Hester Prynne is a beautiful young woman. She is also an outcast. In the eyes of her neighbours she has committed an unforgivable sin. Everyone knows that her little daughter Pearl is the product of an illicit affair but no one knows the identity of Pearl’s father. Hester’s refusal to name him brings more condemnation upon her. But she stands strong in the face of public scorn, even when she is forced to wear the sign of her shame sewn onto her clothes: the scarlet letter “A” for “Adulteress.”
The story of Hester Prynne–found out in adultery, pilloried by her Puritan community, and abandoned, in different ways, by both her partner in sin and her vengeance-seeking husband–possesses a reality heightened by Hawthorne’s pure human sympathy and his unmixed devotion to his supposedly fallen but fundamentally innocent heroine.
In its moral force and the beauty of its conciliations, The Scarlet Letter rightly deserves its stature as the first great novel written by an American, the novel that announced an American literature equal to any in the world.
(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)
Excerpted from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. . Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1805-64) was an American novelist and short-story writer. He was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and graduated from Bowdoin College. His first novel, Fanshawe, was published anonymously in 1828, followed by several collections of short stories, including Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. His later novels include The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun.
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.