"The Scarlet Letter"

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Hester Prynne

"She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers - stern and wild ones - and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss."

Chapter XVIII, 'A Flood of Sunshine'

Hester Prynne

Below is a brief article on Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, presented here as a multifaceted character. Various perspectives are given, more notably, a feminist approach (a critique of the patriarchal tradition) and a more traditional literary approach (an interpretation based on the biographical and historical contexts of a text). The views presented in this article are meant to implement your own, already formulated, vision of Hester, not replace it. In other words, please do not feel compelled to change your argument because of what the article proposes.


Feel free, however, to include any or all parts of the article in your final draft. The issues presented in the article will need to be developed and discussed further and, of course, supported. For instance, if you want to use the quote "Hester Prynne may seem a victim and an object, but she also shows great personal strength", you will need to find specific moments in the novel when her vulnerability is most apparent, and moments when her strength comes through. You will also have to discuss whether Hester's strength helps her conform to Puritan ways, or whether it upsets the established order instead. Remember to be specific.


Remember that, while there is no single "correct" interpretation of any work, you are expected to make a convincing argument for your own interpretation by presenting strong textual evidence. Your vision must, of course, "fit" our question.

The Scarlet Letter (1995) Official Trailer #1 - Demi Morre Movie HD

The Scarlet Letter "A"

In Chapter XIV, "Hester and the Physician", we read, "the Scarlet letter had not done its office" (Hawthorne, 2005, p. 109).


What was the "office" of the Scarlet letter?


Has the letter failed? Why?

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The Major Themes of "The Scarlet Letter"

In "The Scarlet Letter", Hawthorne addresses through his main characters the following themes:


Sin and redemption


Alienation and The Supernatural


Man and the Natural Law


Women and Feminism

Hawthorne's View of the Affair

Critics are divided over Hawthorne’s attitude to Hester’s affair, and whether the novel ultimately condemns or condones her actions.


What do you think Hawthorne’s views are? What are your own?

Arthur Dimmesdale

“Happy you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your

bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is,

after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that

recognizes me for what I am!” (p. 131)

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Hawthorne's View of Hester

We are left at the end of Hawthorne's novel with Hester returning alone to New England. Place, one might argue, has a strong pull on an individual. Recall also that women come to her to seek counsel on all matters of life. For Hawthorne, Hester is the self-reliant woman who believed "the world's law was no law for her mind" (p.107).


The following quote speaks of Hawthorne's vision of Hester as a 'reformer':


Hester Prynne "had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confined to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise" (p.166).


Can Hester be viewed as a 'reformer'? As a woman capable of instigating social change? What do her words in the quote above (Hawthorne's words too) suggest?

"No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true."

Chapter XX, 'The Minister in a Maze'