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The Scarlet Letter


Custom House
Chapter 1 & 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24



Questions for study with ideas for answers

Q: There are three pivotal scenes in the story. What are they? What significance do they have to the story?  What do they have in common?

Ideas: The 1st scaffold scene.   In Chapter 2, this sets the scene for the whole novel. It explains Hester’s humble position in the society and graphically describes the humiliation she suffers.

The Minister’s vigil.    In Chapter 12, we return again to the scaffold, but instead of noon, it is in the dead of night, and Dimmesdale is approaching madness over the torment he suffers in hiding his adultery with Hester.  The scene has supernatural overtones when light from a meteor causes a strange glow, which Dimmesdale interprets as a sign from God.

The revelation of the scarlet letter.  In Chapter 23, the climax of the story unfolds when Dimmesdale joins with Hester and their daughter to confess his sin publicly.  It has taken the Minister all these years to expose his guilt, done so admirably by Hester at the start of the story.

These Chapters set the scene for the story and are pivotal to the plot.  They bring together the four main characters of the story and Hawthorne provides great tension and suspense for the reader.  In particular, the second scene enables the plot to develop more quickly, and also divides the book into two clear parts.

All three of these scenes take place at the scaffold, which is the focal point of the town, and also the plot.


Q: ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is full of symbolism.  Expand on this and provide examples.


Ideas: Here are a few examples:-

Chapter 1 – Outside the prison is a plot of weeds, which surround a beautiful rose bush. This symbolizes Hester, who is surrounded by the drab Puritans.

Chapter 5 – Hester’s home lies between the town and the wilderness, which symbolizes Hester’s position in the Puritan society. She is outside the community, but she is not part of the wilderness, as she still follows the Puritan way of life.

Chapter 6 – Pearl’s character is shown to be mischievous and rebellious. This is a symbol that her birth arose from a sinful union between Hester and Dimmesdale.  Hawthorne wishes to show that her behavior is a direct result of the sinful passion that conceived her.  However, his final comment is that good can come from evil, for Pearl apparently ends up leading a full and balanced life.

Chapter 7 – Hester and Pearl observe their reflections in the Armour in the Governor’s house.  As Hester moves, the scarlet A distorts and becomes larger and envelops her reflection, just as her sin covers her.

Chapter 16 – When Hester and Pearl enter the woods, they take a narrow, winding path, which symbolizes the narrow way they take through the moral wilderness that surrounds them.  The path of the Puritan is difficult when there is so much temptation in the world around. Further on, Pearl is reluctant to cross the brook and return to Hester and Dimmesdale.  The brook symbolizes the dividing line between the wilderness where she is happy and the Puritan society that she naturally rebels against.

Generally, Hawthorne uses symbolism in conveying to the reader traits of the characters in the book.  Hester’s beauty symbolizes rebellion against the drab Puritans.  Chillingworth’s crooked body symbolizes his evil. Dimmesdale’s mental and physical decline symbolize the sin he suppresses.


Q: Hawthorne’s family history clearly influences his writings and his criticism of the Puritanical society of Massachusetts.  Illustrate this.

Ideas: The Puritans came to New England with a determination to purify the Church of England. They gave themselves a set of rules by which to live their lives, which were in practice impossible to adhere to. This is evident by the fact that as well as building a church, they built a prison in which to house those who could not abide by their Puritanical rules. It is clear that many in the society depart from the teachings of the ‘church’ as there is evidence of satanic meetings held in secret. This came to the fore during the witch-hunts where many were executed for witchcraft. Hawthorne emphasizes this in his written work and suggests that the Puritan society acts as a catalyst for evoking the dark side of human nature.  His final point of irony occurs at the end of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ when Dimmesdale’s adoring flock who regard him as almost saint-like are shocked when he reveals his sin on the scaffold after inspiring them with his best sermon. It shows that humans are fallible and will be tempted by sin, and it is folly to try and dictate to a community how they should live their lives, down to the smallest detail.


Q: Give reasons why you think Dimmesdale did not confess his sin when Hester was being punished?

Ideas: Leave aside the fact that if he had confessed early in the novel, there would be no real interest in the story.

Could he have been a coward unable to reveal to his flock that he had let them down?

Did he consider confessing in Chapter 1 as an easy opt-out?

Did he love God more than Hester?

Did he view his affair with Hester as a minor lapse, and compared to his vocation to lead his community, rather trivial, and if so leave the punishment up to God and not his parishioners? Was Dimmesdale a masochist choosing to punish himself?

Had he been brainwashed by the doctrines of the Puritans, and therefore believed that he was not entitled to real happiness, and that what Hester offered was inherently evil?

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