English 220 – American Literature I

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

The Scarlet Letter – Discussion Questions


*from Teaching with The Norton Anthology American Literature


1. Explicate character, theme, language patterns, style, use of point of view, setting, or design in The Scarlet Letter.*


2. View the video adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. What do the significant changes from Hawthorne’s text in the Hollywood production suggest about contemporary issues, attitudes, concerns?


3. Explain what Melville means by Hawthorne’s “blackness” in his essay Hawthorne and His Mosses (page 2201) and discuss it with specific references to The Scarlet Letter.*


4. Explore the moral ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter. What does reading the novel do to the reader’s ability to discern “good” and “evil” characters.*


5. Consider Hawthorne’s representation of Hester Prynne? What attitudes inform his portrait of this woman?*


6. Consider the relationship between “The Custom-House” and The Scarlet Letter. Where does the narrator stand in each work? In what ways might we consider “The Custom-House” an integral part of the longer fiction? Consider the particular use of “The Custom-House” as a way of “explaining” or delaying the fiction: might “The Custom-House” serve as Hawthorne’s “black veil” in facing his readers?*


7. Given the autobiographical references in “The Custom House,” consider the possibility that each of the major characters in The Scarlet Letter might also be aspects of the narrator’s own persona. Discuss ways in which Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl complement each other thematically.*


8. Given your earlier study of Puritan literature, trace elements of Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter. And discuss the extent to which Hawthorne himself embraces or critiques Puritan ideology. (Compare actual Puritans you have studied with Hawthorne’s fictional characters: Anne Bradstreet with Hester Prynne; Edward Taylor with Arthur Dimmesdale; Jonathan Edwards with various ministers in Hawthorne, or with the narrator himself.)*


9. Locate references to childhood in The Scarlet Letter and, focusing on Pearl, discuss Hawthorne's’portrait of what it might have been like to be a Puritan child.*


10. Perhaps the most famous utterance by Hester Prynne in the novel is:  “What we did had a consecration of its own.” This statement may suggest that Hester represents what some critics call “romantic individualism” and that Hawthorne attempts to illustrate in the novel the inadequacy of such a philosophy. In other words, despite any image we have of Hester as courageous, self-effacing, disciplined, and caring; the fact remains that she commits adultery (flouts the Puritan law) and thus deserves more our moral censure rather than our moral compassion. What do you think?


11. How would you defend the charge that Arthur Dimmesdale is American literature’s second “Dead-beat Dad?” (Of course we know who the first Dead-beat Dad was.)


12. Nina Baym claims that The Scarlet Letter asks fundamental questions about society, the individual, and their possible interrelations:


 Society: What is its purpose and justification? Where does it get its power? What kind of power is sit? How is it maintained? What happens when we extend the definition of “society” to include “family?”


 Individual: Is the individual, in essence, “really” good or “really” bad? Does the idea of the individual as separable from society really make any sense? If people are born into society and only emerge later as individuals, is it not fair to say that “individualism” is a social creation? If so, how can people realistically ever expect to be free of society?


 The Individual and Society: What aspects of individual life should be exempt from social supervision? What is the explanation for feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, conscience? Is sincerity always preferable to hypocrisy? Where does the artist fit in this struggle between the individual and society?


13. The “A” on Hester’s breast signifies “adultery,” right? What else might the letter signify, and to whom? What does this instability of the sign suggest about “fixed” meanings? laws? truth?


14. The Scarlet Letter is often praised for its tight, careful structure, or organization. Examine carefully the novel’s structure considering especially parallel scenes, foils, parallel characters, and inter-related symbols.


15. What are the dominant symbols and colors in The Scarlet Letter? In what way does the use of color contribute to the expression of the themes? Reveal character? Reveal Hawthorne’s attitude toward religion, justice, and values of the Puritans? How does Hawthorne’s use of light and dark imagery also contribute to the novel’s themes? What significance do you attach to the following signifiers (signs, symbols): the “A”, the scaffold, the forest, the brook, the rose, the tapestry, Governor Bellingham, Mistress Hibbins, Reverend Wilson, Pearl? And what about those names?