The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
This book has been challenged or banned historically by people who object to its sexual implications, disrespect for religious and political authority and emotionally disturbing scenes, including unfair punishment, social ostracizing, and implications of the occult. The author’s relative was a judge at the Salem witch trials; we figure he must have felt some inherited guilt.
“… the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne
Who is this Nathaniel Hawthorne?
• Novelist and short story writer, central figure in American Renaissance.
• Best-known works include The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
• Like Edgar Allan Poe, took a dark view of human nature.
• Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804.
• Father, also Nathaniel, sea captain and descendent of John Hawthorne, judge in Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.
• Father died when young Nathaniel was four year old.
• Grew up in seclusion with widowed mother Elizabeth.
• Educated at Bowdoin College (1821-24). In school, friends included poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, 14th president of the U.S.
• Between 1825 and 1836 worked as writer.
• Published first novel, Fanshawe, at his own expense in 1828.
• In 1842 became friends with Concord Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
• In 1842 married artist Sophia Peabody, an active Transcendentalist, settling together in Concord.
• With growing family and debts, returned to Salem, where Hawthorne earned living as writer and in 1846 was appointed surveyor of the Port of Salem, working there for three years until fired.
• The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, was critical and popular success.
• Hawthorne was one of first American writers to explore characters’ hidden motivations.
• In 1853, when Franklin Pierce became President, Hawthorne, who had written his campaign biography, was appointed consul in Liverpool, England for four years, and then spent a year and half in Italy writing The Marble Faun (1860).
• Died May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, N.H. on a trip to the mountains with Franklin Pierce.
• The Scarlet Letter has been challenged and banned on social and religious grounds and under claims that it is “pornographic and obscene.”
What do you think about The Scarlet Letter?
1. Some critics think the story of Hester and Dimmesdale echoes the story of Adam and Eve – that they are expelled from the Garden for eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In what ways do you see this theme in the story? Expulsion from society? Knowledge? Good and evil? What is the result of all this on these characters?
2. How do characters in the novel define evil? The “Black Man in the forest”? Chillingworth? Mistress Hibbins? Pearl? What do puritans see as evil? What do you see as evil?
3. What is Hester’s reaction to her punishment? Why does she react as she does? Why doesn’t she take off the letter when she is allowed to? Why does she return to Boston rather than staying in Europe with Pearl?
4. How do you explain Dimmesdale’s reaction to Hester’s punishment? Why doesn’t he come forward sooner? Does he have more to lose? How is he affected by this decision? What is the effect on him of his guilt? Can you imagine a modern-day Dimmesdale?
5. What do you make of the difference between civilization and wilderness in the novel? What takes place where and what does it mean? What can you say about civilized society, as compared to untamed nature?
6. What do you notice about the characters’ feelings about night and day? What does that suggest? Why?
7. What does the Scarlet Letter symbolize? What does it represent to Hester, as well as to the rest of her society? Where might you see a modern-day Scarlet Letter?
8. What should we think about Pearl’s characterization? What do you notice about her behavior, or about the things she says?
9. In what way is Scarlet Letter a story about American Puritanism? Do you see evidence of Puritan values – good or ill – in your world today?
10. Why would this book be banned?