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Scarlet Letter, The


SCARLET LETTER, THE. Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1850, the year in which the Clay Compromise postponed the American Civil War, The Scarlet Letter is a romance set in the years from 1642 to 1649, when Puritans were fighting the English civil war over the ultimate meaning of England, and Puritans in the Boston of Hawthorne's story were attempting to label Hester Prynne. A woman taken in adultery, she must wear the letter A on her chest for all to see, yet she surrounds it with beautiful stitching, so that it advertises not only her shame, but also her skill as a seamstress. She refuses to name her lover, the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale; keeps her word not to reveal the identity of her husband, now calling himself Roger Chillingworth; and raises her daughter, Pearl, on her own, living at the edge of town, near the wild forest and the open sea.

As its title suggests, the book is about labeling, about the Puritan and later the American desire to eliminate ambiguity, to get the meanings right. The tale shows that even so simple a label as the first letter of the alphabet is full of burgeoning meanings dependent upon changing contexts. After Hester's competence and usefulness to the community become evident, some think the letter stands for "able." When an A appears in the sky at Governor John Winthrop's death, they think it stands for "angel." Since historical Puritans convicted of adultery were made to wear the letters AD on their sleeves, critics have noted that these are Dimmesdale's initials and concluded that the A also represents Arthur. Anne Hutchinson of the Antinomian Controversy is explicitly mentioned in the text, so the letter also represents Anne and Antinomian. Readers may well conclude that the A can mean almost anything, even America, where we still struggle to reinscribe the labels that others put on us.

Destroyed by his lie and guilt, Dimmesdale dies in Hester's arms, and some see a scarlet A on his chest. Destroyed by his single-minded quest for vengeance, Chillingworth bequeaths his vast estates to Pearl, who leaves America to live abroad, depriving America of all she represents. The book ends with an allusion to Andrew Marvell's poem "The Unfortunate Lover," in which the lover lives on in story. So does Hester Prynne, perhaps the first fully realized female character in American fiction, whose meanings continue to attract new readers.


Colacurcio, Michael J., ed. New Essays on "The Scarlet Letter." New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Crain, Patricia. The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from "The New England Primer" to "The Scarlet Letter." Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Reynolds, Larry J., ed. A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Robert Daly

See also Literature .

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