A stark and allegorical tale of adultery, guilt, and social repression in Puritan New England, The Scarlet Letter
is a foundational work of American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s exploration of the dichotomy between the public and private self, internal passion and external convention, gives us the unforgettable Hester Prynne, who discovers strength in the face of ostracism and emerges as a heroine ahead of her time. As Kathryn Harrison points out in her Introduction, Hester is "the herald of the modern American heroine, a mother of such strength and stature that she towers over her progeny much as she does the citizens of Salem."
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Hawthorne came from a long line of Puritans (one of his forefathers was a judge during the Salem witch trials), and Puritan beliefs about subjects like guilt, repression, original sin, and discipline inform the book on every level. What is your impression of how the Puritan worldview is taken up and treated by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter?"
2. Kathryn Harrison, in her Introduction to this volume, asserts that Hester Prynne can be seen in many ways as the first great modern heroine in American literature. Do you agree?
3. Dimmesdale is in many ways as central a character as Hester in the novel; for you as a reader, is he equally important to the story?
4. The highly charged symbolism of The Scarlet Letter is one of its most distinctive features. Discuss the central symbol of the story – the scarlet letter itself. What does it signify? How does it function in the novel? How does its meaning change over time?
5. Critics have sometimes disagreed about whether Hawthorne condones or condemns the adultery of Hester and Dimmesdale in the novel. Can either view be supported? Which do you feel is the case?
6. Describe and discuss the character of Roger Chillingworth in the novel. What does he represent in terms of the larger themes explored by the book?
7. How does Hester change over time in the novel-and how does she change in the eyes of the society around her?
8. The final scaffold scene brings the various themes, characters, and plotlines woven throughout the novel to a powerful conclusion. Describe your response to this scene, and to the disputed event that occurs near its end.