December 27, 2015

Classic Conversations | The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter Discussion

Disclaimer- These are just my thoughts on a classic novel. They are not intended as a study guide for an English test that you forgot to study for. My opinions may vary from other people's, even yours. Please respect my opinions as I will respect yours. 

Also, this is a discussion of the entire novel, which includes the ending. Basically, there will be spoilers about everything. Read at your own risk.

The Scarlet Letter is one of the classic classics. Almost every high school (or even college) student has (or should have) read it at some point in their English career. It is a story that teachers frequently use as examples and is the topic of a plethora of essays.

It is idolized in the literary world due to its blatant symbolism, dominant themes of religion and hypocrisy, and its revelations about human nature. 

Students know it better as the book that is way to obsessed with a stupid red letter. 

But, that is the magic of this book. The scarlet letter is so much more than a piece of fabric. In order to fully understand and appreciate the novel, you have to look past the superficial appearance of the novel and dive a little bit deeper, which I know is daunting. But with a little bit of guidance, this book could become one of your favorites.


Hester starts the novel in jail for the crime of adultery. Most people who commit this crime are given the death penalty, but since Hester's husband was assumed to be dead, she was exempt from that fate. Instead, she is given a lifetime of public humiliation in the form of a scarlet letter A that she must wear everyday for the rest of her life. In addition to wearing the incriminating letter on her chest, Hester was also subjected to standing on a scaffold holding her baby in front of the entire town for three hours in a twisted form of public shaming. During this time, Hester sees her husband for the first time in years. 

Her husband, Roger Chillingsworth, swears revenge on the mystery man who committed adultery with his wife. This quest for retribution will eventually lead to his demise. 

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the father of Hester's child and her partner in adultery, leaves the initial encounter unscathed. The town does not know who the father of Hester's child is or who committed the crime with her. Dimmesdale spends the novel in guilt for keeping his sin a secret and resorts to self-punishment in the forms of starvation, constant vigils that led to exhaustion, and even whipping himself. 

Throughout the years, Hester lives with her now grown daughter Pearl on the edge of the village in isolation. There is a constant threat from the church to take away her daughter and put her in "more capable hands." So, Hester must prove that she is a worthy mother and is not just the woman who cheated on her husband. 

Eventually, the ailing Dimmesdale and Hester rekindle their relationship. But, Chillingsworth is bent on keeping them apart once he learns their secret. They attempt to flee to the Old World, or back to Europe, but the plan is foiled by Chillingsworth. 

Dimmesdale ends the story with his last sermon. He confesses that he is Pearl's father and Hester's partner in crime. Then, due to his constant mistreatment of himself, he dies with what looks like a scarlet letter etched into his chest. Chillingsworth dies not long after due to the darkness that seeped into his heart on the journey to revenge.

Hester and Pearl eventually move on with their lives. Hester makes it her life's purpose to help the poor and the disadvantaged. She continues to wear the scarlet letter, which becomes to mean "able" instead of being a representation of the sin that she committed so long ago. Pearl inherits her father's money and lives a happy life. 

Major Themes

Hypocrisy - The idea of hypocrisy is dominant throughout the novel, specifically through the Puritan society and Reverend Dimmesdale's adultery. The Puritan society was supposed to be the pinnacle of morality. Basically, they were all supposed to be goody-two-shoes but ended up more like devils. They used their religion as a weapon to hurt anyone who was different or violated their strict religious laws. Hester falls into this category. She sins and is immediately shunned from their community. They leave Hester and her daughter out in the woods alone to fend for themselves. If the Puritans were really moral, wouldn't they welcome Hester and Pearl despite the sin and help them? 

The other example of hypocrisy in the novel in Arthur Dimmesdale's adultery and failure to confess to the crime until the final pages of the novel. As a minister and reverend, Dimmesdale is supposed to be the role model for the rest of the community. But, he ends up hiding his sin from everyone and continuing to be their pastor despite his secret. 

Corruption of the Puritan Society - This whole novel was basically a massive insult to the Puritans. 

Fun Fact: Nathan Hawthorne's ancestors were judges in the Salem Witch Trials and ended up sentencing dozens of people to death.
Due to his history and information on the past, Hawthorne has a beef with the strict, severely religious, and hypocritical Puritan society. He points out all of the flaws of the community, such as their fear of anything different. 

Guilt - Most of the characters in the novel, most notably Dimmesdale and Hester, severely suffer from guilt. It is shown through Hester's and Dimmesdale's different reactions that guilt can either be overcome or be overwhelming. Dimmesdale succumbs to the guilt and allows it to take over his life. He constantly tortures himself to make up for his sin and satisfy his guilt. Unfortunately, it is shown as the end of the novel that the only way to permanently relieve his guilt was to confess. But it was too late. 

On the other hand, Hester faces her guilt and overcomes it. At first, she questions whether she is able to be a good mother and an upstanding member of the community, but she learns the accept herself for who she is, regardless of her past mistakes. She uses her scarlet letter as a reminder to herself and the community that sin an guilt can be conquered.

The Scarlet Letter shows that you cannot escape guilt. If you do something bad, you will inevitably be caught in a stream of guilt. And the longer you try to suppress and deny the guilt, the more likely you are to drown. You may think that you are floating along in a lifesaver or with a pair of floaties securely attached to your arms, but you are really still lost in a sea of turmoil and regret. Dimmesdale is the example of a person who succumbs to the water and slips into the waves, while Hester shows that if you are strong enough to swim on your own you will eventually get to dry land again.

How has guilt impacted your life? Have you ever pretended to be someone or something that you are not, like the Puritans? Can you relate to Dimmesdale's struggle with guilt and his ultimate surrender?


The Scarlet Letter- If you get one thing out of this discussion or even out of this book, it is that the scarlet letter is just not a piece of fabric. I know that symbolism is one of the hardest concepts to grasp while reading classics, but once you dig into the story you should be able to pick a few out. Or in this case, you should know that the scarlet letter is a symbol after you read the title.

In my opinion, the scarlet letter that Hester wears throughout the novel is the strongest and most important symbol in the novel. The scarlet letter can mean different things to different readers, and any interpretation is good. To me, the scarlet letter is a symbol of hope and strength in a world that does not accept those who are "different." 

To the characters in the novel, the scarlet letter starts as a symbol of shame and sin. This is easy to see from all of the townspeople's brash and insulting comments about Hester and their shunning of her and her family. Even Hester's daughter, Pearl, seems to know the evil that the letter represents. She playfully suggests, in that cute but incredibly creepy way that only kids can, that she knows why her mother was sentenced to wear that letter. 

But, toward the end of the novel, the letter's symbolism seems to transform into something less dark and more inspiring. Over the years, Hester slowly regains her position in the community. She even becomes a mother-figure to the poor, hungry, and lonely of the town. The same people who shunned her for one mistake begged her to help them with their struggles. Ironic, isn't it? So, the scarlet letter comes to mean "able" instead of "guilty sinner who does not deserve our attention."

What do you think the scarlet letter symbolizes? Do you have your own version of a "scarlet letter"?

The Rosebush- The rosebush is often an overlooked and under-appreciated symbol in the novel. True, it was only mentioned once or twice in the novel, but it sets the scene for theme of the novel. In the first pages of the book, Hester walks into the foreboding prison. At first, all she sees is this massive, dark, and frankly terrifying door that will separate her from the world for the next couple of months. But, right next to the imposing front door, a rosebush shows its beautiful flowers. In contrast to the terror of the door and the prison it protects, the rosebush is a symbol of hope. 

Having a rosebush grow outside a prison is extremely weird, right? I mean, what would a beautiful rose be doing next to a place full of prisoners? The answer is the symbol that Hawthorne is trying to convey. Even the darkest, scariest, and most terrifying place has its own rosebush. No matter where you go, there will always be hope. 

So the next time you go to the dentist to get your cavity filled in or when you go to school on a big test day, look for your own rosebush.

What do you think the rosebush represents? What is an example of a rosebush in your life? Have you ever found hope in a dark place? 

Connect to Today's World

Believe it or not, public shaming still exists in our world today. It may not commonly be in the form of standing on a scaffold as the entire town stares at you in disgust, but there are definitely modern forms of public shaming. 

One of the most prevalent is the media. Think of how many times you watch the news or read the newspaper and a criminal is on the front page. Their whole life is spelled out in the story as well as their crime. This leads to the public knowing about their guilt and their shame, allowing society to judge them all that they want.

Also, think about all of the nasty political commercials that are about to rear their ugly heads again. Candidates bash other candidates in any way that they can. 

There are also all of those tabloids that criticize the lives of the rich and the famous. The TV shows that exploit the lives of the famous in order to turn a profit. Isn't this a form of public shaming?

Is it necessary to provide all of the details about a criminal? Can the media be used to publicly shame people?
Fun Fact: The popular movie, Easy A, starring Emma Stone and Amanda Bynes is based on The Scarlet Letter.

Connect to YA books

Slut-shaming is a common trend in YA books. This means that characters are criticized for their sexuality and what they choose to do with it. Hester's exile and public shaming is an extreme reaction of slut-shaming from the Puritan community. 

Some examples of slut-shaming YA books:

The Truth about Alice by Jennifer Mathieu * Forever by Judy Blume * V is for Virgin * The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart

Even thought it is less prominent than the slut-shaming, there is also a twisted kind of love triangle in the novel between Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingsworth. 

Have you read The Scarlet Letter? What did you think the themes and symbols were? What other classics would you like to discuss?

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