The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Nathaniel Hawthorne


Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is famous for presenting some of the greatest interpretive difficulties in all of American literature. While not recognized by Hawthorne himself as his most important work, the novel is regarded not only as his greatest accomplishment, but frequently as the greatest novel in American literary history. After it was published in 1850, critics hailed it as initiating a distinctive American literary tradition. Ironically, it is a novel in which, in terms of action, almost nothing happens. Hawthorne's emotional, psychological drama revolves around Hester Prynne, who is convicted of adultery in colonial Boston by the civil and Puritan authorities. She is condemned to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. The narrative describes the effort to resolve the torment suffered by Hester and her co-adulterer, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, in the years after their affair. In fact, the story excludes even the representation of the passionate moment which enables the entire novel. It begins at the close of Hester's imprisonment many months after her affair and proceeds through many years to her final acceptance of her place in the community as the wearer of the scarlet letter. Hawthorne was masterful in the use of symbolism, and the scarlet letter "A" stands as his most potent symbol, around which interpretations of the novel revolve. At one interpretive pole the "A" stands for adultery and sin, and the novel is the story of individual punishment and reconciliation. At another pole it stands for America and allegory, and the story suggests national sin and its human cost. Yet possibly the most convincing reading, taking account of all others, sees the "A" as a symbol of ambiguity, the very fact of multiple interpretations and the difficulty of achieving consensus.

Author Biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in the infamous village of Salem, Massachusetts, on Independence Day, July 4, 1804. His parents were Nathaniel and Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hathorne. (The surname had been written both with and without the w; Hawthorne chose to include it when he began his writing career.) Hawthorne's father, a sea captain, died far from home when Hawthorne was four years old. At the age of nine he injured his foot and could move about very little for the next two years, a time he spent reading literary "classics." In 1820, while working for his uncle as a bookkeeper, Hawthorne complained to his sister, Elizabeth, that "No man can be a Poet and a Book-keeper at the same time." This conflict between his literary interests and need to earn money would be a fact of Hawthorne's life for many years; it is made a specific subject of "The Custom House," Hawthorne's introduction to The Scarlet Letter, and the conflict is represented in various forms in a great deal of his works.

When he entered Bowdoin College in the fall of 1821, he wanted to be a professional author, but was well aware of the difficulties. On occasion he expressed reservedly that his forefathers, among them important Puritans, would consider such a career useless if not downright frivolous. "Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler": thus Hawthorne comically evokes their stern judgment in "The Custom House." But, however he joked, such forefathers were a very serious presence in Hawthorne's life and writings. One such man was John Hathorne, who was a principle prosecutor in the Salem witch trials and one of the few official judges not to acknowledge the folly of the executions after the hysteria ended.

In 1842 Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody and they resided in Concord, the geographic center of literary transcendentalism, the idealistic philosophy that opposed both Puritanical and materialistic values. They lived in a home called the Old Manse, where transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson had written Nature in 1836. Hawthorne stayed at the Old Manse for three years, later considering them the happiest years of his life. He wrote actively during this period, becoming hopeful that he could earn a living by his pen, but still not securing enough income from the trade. In 1845 he moved to Salem and soon took a position as surveyor of the port of Salem Custom House. When the Whigs won a national election over the Democrats (whose sponsorship secured Hawthorne's job), he was removed from office in 1849. This was a troubling moment for Hawthorne and increased his guarded stance toward potential social and political instabilities, including feminism and abolitionism. It was during this convulsive time in Salem, which included the death of his mother in July of 1849, that Hawthorne conceived and began work on The Scarlet Letter.

Plot Summary

Part One

The Scarlet Letter opens with an expectant crowd standing in front of a Boston prison in the early 1640s. When the prison door opens, a young woman named Hester Prynne emerges, with a baby in her arms and a scarlet letter "A" richly embroidered on her breast. For her crime of adultery, to which both the baby and the letter attest, she must proceed to the scaffold and stand for judgment by her community.

While on the scaffold, Hester remembers her past. In particular, she remembers the face of a "misshapen" man, "well stricken in years," with the face of a scholar. At this moment, the narrator introduces an aged and misshapen character, who has been living "in bonds" with "Indian" captors. He asks a bystander why Hester is on the scaffold. The brief story is told: two years earlier, Hester had preceded her husband to New England. Her husband never arrived. In the meantime, she bore a child; the father of the infant has not come forward. As this stranger stares at Hester, she stares back: a mutual recognition passes between them.

On the scaffold, Boston's highest clergyman, John Wilson, and Hester's own pastor, Rev. Dimmesdale, each ask her to reveal the name of her partner in crime. Reverend Dimmesdale makes a particularly powerful address, urging her not to tempt the man to lead a life of sinful hypocrisy by leaving his identity unnamed. Hester refuses.

After the ordeal of her public judgment, the misshapen man from the marketplace—her long lost husband—visits her, taking the name Roger Chillingworth. When she refuses to identify the father of her child, he vows to discover him and take revenge. He makes Hester swear to keep his identity a secret.

Part II

Now freed, Hester and her baby girl, Pearl, move to a secluded cabin. The narrator explains that

There is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime.

Whether for this reason, or for others, Hester stays in the colony. She earns a living as a seamstress. Hester has "in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic" that shows in her needle-work. Although the Puritans' sumptuary laws (which regulate personal expenditure and displays of luxury) restrict ornament, she finds a market for her goods—the ministers and judges of the colony have occasion for pomp and circumstance, which her needlework helps supply. She uses her money to help the needy, although they scorn her in return. Hester focuses most of her love, and all of her love of finery, on her daughter, her "pearl of great price." Pearl grows up without the company of other children, a wild child in fabulous clothing. Even her mother questions her humanity and sees her as an ethereal, almost devilish, "airy sprite."

When Pearl is three, Hester discovers that certain "good people" of the town, including Governor Bellingham, seek to "deprive her of her child." She goes to the governor and pleads her case. She and Pearl find the governor in the company of Rev. Wilson, Rev. Dimmesdale, and his now close companion, Dr. Chillingworth. Pearl inexplicably runs to Rev. Dimmesdale and clasps his hand. To the men, Hester argues that God has sent Pearl both to remind her of her sin, and to compensate her for all she has lost. When they seem unswayed, Hester throws herself on Rev. Dimmesdale's mercy. He endorses her argument: Providence has bound up both sin and salvation in Pearl, whom Hester must be allowed to care for herself. The men reluctantly agree.

Since his arrival, Roger Chillingworth has assumed the identity of a physician. His scholarly background, combined with a knowledge of New World plants gained from his "Indian" captors, have prepared him well for this role. But healing masks his deeper purpose: revenge. He "devotes" himself to Rev. Dimmesdale, whose health has greatly declined. Chillingworth takes up lodging in the same house as the minister. As time passes, an "intimacy" grows up between them, and they seem to enjoy the difference in their points of view, as men of science and religion.

Unsuspected by his victim, Chillingworth digs into the "poor clergyman's heart, like a miner searching for gold." The only clue to Dimmesdale's condition lies in a characteristic gesture: he frequently presses his hand on his heart. One day, when Dimmesdale sleeps heavily (perhaps having been drugged), Chillingworth looks under his shirt. He sees something that the reader does not—something that evokes a "wild look of wonder, joy, and horror!" From that moment, their relationship changes for the worse. Having mastered Dimmesdale's secret, Chillingworth grows increasingly ugly, increasingly diabolical, and his real purpose becomes more perceptible. Many townspeople become convinced that Satan himself has sent him to torment the young minister.

Part III

Dimmesdale's secret has a paradoxical effect on his religious career. He knows himself to be the worst of sinners, and his sin makes his sermons more heartfelt, and more effective. This success intensifies his inner torment, and increases his sense of hypocrisy. One night he wanders out and climbs onto the scaffold. He considers waking the town and confessing his guilt. Hester and Pearl, after watching by a deathbed, find him, and join him. By this time Pearl is seven years old, and Hester's reputation has improved; now many associate the "A" with "Able," because of her good works. Pearl asks the minister if he will stand there with them the next day at noon; he promises that they will stand together—not tomorrow—but on "judgment day." A light suddenly bursts in the sky, appearing, to some, as the letter "A." Their vigil ends when Chillingworth appears and takes Dimmesdale home.

Hester, disturbed by Dimmesdale's obvious torment, confronts Chillingworth. She entreats him to stop his vengeful scheme. He refuses. Pearl guesses at the connection between the reverend and her mother, but cannot wholly understand. She fixates on her mother's scarlet "A" in an ominous way. Worried that she has corrupted her child and both men, Hester decides to intervene and to tell Dimmesdale the truth.

Hester waits for Dimmesdale with Pearl in the woods. In the forest, the sun shines on Pearl, but never on Hester, who seems always enveloped in dark and shadow. Hester tells Dimmesdale all. The reader's suspicions about Dimmesdale are confirmed. "'Oh Arthur,' [cries] she, 'forgive me! … he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!"' Dimmesdale realizes how full of deception his life has been. He and Hester decide to leave together and start a new life. Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. For a moment, they are happy in their love. Seeing them, Pearl refuses to come until her mother resumes her ordinary appearance; she obstinately washes off the kiss that her father plants on her forehead. Yet the parents remain optimistic, and part with the promise to leave, secretly and by ship, in four days.

The day before their planned departure is Election Day, and Rev. Dimmesdale gives a sermon, intending it as a triumphant farewell. His spirits are strangely high. During the sermon, Hester finds their plans going awry. Chillingworth has guessed their intent and arranged to leave with them—they will never escape him. As Dimmesdale leaves the church, his strength fails him. In front of the whole community, he reaches for Hester and Pearl, and, with them, ascends the scaffold. He confesses his part in Hester's sin, and tears open his minister's collar, exposing what looks like—to some—a letter "A." He asks for the crowd's forgiveness, and in turn absolves his own tormentor, Chillingworth. Then he asks his daughter for a kiss and, when she gives it, "a spell is broken":

The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.

His breast finally unburdened, Dimmesdale dies.

Chillingworth soon follows him to the grave, leaving his money to Pearl. Hester takes her daughter to Europe, but returns alone years later. Hester resumes her scarlet letter "A" and her good works. When she dies, the village buries her next to Dimmesdale.


Governor Bellingham

Governor Bellingham represents an actual person, Richard Bellingham, who came to America in 1634 and was elected as governor of the English colony in 1641, 1654, and 1655. When not acting as governor, he still held positions of power as magistrate or deputy governor. In the novel his character demonstrates that in the colony, as the narrator states in chapter two, "religion and law were almost identical." Bellingham is described as a "stem magistrate," who, in chapter eight, is convinced that Pearl should be taken from her mother in order to receive a proper moral upbringing, until Dimmesdale persuades him that the union of Pearl and Hester is a part of God's design.

Roger Chillingworth

Roger Chillingworth is the alias of Hester's husband. The two were married in England and moved together to Amsterdam before Hester preceded Chillingworth to America. Chillingworth is a man devoted to knowledge. His outward physical deformity (a hunchback) is symbolic of his devotion to deep, as opposed to superficial, knowledge. His lifelong study of apothecary and the healing arts, first in Europe and later among the Indians of America, is a sincere benevolent exercise until he discovers his wife's infidelity, whereupon he turns his skills toward the evil of revenge.

Chillingworth is introduced near the very start of the narrative, where he discovers Hester upon the scaffold with Pearl, the scarlet letter upon her chest, and displayed for public shame. After surviving a shipwreck on his voyage to America, he lived for some time among the Indians and slowly made his way to Boston and Hester. Upon discovering Hester's "ignominious" situation, Chilling-worth declines to announce his identity and instead chooses to reside in Boston to find and avenge himself on Hester's lover. When Dimmesdale becomes ill with the effects of his sin, Chillingworth comes to live with him under the same roof. Reneging on an earlier promise, Hester eventually discloses Chillingworth's identity to Dimmesdale. Soon after Dimmesdale publicly confesses his sin and, as Chillingworth puts it, "Hadst thou sought the whole earth over … there was no one place so secret,—no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,—save on this very scaffold!" Thus, his vengeful victory taken from him, Chillingworth soon dies, though not before leaving all of his substantial wealth to Pearl.

Arthur Dimmesdale

Arthur Dimmesdale is the young, charismatic minister with whom Hester commits adultery. Unlike Hester, who bears the child Pearl by their affair, Dimmesdale shows no outward evidence of his sin, and, as Hester does not expose him, he lives with the great anguish of his secret guilt until he confesses publicly and soon after dies near the end of the novel.

Dimmesdale is presented as a figure of frailty and weakness in contrast to Hester's strength (both moral and physical), pride, and determination. He consistently refuses to confess his sin (until the end), even though he repeatedly states that it were better, less spiritually painful, if his great failing were known. Thus Dimmesdale struggles through the years and the narrative, enduring and faltering beneath his growing pain (with both the help and harm of Roger Chillingworth), until, after his failed plan to escape to Europe with Hester and Pearl, he confesses and dies.

The Goodwives

The Goodwives are several women who discuss Hester's situation in chapter two. They generally believe the magistrates have been too easy on Hester and suggest branding or execution as appropriate punishments. One exception is a "young wife" who in this, and a later scene, feels pity for Hester.

Mistress Hibbins

Mistress Hibbins, who makes several provoking, if short, appearances in the novel, represents the actual historical figure Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656. Mistress Hibbins tempts both Hester and Dimmesdale to enter in the league of the "Black Man," who, as a representative of the devil, haunts the wild forest. While she is very nearly a comic figure in the narrative, the fact of her historical reality and fate remind us of the grim power of Puritan regulation and paranoia.


Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Necessarily marginal to Puritan society and scorned by other children, she grows up as an intimate of nature and the forest. Symbolically recreating the scarlet letter, Hester, in opposition to her own drab wardrobe, dresses Pearl in brilliant, decorative clothing such "that there was an absolute circle of radiance about her."

Media Adaptations

  • The Scarlet Letter has received several film adaptations beginning with director Victor Seastrom's 1926 silent version starring Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne. The first talkie version, directed by Robert Vignola in 1934 (produced by London Films) and starring Colleen Moore, is available from Nostalgia Family Video, though it is probably difficult to locate a rental copy.
  • Recent film productions include a 1973 international version directed by Wim Wenders that received good reviews (Ingram International Films; in German with English subtitles). PBS aired a four-hour version in 1979 that stars Meg Foster as Hester and John Heard as Dimmesdale. Rick Harser's direction is faithful to the novel (PBS Home Video; four video cassettes). A similar educational version was produced in 1991 and is available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
  • One of the great flops of recent years is the 1995 Hollywood production directed by Roland Joffe and starring Demi Moore as Hester, Gary Oldman as Dimmesdale and Robert Duvall as Chillingworth (available from Hollywood Pictures Home Video). Be careful not to embarrass yourself by relying on this film as a guide to the novel.
  • There are also a number of sound recordings of the novel. Audio Partners Inc. (of Auburn, CA) published an abridged version in 1986 read by Michael Learned (the full title is Michael Learned reads The Scarlet Letter). The Brilliance Corporation produced an unabridged version read by Dick Hill in 1993 (8 hours). Books in Motion also published an unabridged version in 1982 read by Gene Engene (7.5 hours).
  • Finally, there are two audio study guides or discussions of The Scarlet Letter. Lecturer Robert H. Fossum discusses the book on one 38 minute cassette in the series "19th Century American Writers," produced by Everett/Edwards (1976). Time Warner Audiobooks published a study guide narrated by Julie Amato in 1994 on one 72 minute cassette.

Like most characters in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is complex and contradictory. On the one hand, as the narrator describes, she "could not be made amenable to rules." At one moment in the novel, her disregard of authority takes the form of a violent game where she pretends to destroy the children of the Puritan elders: "the ugliest weeds of the garden [she imagined were the elders'] children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted, most unmercifully." On the other hand, at a climactic point in the narrative, where Hester discards the scarlet letter on the floor of the forest, it is Pearl who dramatically insists that she resume the potent symbol. The form of her insistence is particularly important, for, against her mother's request, she does not bring the letter to Hester, but obstinately has Hester fetch the letter herself. This moment demonstrates one of the central conflicted themes of the novel about the authoritarian imposition of law and the willing subjection to it, or even embodiment of it. In this scene Pearl becomes the figure of authority to whom Hester willingly, if symbolically, obeys. Pearl eventually leaves with Hester for Europe (though Hester returns), where, it is implied, Pearl stays and, with the aid of Chillingworth's inheritance, is married to nobility.

Hester Prynne

Hester Prynne is the central and most important character in The Scarlet Letter. Hester was married to Roger Chillingworth while living in England and, later, Amsterdam—a city to which many English Puritans moved for religious freedom. Hester preceded her husband to New England, as he had business matters to settle in Amsterdam, and after approximately two years in America she committed adultery with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.

The novel begins as Hester nears the end of her prison term for adultery. While adultery was considered a grave threat to the Puritan community, such that death was considered a just punishment, the Puritan authorities weighed the long absence and possible death of her husband in their sentence. Thus, they settled on the punishment of permanent public humiliation and moral example: Hester was to forever wear the scarlet letter A on the bodice of her clothing.

While seemingly free to leave the community and even America at her will, Hester chooses to stay. As the narrator puts it, "Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul." According to this reasoning, Hester assumes her residence in a small abandoned cottage on the outskirts of the community.

While the novel is, in large part, a record of the torment Hester suffers under the burden of her symbol of shame, eventually, after the implied marriage of her daughter Pearl and the death of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, Hester becomes an accepted and even a highly valued member of the community. Instead of being a symbol of scorn, Hester, and the letter A, according to the narrator, "became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too." The people of the community even come to Hester for comfort and counsel in times of trouble and sorrow because they trust her to offer unselfish advice toward the resolution of upsetting conflict. Thus, in the end, Hester becomes an important figure in preserving the peace and stability of the community.

The Shipmaster

The Shipmaster is the captain of the ship on which Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl hope to leave America for Europe. During the Election Day sermon in chapter twelve, he is smitten by Pearl's charm. He even tries to kiss her, and, when this fails, he gives her a long gold chain.

John Wilson

Another historical figure, John Wilson was a minister who came to America in 1630. He was a strong figure of Puritan authority and intolerance. In chapter three, where Hester is on the scaffold, he prods Dimmesdale to interrogate Hester about the identity of her lover. In chapter eight he questions Pearl about her religious knowledge.


Individual vs. Society

The Scarlet Letter is a novel that describes the psychological anguish of two principle characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. They are both suffering under, while attempting to come to terms with, their mutual sin of adultery in a strict Puritan society. As critics immediately recognized upon publication of the novel in 1850, one of its principal themes involved conflict between the individual and society.

Hawthorne represents the stern and threatening force of Puritan society in the first sentence of the first chapter, where he describes a "throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray," who stand before the prison door "which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes," and behind which was Hester. Hawthorne symbolizes the force of the Puritan's civil and religious authority in this "prison-door," which is indeed the very name of the chapter. Yet outside the door, symbolizing Hester, the scarlet letter, and finally the individual who dissents from society, is a "wild rose-bush." This rosebush that stands just outside the prison door, Hawthorne famously suggests, "may serve … 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 action of the novel (what there is of action in this notoriously unmoving narrative) maintains the conflict of the individual with society, even to the end, where Hawthorne offers a perplexing conclusion. Beginning with the above symbolic scene, Hawthorne repeatedly attaches our sympathies with the individual against social authority, setting us up for a narrative resolution where the individual breaks free from imposed constraints. Yet Hester, after she leaves America for a time, returns to the place of her punishment and willingly resumes the imposed symbol of her guilt and shame. Thus we are left with this principal thematic conflict to resolve on our own.

Change and Transformation

Closely related to the conflict of the individual and society is the theme of stability, change, and transformation. One of the important places where this theme is introduced is actually outside the proper narrative, in Hawthorne's introduction, "The Custom-House."

In "The Custom-House" Hawthorne informs us about his actual job as the commissioner of the custom house in Salem, Massachusetts. Given the job as a political appointment, Hawthorne was responsible for the inspection and regulation of merchant ships that landed in Salem. In his endless partiality to symbols, Hawthorne describes "an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings" that "hovers" before the Custom-House entrance and appears "by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude to … warn all citizens" of disrupting the Custom-House affairs. Here is a symbol of stable authority necessarily connected to Hawthorne himself, insofar as he is chief official of the Custom-House. Yet this firm symbol of civil authority is immediately compromised by the context of decay in which it is placed. Hawthorne notes that the wharves of Salem have been left "to crumble to ruin" and that the port "exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life." Even the pavement around the Custom-House "has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business."

But these signs of creeping transfornation are replaced by Hawthorne's obviously uncomfortable representation of sudden, even violent change, which in fact struck him personally. Due to the political nature of Hawthorne's appointment, when Zachary Taylor won the Presidential election of 1848, Hawthorne was promptly removed from office. Viewing himself as politically harmless, Hawthorne had felt his "prospect of retaining office to be better than [that of his] Democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell!" With his guillotine metaphor, Hawthorne evokes the great violent revolutions then sweeping Europe. Critics now agree that he greatly feared the possibility of such dramatic change in America.

Topics for Further study

  • Research the role of Hawthorne's relative, John Hathorne, in the Salem witch trials and discuss how this influences your interpretation of the novel.
  • Read a work by one of Hawthorne's transcendentalist contemporaries (like Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature, or Henry David Thoreau's Walden) and compare what you think to be their world view with that of Hawthorne's.
  • Investigate the idea of crime and/or the role of women in colonial New England and compare your findings with Hawthorne's representation of Hester. You might want to consider what the Puritans feared that would justify their particular laws and actions.
  • Look at some histories of the European revolutions of 1848 and consider why they may have caused Hawthorne some anxiety.


Critical consensus has come to regard the issue of ambiguity and knowledge rather than ones of deception and truth, as a central, if not the central, theme in the novel. Truth and deception imply a firm moral order, the very possibility of which the novel repeatedly draws into question. Ambiguity, which implies the incapacity to know anything for certain, is much closer to what the novel describes. One of the most profound expressions of ambiguity surrounds Arthur Dimmesdale, for it is the truth of sin that he keeps hidden which makes him the very pillar of moral purity in the community. In fact, exactly because he confesses his impurity he becomes a more powerful figure of virtue: "He had told his bearers that he was altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the warts of sinners, a thing of unimaginable iniquity.… They heard it all, and did but reverence him the more." The "truth" about the minister, sinner or sinless, is forever suspended. Thus, even after the narrator records Dimmesdale's public confession of his affair with Hester, the very notion that he was Hester's lover remains inconclusive. Some people maintain that they saw a stigmata of the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale's chest, others present say they saw nothing at all. Some even claim that he did not confess "the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet letter." As the narrator says, "The reader may choose among these theories."

Another moment where the lure of truth is presented yet left undisclosed occurs in chapter nineteen, where the narrator tells us that Pearl "had been offered to the world.… As the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret [Hester and Dimmesdale] so darkly sought to hide,—all written in this symbol,—all plainly manifest,—had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame." Truth is plain, but its language is hard to interpret.

Guilt and Innocence Sin

The Scarlet Letter is without question a novel about sin and guilt, though, as we should expect of Hawthorne, it is not a simple matter to determine who, or what, is the subject of these themes. Are Hester and Dimmesdale the principle sinners, or does their suffering, if not their love, absolve them? If we assume that the novel is an allegory, involving significant episodes and issues from American history, particularly the Salem witch trials, then is it America itself that is guilty of great sin? If this is the case (and many critics feel that it is), then we should reverse the most obvious terms of guilt and sin that the novel presents and read the representatives of authority as the principal figures of guilt. Following this line of interpretation, we can see Hawthorne attempting to individualize national sin in the actual historical characters of Governor Bellingham and John Wilson. We can even take this reading one step further and see Hawthome attempting to absolve himself and his own family lineage when we recall that one of his own forefathers, John Hathorne, was a particularly cruel prosecutor during the witch hysteria. Whether absolution is rendered is a matter for the reader to decide.



One of the most obvious problems when discussing The Scarlet Letter is determining the identity of the narrator. This difficulty is clearly intentional. In the second paragraph of "The Custom-House," Hawthorne claims that he is merely "explaining how a large portion of the following pages came into [his] possession," hoping to offer "proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained." Hawthorne proclaims himself only an editor, "or very little more." Yet later he states that "I have allowed myself … nearly or altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention," and all he is willing to verify is "the authenticity of the outline." Thus Hawthorne's characteristic use of ambiguity is both a central theme and a central technique of the novel.


The Scarlet Letter is rich with symbols; in fact, it is largely regarded as the first symbolic novel in America. A symbol is, like a metaphor, something that stands for, or represents, something else: an object, a person, even an idea. But the term "symbol" is used to describe a substitution with more power, or profound meaning, for which the term "metaphor" is inadequate. Of course, the scarlet letter itself is the principal symbol in the novel, but there are many others. In the first chapter the wild rosebush symbolizes dissent in its reference to the historical figure Anne Hutchinson, who led a group of religious dissenters in colonial Massachusetts. It also symbolizes Hester and even anticipates the scarlet letter that she wears. Individuals in the novel can also be understood as symbols. For instance, Arthur Dimmesdale, with all of his profound pain and suffering, is symbolic of the high value of truth and the irony of its unattainability.


Another of Hawthorne's techniques, one that so effectively immerses us in the atmosphere of his story, is his use of setting. The entire novel takes place in and around the small colonial town of Boston, Massachusetts. As Hawthorne describes it, the town is situated precariously between the sea and the great "wilderness" of unsettled America. What lies outside the town is a "black forest," strongly symbolic of moral absence and evil. Thus the narrator describes a "footpath" that straggled onward into the "mystery of the primeval forest. This [forest] hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side … that, to Hester's mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering." Here we see an almost claustrophobic pressure being evoked, which alludes to not only Hester but also the community of which she is a part, always facing the possibility of moral failure.

As seen above, Hawthorne uses color adeptly in his description of settings. Besides the black wilderness there is the gray of the village and its inhabitants, who, as the narrator describes, "seemed never to have known a youthful era." Even though it was in fact a young settlement, the town jail "was already marked with weather stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its … gloomy front." In fact, it is precisely the dark and gloomy depiction of the town that helps to provide a tension with the forest, as if the town were already much like the forest and therefore more liable to be absorbed by its influence.


While the importance of ambiguity as a theme has already been emphasized, it must still be described as one of Hawthorne's most important techniques. Repeatedly, where the reader expects to be given sure information, Hawthorne qualifies and withdraws assurance to the point that the reader is often left frustrated. In chapter sixteen even the small forest brook by which Hester discards the scarlet letter threatens Hawthorne's narration with the disclosure of meaning, and so, the surrounding "giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool." Hawthorne renders this beautiful passage to remind the reader, seemingly at every turn, that meaning, or truth, will be profoundly difficult to uncover.

Historical Context

The Transcendentalist Movement

The Scarlet Letter, which takes as its principal subject colonial seventeenth-century New England, was written and published in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne began writing the novel in 1849, after his dismissal from the Custom-House, and it was published in 1850. The discrepancy between the time represented in the novel and the time of its production has often been a point of confusion to students. Because Hawthorne took an earlier time as his subject, the novel is considered a historical romance written in the midst of the American literary movement called transcendentalism (c. 1836-60).

The principle writers of transcendentalism included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and W. H. Channing. Transcendentalism was, broadly speaking, a reaction against the rationalism of the previous century and the religious orthodoxy of Calvinist New England. Transcendentalism stressed the romantic tenets of mysticism, idealism, and individualism. In religious terms it saw God not as a distant and harsh authority, but as an essential aspect of the individual and the natural world, which were themselves considered inseparable. Because of this profound unity of all matter, human and natural, knowledge of the world and its laws could be obtained through a kind of mystical rapture with the world. This type of experience was perhaps most famously explained in Emerson's Nature, where he wrote, "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."

Even though Hawthorne was close to many transcendentalists, including Emerson, and even though he lived for a while at the transcendentalist experimental community of Brook Farm, he was rather peripheral to the movement. Hawthorne even pokes fun at Brook Farm and his transcendentalist contemporaries in "The Custom-House," referring to them as his "dreamy brethren … indulging in fantastic speculation." Where they saw the possibilities of achieving knowledge through mystical experience, Hawthorne was far more skeptical.

Abolitionism and Revolution

More important to Hawthorne's literary productions, and particularly The Scarlet Letter, was abolitionism and European revolution. These, in Hawthorne's view, were episodes of threatening instability. Abolitionism was the nineteenth-century movement to end slavery in the United States. Though it varied in intensity, abolitionism contained a very radical strain that helped to form a climate for John Brown's capture of Harpers Ferry in 1859. (John Brown intended to establish a base for armed slave insurrection.) The rising intensity and violence of abolitionism was an important cause of the Civil War. Hawthorne's conservative position in relation to abolitionism did not necessarily mean that he was pro-slavery, but he did quite clearly oppose abolitionists, writing that slavery was "one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances."

What Hawthorne feared were violent disruptions of the social order like those that were happening in Europe at the time he wrote The Scarlet Letter. The bloody social upheaval that most interested Americans began in France in 1848. This, and other revolutions of the period, pitted the lower and middle classes against established power and authority. While the revolutions eventually failed, they were largely waged under the banner of socialism, and it was this fact that caused concern in America; as one journalist wrote, as quoted by Bercovitch, here there were "foreboding shadows" of "Communism, Socialism, Pillage, Murder, Anarchy, and the Guillotine vs. Law and Order, Family and Property." Critics have recently pointed to Hawthorne's guillotine imagery in "The Custom-House" (where he even suggests the tidle "The Posthumous Papers of a Decapitated Surveyor" for his tale) and metaphors of his own victimization as some evidence of his sympathies with regard to revolution and social order.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1640s: The Puritans believed in their mission to establish a model community for the Protestant world.

    1850s: America had developed an ideology of "manifest destiny" that held that the prosperous expansion of Americans across the continent was inevitable and ordained, and implied that the country was destined to become a great global power.

    Today: America's global power seems both assured with the splitting of the Soviet Union, and a thing of the past with the rise of countries like Japan and Germany to economic power.

  • 1640s: The colonists, though not clearly provoked, fought with the Narraganset Indians against the Pequot Indians, at one point killing seven hundred Pequot men, women, and children.

    1850s: Native land claims had all but been eliminated east of the Mississippi with President Jackson's removal of the "five civilized tribes" in the late 1830s. Their bitter march to Oklahoma is known as "The Trail of Tears."

    Today: Native peoples survive. and grow in geographically dispersed areas and continue to fight legal battles over land claims.

  • 1640s: Anne Hutchinson had recently disturbed the Massachusetts Bay Colony by asserting that inward knowledge of the Holy Spirit, not outward good works, led to salvation.

    1850s: Transcendentalists disturbed orthodox religious views by claiming that God and the knowledge of his laws could be experienced by the individual open to revelation.

    Today: While religious fundamentalism is rising and many others are skeptical of religious belief, the idea that God is present in Nature, or the individual, remains popular.

  • 1640s: Women were rigidly excluded from official positions of political or religious power.

    1850s: The women's suffrage movement gained strength after the first women's rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The two principal issues were ownership of property and voting rights.

    Today: After gaining the right to vote in 1920, women now hold political offices from mayor to senator to governor. While women have made gains in the business world, they are still underrepresented in executive positions and still encounter discrimination.

The Puritan Colonies

The novel was written in the mid-nineteenth century, but it takes the mid-seventeenth century for the events it describes (1642-49). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by John Winthorp (whose death is represented near the center of the novel) and other Puritans in 1630. They sought to establish an ideal community in America that could act as a model of influence for what they saw as a corrupt civil and religious order in England. This sense of mission was the center of their religious and social identity. Directed toward the realization of such an ideal, the Puritans required a strict moral regulation; anyone in the conmmunity who sinned threatened not only their soul, but the very possibility of civil and religious perfection in America and in England. Not coincidentally, the years Hawthorne chose to represent in The Scarlet Letter were the same as those of the English Civil War fought between King Charles I and the Puritan Parliament; the latter was naturally supported by the New England colonists.

Critical Overview

Most reviewers gave Hawthorne's novel high praise at the time of its publication. Evert A. Duyckinck, one of the most influential critics of his day, called the tale a "psychological romance .… a study of character in which the human heart is anatomized, carefully, elaborately, and with striking poetic and dramatic power." He also praised Hawthorne's departure from the overly ornate writing style popular at the time, which displayed "artifice and effort at the expense of nature and ease." Duyckinck's review was supported by that of Edwin Percy Whipple, who considered the novel "deep in thought and … condensed in style." A striking theme common to both critics is Hawthorne's difference from French literary models. Both saw French fiction, particularly that of George Sand (a woman novelist), as far too immoral in its depiction of issues similar to those treated in The Scarlet Letter. Whipple wrote that the novel had "utterly undermined the whole philosophy on which the French novels rest, by seeing further and deeper into the essence both of conventional and moral laws." The terms of the anti-French attitude of those early reviewers, placing Hawthorne's positive insight into convention and morality against the French lack of such insight, is of special significance. It refers inevitably to the historical fact of the 1848 revolution in France and American anxieties about its spread overseas.

This is not to say the positive critical appraisal of Hawthorne's moral representations was unanimous. Arthur Cleveland Coxe, writing in the Church Review, considered Hawthorne's novel the story of "the nauseous amour of a Puritan pastor," who commits adultery with "a frail creature of his charge, whose mind is represented as far more debauched than her body." (However one interprets the moral order—or its lack—that Hawthorne describes, very few have considered Hester a "frail creature.")

Henry James's 1874 study, Hawthorne, stands as the first "modern" analysis of the novel, insofar as he considered it not as a work of entertainment but one of serious art. James declared that the novel was the "finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country." Yet he was put off by what he considered an almost ridiculous level of symbolic effect, writing of the scene where the scarlet letter appears in the sky above Boston as one of nearly "physical comedy" rather than high "moral tragedy." Henry James was himself a great author of literary realism, and this preference is shown in his criticism of Hawthorne's symbolism.

Most modern critics have wrangled with The Scarlet Letter's unresolved tensions. One of the most insightful, F. O. Matthiessen, describes Hawthorne's method as one of "multiple choice," where different interpretive possibilities are offered by the narrator, who withholds resolution of the reader's inevitable questions. "For Hawthorne," writes Mattheissen, the value of a particular literary moment "consisted in the variety of explanation to which it gave rise." In the climactic final scene where Dimmesdale presumably confesses and exposes the stigmata on his chest, Hawthorne leaves the reader not only with a variety of options on how the letter got there, but even questions about whether there was a mark or confession at all.

Other critics have not been generous with Hawthorne's penchant for mystery. Frederic I. Carpenter, in an essay titled "Scarlet A Minus," calls the book a classic of a "minor order," and complains that "its logic is ambiguous." Carpenter finds the narrative generally characterized by a confusion "between romantic immorality and transcendental idealism." This unresolved tension is most obvious in the character of Hester, who is at once condemned as immoral and glorified as an ideal of courage.

Hester's courage has been the positive subject of criticism by feminist readers, including Nina Baym. Baym wrote a strong and persuasive essay against male critics, particularly of the 1950s, who read the novel as a story primarily about Arthur Dimmesdale. Baym explains the critical subordination of Hester to Dimmesdale as part a masculinist ideology which held that "it would be improper for a woman character to be the protagonist in what might well be the greatest American book." Baym shows that Hester occupies by far the greater part of the novel (including the preface) and that she clearly takes full responsibility for her actions in a way that Dimmesdale does not. In short, "Hester and her behavior are associated with the ideals of passion, self-expression, freedom, and individualism against ideals of order, authority, and restraint.… Nothing in the plot shows Hester attempting to evade responsibility for her actions."

As Baym suggests, The Scarlet Letter is arguably the most important work of fiction ever written in America. Naturally, it gathers enormous critical attention. Important recent works include those by Jonathon Arac, Michael Davitt Bell, and especially, Lauren Berlant and Larry J. Reynolds. These critics are highly various, but generally speaking they have examined the way the novel elaborates—that is, both represented and helped to produce—the powerful symbols and myths of dominant American structures of power. But by far the most influential of recent studies with such an emphasis is Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office of The Scarlet Letter.

Bercovitch maintains that the most telling point in the novel is the one sentence paragraph in chapter thirteen where the narrator tells us, "the scarlet letter had not done its office." Here, according to Bercovitch, we learn that the scarlet letter "has a purpose and a goal," thus, "Hawthome's meanings may be endless, but they are not open-ended." So what is the "goal" of the scarlet letter? To transmute "opposition into complementarity." By this Becovitch means that the letter, in the end, defuses dissent and reestablishes unity: The Scarlet Letter "is a story of socialization in which the point of socialization is not to conform, but to consent. Anyone can submit; the socialized believe. It is not enough to have the letter imposed; you have to do it yourself." The scarlet letter is at first imposed on Hester by the Puritan magistrates, but this does not represent the best form of socialization because Hester does not wear it willingly but bears it as a punishment. An important turning point is the scene in the forest where she discards the letter by the brook, but then, through Pearl's imploring, takes the letter back upon her chest. Also, according to this reading, her planned escape with Pearl and Dimmesdale from Boston must fail, for leaving would represent an unwillingness to fully accept the letter. It is clear that the letter has finally accomplished its office when, after eventually going with Pearl to Europe, Hester willingly retums to the community of her shame. As Hawthome writes in the Conclusion, "She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the stemest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale." Instead of being a figure of scom and shame, she becomes a valued counsellor in the community, resolving conflict, as opposed to representing it. For Bercovitch this is an allegorical representation of an American method of controlling dissent: "To understand the office of the A … is to see how culture empowers symbolic form, including forms of dissent, and how symbols participate in the dynamics of culture, including the dynamics of constraint."


Pearl James

In the following essay, James, a doctoral candidate at Yale University, explores the historical concerns that shaped The Scarlet Letter and how Hester Prynne's emblem serves as several types of imagery.

Nathaniel Hawthome envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story to be published in a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most critics accept Hawthome's definition of it as a "romance," rather than as a novel. It usually appears with an introductory autobiographical essay, "The Custom House," in which Hawthome describes working in his ancestral village, Salem, Massachusetts, as a customs officer. Hawthome describes coming across certain documents in the customs house that provide him with the basis for The Scarlet Letter. But this essay fictionalizes the origins of the story in that it offers "proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained." Following other literary examples in early American literature, like Washington Irving's History of New York, Hawthome masks his literary invention by making it seem "historical." He calls his motivation for writing the essay "a desire to put [himself] in [his] true position as editor, or very little more." This editorial positioning indicates his interest in creating a aura of "authenticity" and historical importance for his narrative.

Not surprisingly, therefore, much criticism of The Scarlet Letter focuses on its relation to history. Many critics have investigated the Puritan laws governing adultery and searched for an historical Hester Prynne. Other critics have used clues within the tale to specify its context. For example, when Dimmesdale climbs on the scaffold at midnight, Hester and Pearl have been watching at the governor's deathbed. Charles Ryskamp associates this with the death of Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1649, and notices that celestial disturbances were actually recorded after his death. Similarly, Election Day, on which Dimmesdale's sermon commemorates the inauguration of a new Governor, can be located historically on May 2, 1649. To notice these dates, however, is to notice that Hawthome takes liberties with them. ("The Minister's Vigil" chapter takes place in "early May," not March, and so on.) His role in composing The Scarlet Letter far exceeds that of a mere "editor." The tale is an invention, and Hawthome's use of disparate historical details should be understood not only as significant, but also as symbolic.

Hawthome's interest in the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestors was deep and genuine, but complicated. He was interested in not just documenting, but creating an "authentic" past. In "The Custom House" and elsewhere in his writing, Hawthome imagines an ancestral guilt that he inherits; he takes "shame upon [himself] for their sakes." (One of his ancestors, John Hathome, ruled for executions during the Salem witch trials.) At still another level, Hawthorne invites the reader to relate The Scarlet Letter to contemporary politics of the 1840s. "The past is not dead"— it lives on in the custom house, and other contemporary political institutions. He writes The Scarlet Letter after having lost his administrative position, as a self-proclaimed "politically dead man." Hawthorne insists that the nation both enables and impedes the lives of its constituents and the telling of its histories.

In the novel's opening pages, we wait with the crowd for Hester to emerge from the prison. We overhear snatches of conversation among the women of the crowd, who express little sympathy for Hester and even wish for a harsher sentence. The narrator interrupts these bitter sentiments, which match the prison's "gloomy front," and contrasts them with a wild rosebush that blooms by the prison door. He hopes this rosebush may serve "to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found" by the reader of this "tale of human frailty and sorrow." Explicitly, then, Hawthome identifiesThe Scarlet Letter as a moral parable, which offers its readers a "sweet" and "moral" lesson. This lesson emerges from the faults made by the Puritans' early experiment in society, which the narrator consistently uses irony to deflate. He comments, for example, that "whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness" the founding Pilgrims had envisioned, a cemetery and a prison both became necessary institutions. He aims his irony not at the fact that the need for a prison arose, but at the naive fantasy that it could have been otherwise. As he does in The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne deflates the tradition of American dreams of Utopia and new social orders. In The Scarlet Letter, the fault shared by the Puritan settlers, the women outside the prison, and Arthur Dimmesdale most of all, is pious hypocrisy: they naively imagine that sin, or "human frailty and sorrow," can be avoided through denial and pretense. Chillingworth, using an assumed name and hiding his intent of revenge, becomes an increasingly diabolical villain by his own duplicity. At the other end of the spectrum, Hester Prynne, because she wears a sign of shame on the surface of her clothing, cannot feign innocence; consequently she has a greater potential for salvation and peace.

For Hawthorne, his Puritan ancestors and the society they built seemed to forget the wisdom of the great Puritan poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. Hawthorne repeatedly invokes Paradise Lost in order to reassert its vision of mankind as fallen, and its poetic dramatization of Adam and Eve's fall and expulsion from Eden. Fallen, with the world "all before them," they gain the potential for ultimate redemption. So Hester, let out of prison, "with the world before her," seems to have a better chance of redemption than her hypocritical neighbors.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne's third novel, which he personally thought was a better piece of work than The Scarlet Letter, about the cursed house of the Pyncheon family where the sins of fathers are passed on to their descendants.
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman's recent (1994) novel about an artist in a small Newfoundland coastal village, is a story of crime and adultery in a place without the religious authority of Hawthorne's Boston.
  • The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987) by Carol F. Karlsen shows that the violent Salem witch trials were not only directed primarily at women, but particularly women who stood to inherit property and, thus, power.
  • William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, (1983) is a seminal work of environmental history that describes the impact the early settlers had on New England native peoples and the environment.
  • Life in the Iron Mills (1861) by Rebecca Harding Davis is the powerful story of the physical and emotional oppression and struggle of a mid-nineteenth-century mill-worker. Published about a decade after Hawthorne's novel, it is even more of an anomaly in the context of literary transcendentalism.
  • Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" (1849) was originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government." He argues here for the right of the individual to refuse to pay taxes or otherwise support civil authority against his or her conscience. Thoreau spent some time in jail when he did not pay taxes in 1843 in protest of the Mexican War.
  • Harriet A. Jacobs' s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a kind of "romance" slave narrative that ties sexuality to race in pre-Civil War America.

Hawthorne's allusions to Paradise Lost also provide him a way of introducing the question of sexuality and woman as the site of temptation and sin. Hester Prynne repeatedly feels herself to be responsible for the sins of both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth each reinforce this interpretation. The narrator dramatizes the self-serving structure of their accusations, and calls it into question. The irony of Dimmesdale's initial entreaty to Hester illustrates this:

Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for [thy fellow-sinner]; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add hypocrisy to sin?

Dinunesdale, as he stands at a literally high place, transfers his own responsibility to acknowledge his part in the crime to Hester. Hester serves both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, and indeed the whole community, as a scapegoat. The "rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic" in her nature, which implies sexuality, is something that the community simultaneously desires and disavows. They ostracize her, but continue to consume her needle-work, surreptitiously borrowing from the exotic principle she seems to symbolize.

In this way, Hawthorne directs his irony at Puritan hypocrisy. However, he softens the didacticism (intent to teach) of his tale with the other means he uses: imagery and symbolism. Again, the rosebush should "symbolize some sweet moral blossom"—the key word is "symbolize." The novel's most important symbol, the eponymous (name-giving) scarlet letter "A," takes on several different meanings. To the townspeople, the letter has "the effect of a spell, taking [Hester] out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself." The spell of this scarlet letter is akin to that of The Scarlet Letter—the book itself. Like the community of Boston, we are invited to enter a separate sphere, where both imagination and moral growth can occur. As Hawthorne describes it in "The Custom House," modern life (of the 1840s) has a dulling effect on the mind and the spirit. In his fiction, he wants to create a richer and more challenging world. Just as the meaning of Hester's "A" gradually expands for the towns-people, meaning not just "Adultery" but also "Able," and perhaps "Angel," The Scarlet Letter has an ambiguity that opens possibilities of meaning for its readers. Readers continue to speculate on what the "A" additionally suggests: Arthur (Dimmesdale), Ambiguity, America, and so on.

The ambiguity of Hester's scarlet letter "A" has been used as a textbook case to illustrate the difference between two kinds of imagery in writing: allegory and symbolism. Allegory, in which the name of a character or a thing directly indicates its meaning, can be seen in Hawthorne's early story "Young Goodman Brown," about a young, good man. Symbolism, on the other hand, requires more interpretation; the "A," for instance, suggests many possibilities which are in themselves contradictory ("adultery" versus "angel"). Most critics understand symbolism as a more sophisticated technique, and see it as more rewarding for the reader, who must enter into the text in order to tease out its possible meanings. In The Scarlet Letter, this act of interpretation outside the text mirrors what happens in the story itself.

The narrator of The Scarlet Letter continually provides more than one interpretation of events. When the strange light shines in the sky during "The Minister's Vigil," it makes "all visible, but with a singularity of aspect that [seems] to give another moral interpretation to the things of this world than they had ever borne before." The narrator only reports a "light." He suggests that Dimmesdale reads it as a giant "A"—his own secret sin writ large in the heavens—because of his "highly disordered mental state." But this account is in turn undermined when the sexton and the townsfolk also read a large "A" in the sky, which they "interpret to stand for angel."

These moments suggest that part of the appeal of The Scarlet Letter is the act of reading itself. Hawthorne dramatizes the effect of reading most clearly through Pearl. Up until a certain point, she is more a symbol than a character. The narrator comments, as Pearl dances by, "It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life." But at a particular moment, Pearl ceases to be a symbol, an "it," and becomes human. That moment occurs on the scaffold, when she kisses her father; his grief transforms her, by calling upon "all her sympathies." This moment emblematizes the moral effect that aesthetic philosophers of the nineteenth century believed literature and art could have on their audiences. Hawthorne, by inscribing such a moment, puts forth high aesthetic claims for his work. The fact that Pearl—here the figure for an ideal reader—is feminine may suggest that Hawthorne has a feminine audience in mind. Occasionally, Hawthorne seems to voice a certain anxiety about the fact that aesthetic appreciation is "seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth," and whether or not writing might have a disturbingly feminizing effect on writers and readers. On the other hand, work as a customs officer poses a threat to "self reliance" and "manly character"—a threat Hawthorne escapes by returning to writing. In any case, the scene of Pearl's transformation, as the text's central moment of redemption and resolution, emphasizes the importance of the emotions in a richly lived and moral life. In this way, Hawthorne seems to bring two opposites together. Pearl, as a younger, virginal version of her mother, neutralizes the threat Hester initially posed. Hawthome brings the possibility of sensual and feeling feminine character back into the realm of moral life.

Source: Pearl James, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997.

Richard B. Sewall

In the following excerpt, Sewall discusses Hawthorne's introductory essay, and the emphasis on ambiguity throughout The Scarlet Letter.

There is something reminiscent of now familiar processes in Hawthorne's account of the origin and growth of the idea of The Scarlet Letter in the introductory essay to the novel, "The Custom House." He tells (albeit whimsically) of finding one day the scarlet letter itself—"that certain affair of fine red cloth"—in his rummagings about the Custom House and of how it, and the old manuscript which told its story, set him to certain somber musings. The old story of a bygone, dire event and its decaying symbol rayed out meanings to his imagination as surely as the ancient myths and legends revealed new meanings to the Greek and Elizabethan dramatists. "Certainly [Hawthorne writes], there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating it to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind." The "half a dozen sheets of foolscap" of Mr. Surveyor Pue's account of the letter, which seemed at first glance to give "a reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair," stood to the novel as (we might hazard) the ancient legend of Oedipus stood to Sophocles, or Holinshed's account of Lear's story to Shakespeare. With mock apology, Hawthorne acknowledged the liberties he took with Pue's document: "I must not be understood as affirming, that, in the dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it, I have invariably confined myself within the limits of the old Surveyor's half a dozen sheets of foolscap." Meditating upon the simple outlines of Hester's story as the old document recorded it, Hawthorne asked, as it were, the existential questions: What (to Hester) did it mean to be a woman of flesh and blood, caught in that situation of guilt but sanctioned by a kind of inner necessity, the promptings of her own high spirit, which neither she nor her pious lover could repudiate as entirely evil ("What we did had a consecration of its own.")? What did it feel like to live through a dilemma so potent with destructive possibilities? What must have been the impact on a powerful yet sensitive nature? Is there not here, too, a "boundary-situation" sufficient to call in question man's very conception of himself and what he lives by?

Hester's religious heritage and her community pronounced her utterly guilty; she had sinned "in the most sacred quality of human life." She was ostracized, imprisoned, and put on trial for her life: "This woman [said one of her persecutors] has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book." In her extremity, what was she to do? To accept the community's verdict of total guilt would be to renounce the element of "consecration" she knew to be true of her relationship with Dimmesdale; and yet to renounce the community in the name of her consecration was equally unthinkable. She had sinned, and she knew guilt. But hers was no passive nature and, from some mysterious promptings of her own being, she took action in the only way she knew how; in the dim light of her prison cell, she embroidered the scarlet letter—with matchless artistry and in brilliant hue.

That is, she accepted, yet defied. She wore the "A" as the sign of her sin, which she publicly acknowledged—but she wore it on her own terms. Preserving a margin of freedom, she asserted the partial justice of her cause. The letter, when she appeared in public, "had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself." Facing the Puritan crowd, she could have cursed them—and God—and died, either spiritually, or actually by suicide (she thought of suicide in prison). She could have revealed the name of her lover and got a mitigation of sentence, or prostrated herself in guilt and got the sympathy of the community. Instead, she decided to "maintain her own ways" before the people and her judges—though it slay her. Her final answer was to live out her dilemma in full acceptance of the suffering in store.

In the penultimate chapter of the novel, as Hawthorne prepares for the climactic revelation of the scarlet letter, he himself sums up the result of his meditations on Surveyor Pue's brief summary. With Hester and Pearl headed for the scaffold to join Dimmesdale, "Old Roger Chillingworth," he writes, "followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene."

It had been the work of the Enlightenment, the Romantics, and (in America) the Transcendentalists, so to shift the perspective on man and his problems as to render needless or meaningless or irrelevant (as they thought) this "drama of guilt and sorrow" which Hawthorne saw in the old story. Emerson was aware of the contrarieties of life and of the soul's struggle, but neither he nor his fellow Transcendentalists saw in them the stuff of drama, much less tragic drama. It was for Hawthorne, who "alone in his time," writes Allen Tate [in On the Limits of Poetry, 1948], "kept pure, in the primitive terms, the primitive vision," to transmute "the puritan drama of the soul," which for the faithful ended in the New Jerusalem, into tragic drama. The essence of Hester's seven-year course is conflict—of Hester with her self, her society, and her God. The conflict throughout is fraught with ambiguity, with goods and bads inextricably mixed, and constantly and bitterly recognized as such by Hester. Contrarieties are never resolved, and the issues of the soul's struggles are unsettled either way. "Is not this better," murmured Dimmesdale to Hester after the confession on the scaffold, "than what we dreamed of in the forest?"—to which Hester could only reply: "I know not! I know not!"

This is the sum of Hester's seven years of penance and agonized self-questioning. The Puritan code, which tortured and yet sustained her, failed in the end to answer her question. And in the multiple ambiguities of action and character, in the prevailing "tenebrism" of the novel, in the repeated images of the maze, the labyrinth, the weary and uncertain path, Hawthorne sets (by indirection) the Emersonian promise in a harsh and tragic light. Hester and Dimmesdale had "trusted themselves"; their hearts had "vibrated to that iron string." And it was not entirely wrong, the novel says, that they should have done so. But Hawthorne, in the true vein of tragedy, dealt not with doctrinaire injunctions but with actions in their entirety, with special regard, in this instance, for their consequences—a phase to which Emerson was singularly blind. These consequences, Hawthorne saw, are never clear, they involve man not only externally as a social being but internally, to his very depths, and they can be dire.…

The seven-year action which is precipitated by Hester's Antigone-like independence, or (to the Puritan judges) stubbornness, involved her and those whom it touched intimately in deep suffering and loss of irretrievable values. Hester lost her youth, her beauty, her promise of creativity, and any sure hope she might have had of social or domestic happiness. She lost Dimmesdale, whom a full confession at the outset might have brought to her side, and whose life was ultimately ruined anyway. She was the cause of Chillingworth's long, destructive, and self-destructive course of revenge. She anguished over Pearl's bleak and bitter childhood. Her own loneliness and isolation, especially for one of so warm and rich a nature, was a constant sorrow and reminder of her guilt, a kind of suffering which Antigone or Medea, who in other ways are not unlike her, never knew in similar quality or duration. And in the end, she knew not whether she had done right or wrong. She goes out of our ken, a gray figure (still wearing her scarlet letter resumed "of her own free will"), and, "wise through dusky grief," giving comfort and counsel to the perplexed or forlorn.

If a major salvage from her experience is this hard-won wisdom of Hester's, it is not the only point of light in the dark world of mysteries and riddles that the novel in general portrays. By her stand Hester asserted her own values against the inherited and inhumane dogma of her community as surely as Prometheus, in Aeschylus' play, asserted his own sense of justice against Zeus. In both instances the suffering of the hero "made a difference." Hester humanized the community that would have cast her out, even put her to death. She forced it to reassess its own severe and absolute dogmas, as Antigone forced a reassessment in Thebes, or Hamlet in Elsinore, or Prometheus on Olympus. She envisioned and in quiet corners whispered of it to those who would hear, a "brighter period … a new truth … to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." If Dimmesdale perished because of the ordeal her action plunged him into, it was not before he had achieved a measure of heroic strength and a new insight which in the normal course would never have been his. When he died he was "ready" as he had never been before. At his death Pearl achieved a new humanity: "The great scene of grief in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it." Hester, Dimmesdale, and now Pearl learned what it is "to be men and women in it"—what it means to be.

Dimmesdale in his faith died praising God—a religious death. Hester lived out her "tragic" existence, giving counsel but, "stained with sins, bowed down with shame," denied the prophetic voice she might have raised, still believing, yet not believing (as witness the "A" which she wore to the end) in herself. "After many, many years," she was buried with her lover, and even her burial, like everything else in her life, was ambiguous. She was buried next to Dimmesdale, "yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had. no right to mingle." No right to mingle? In the first scene of the novel, Hawthorne had said of Hester's judges: "They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil." Had Hester's and Dimmesdale's deed a "consecration of its own," or had it not? The Puritan judges said no. Even Hawthorne, speaking through the novel as a whole, suspends judgment. "We know not. We know not." Dimmesdale, the believer, could look forward to the last day "when all hidden things shall be revealed," when "the dark problem of this life" shall be made plain. But in this life he had wandered in a maze, "quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence." So, to a close and scrupulous observer like Hawthorne, it must ever be. The pathway is beset with pitfalls and dubious choices. The shrewd pick their way warily. The passionate are likely to stumble or go wrong, and "good intentions" have no bearing on the inevitable penalty, which often far exceeds the crime. This is hard, but, to the heroic in heart, no cause for despair. There is wisdom to be won from the fine hammered steel of woe; a flower to be plucked from the rosebush at the prison door "to relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." To relieve, but not to reverse or redeem.

Source: Richard B. Sewall, "The Scarlet Letter," in The Vision of Tragedy, new edition, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 86–91.

Bruce Ingham Granger

Granger, a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, maintains that The Scarlet Letter is not Hester's story but that of Dimmesdale, whose confession bridges the gap between illusion and reality, or the ideal and actuality, thus making him a true tragic hero.

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Source: Bruce Ingham Granger, "Arthur Dimmesdale as Tragic Hero," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2, September, 1964, pp. 197-203.


Nina Baym, "Plot in Hawthorne's Romances," Ruined Eden of the Present, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 49-70.

Sacvan Bercovitch, The Office of the Scarlet Letter, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Frederic 1. Carpenter, "Scarlet A Minus," College English, Vol. 5, 1944, pp. 173-80.

Arthur Cleveland Coxe, "The Writings of Hawthorne," Church Review, January, 1851, pp. 489-511.

Evert A. Duyckinck, Review in Literary World, March 30, 1850, pp. 323-25.

Henry James, Hawthorne, Macmillan & Co, London, 1879.

F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, Oxford University Press, 1941.

Edwin Percy Whipple, Review in Graham's Magazine, May, 1850, pp. 345-46.

For Further Study

Lauren Gail Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

A discussion of the connections between The Scarlet Letter and the politics and political character of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, including the concept of utopia as it was applied to American democracy.

Richard H. Brodhead, The School of Hawthorne, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Explores the critical reputation of Hawthorne and how the prevailing literary thought of the day helped create a "school" around his work that led to his inclusion in the literary canon. A good history of Hawthorne's critical reputation.

Critical Essays on Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter', edited by David B. Kesterson, G. K. Hall, 1988.

A collection of previously published criticism on Hawthorne's novel.

Critical Response to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter,' edited by Gary Scharnhorst, Greenwood Press, 1992.

Another collection of critical essays by several critics on the novel.

Louise A. DeSalvo, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harvester Press, 1987.

A feminist analysis of Hawthorne's work which decries the misogyny in his texts.

Kenneth Marc Harris, Hypocrisy and Self-deception in Hawthorne's Fiction, University Press of Virginia, 1988.

A study which focuses on Hawthorne's preoccupation with hypocrisy, relating it to the author's fascination with the Puritans.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarkt Letter' edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

An edition of the novel that contains a helpful introduction by a noted literary critic.

New Essays on 'The Scarlet Letter,' edited by Michael J. Colacurcio, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

A collection of original critical assessments of Hawthorne's novel.

Leland S. Person, Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne, University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Person's analysis of these authors' difficulties in creating artistic depictions of female characters suggests the need for a "masculine poetics." Devotes a whole chapter to The Scarlet Letter.

Larry J. Reynolds, "The Scarlet Letter and Revolutions Abroad," American Literature, Vol. 77, 1985, pp 44-67.

Reynolds shows how Hawthorne viewed and was influenced by the European revolutions that began in 1848.

Alfred F. Rosa, Salem, Transcendentalism, and Hawthorne, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.

A study of several of Hawthorne's historical influences, including the witch trials in Massachusetts and the new Transcendentalist school of religious thought.

Charles Ryskamp, "The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter," American Literature XXX, November 1959, pp. 257-272.

A look at some of the historical events that may have inspired the plot and writing of Hawthorne's novel.

Charles Swann, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tradition and Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

A literary analysis of Hawthorne's work that offers much historical background which can be applied to several readings of the author's work.

Margaret Olofson Thickstun, Fictions of the Feminine: Puritan Doctrine and the Representation of Women Cornell University Press, 1988.

An excellent summary of how Puritan views of women have influenced literary works such as The Scarlet Letter.

Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'The Scarlet Letter': A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John C. Gerber, Prentice-Hall, 1968.

A collection of important and groundbreaking essays on Hawthorne's novel which discuss the novel's structure and themes and Hawthorne's technique and sources. Includes bibliography.

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