of Puritan ideology, education was encouraged for all members of the Puritan community. Within this sect there was a heavy emphasis on the religious leaders, who were well-educated men, responsible for overseeing proper interpretation of the Bible and guiding all matters of the community. The religious authorities had much authority over all aspects of the community. Their interpretation of God's laws dictated those of the community and the active involvement of the spiritual realm in the earthly one was firmly supported.

The nature of man's relationship to the spiritual world, and its impact on daily life was also a question for the Transcendentalist group of mid-nineteenth century New England, of which Hawthorne was a member for a period of time. This group included writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. Though Hawthorne eventually became disillusioned with the movement, and especially with living at the Transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm, much of the group's ideas and concerns continued in Hawthorne's work, such as The Scarlet Letter . Though the Transcendentalists as a movement cannot be strictly defined, there are general ideas that tied them together. One main theme for exploration was the idea that religion and spirituality were personal matters, and not to be dictated by religious leaders. For the most part they advocated a religion based on intuition and passion. This is in sharp contrast to Puritan ideology, and yet, another major interest of the Transcendentalists was to create a uniquely American body of literature, which often led them to look to the original religious settlements for inspiration. They were attempting to establish a literary tradition that belonged solely to the United States, which did not depend on Europe's influence. In The Scarlet Letter , Hawthorne combines these elements. He looks to the country's past to have a setting unique to his country, and at the same time discovers a setting in which he can find contrast and explore themes that were interesting to him and other writers of his time. Many of his themes were timely but many are also universal, such as the effects of guilt and sin, the personal nature of spirituality and the importance of being true to oneself.

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