The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne English III Honors American Literature

Summer Reading SHHS
English 3 Honors
Ms. J Denis
The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
English III Honors American Literature
Study Guide (5 pages)
Pre-Reading Material and Activities
An Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1964)
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4th, 1804 (205 years ago!) in Salem, Massachusetts. His
family descended from the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hawthorne is related to a John
Hathorne, one of the judges at the 1692 Salem witch trials, the subject of The Crucible (to be read
throughout the school year). Hawthorne (he added a “w” to his name when he began to write) was both
disturbed and fascinated by his kinship with John Hathorne.
His fascination and disturbance could be due to his Puritan ancestry. John Hathorne was a Puritan
judge and another one of his ancestors was a judge known for his persecution of Quakers. Hence, Nathaniel
was haunted by the intolerance and cruelty of these ancestors. His character and his focus as a writer were
shaped by a sense of inherited guilt. He believed that evil was a dominant force in the world, and his fiction
expressed a gloomy vision of human affairs (so do something fun after reading a few chapters).
Hawthorne befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau – two authors of
the Transcendentalist movement, which will be explored further throughout the year. He was appointed
surveyor at the Salem customhouse, which happens to be the location where a previous surveyor, a
nameless narrator, finds a number of documents, among them a manuscript bundled with a scarlet, goldembroidered patch of cloth in the shape of an “A.” The manuscript is specifically found in the customhouse’s
attic and is a work of a past surveyor that gives details of events that occurred some two hundred years
before the narrator’s time. This is what “The Custom-House” (the Introductory to The Scarlet Letter
describes). DO NOT READ “THE CUSTOM HOUSE” – unless you really want to.
Summer Reading SHHS
English 3 Honors
Ms. J Denis
The Puritan Influence
The majority of Hawthorne’s work exemplifies America’s Puritan past. The Scarlet Letter is the epitome
of this literary influence. The Puritans were a group of religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in
the 1630s under the leadership of John Winthrop (whose death is recounted in the novel). They came to
America in search of religious freedom, but were characterized by a strict moral code and a strong work
ethic. They wanted to “purify” the Church of England ruled by King James. For this, they were persecuted
and were forced to seek a place where they could build “a city upon a hill,” where they were free to practice
their belief in the Bible as the whole word of God in peace. However, their religious sect was known for its
intolerance of dissenting ideas and lifestyles. Settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they lived stern
simple lives and emphasized hard work and religious devotion. Puritans believed that only certain people
were predestined by God to go to heaven. People who behaved unusually were often believed to be
controlled by evil forces.
Anticipation Guide
Carefully read each of the following statements. Then identify each as “True” or “False.” Be ready to explain
your choices in class.
People should never have to sacrifice living happy lives.
When it comes to keeping secrets, the truth will always find a way out.
Adultery is an unforgivable sin.
Some sins are worse than others.
The way a person deals with shame and guilt is a measure of their character.
Public ridicule is an effective form of punishment.
Revenge is justified if the original offense is egregious enough.
The Scarlet Letter was written in 1850, but is set in the 1640s in a Puritan village in Boston,
Massachusetts. Nearby is a forest, home of the “Black Man” but also a place of freedom.
Vocabulary (Define these words essential for understanding)
Summer Reading SHHS
English 3 Honors
Ms. J Denis
The Structure of The Scarlet Letter (taken from “Cliff notes”)
All main characters (Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are present in each of these
scaffold scenes).
The First Scaffold Scene
Chapters 1-3 focus on Hester, adultery and the scarlet letter.
The Second Scaffold Scene
The focus lies on Dimmesdale and his guilt.
The Third Scaffold Scene
Dimmesdale regains his soul, Pearl gains her humanity, Chillingworth loses his victim and Hester loses
her dreams.
Techniques you need to know
Allusion→ a reference in a work of literature to something outside the work, especially to a wellknown historical or literary event, person or other work.
Irony→ when the opposite of what is expected occurs.
Conflict→ A struggle between opposing forces.
internal - within a character
external - between a character and an outside force
Symbolism→ A device in literature where an object represents an idea.
While You Read –Activities
As you read, keep referring to the following terms to understand how the author
employs or conveys them. Also, if you have trouble reading the Old English, refer
Motifs (Recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that help develop major
Civilization versus the wilderness
In The Scarlet Letter, the town and the surrounding forest represent opposing behavioral systems.
Hawthorne investigates the role of nature in human life-both positive and negative aspects.
Night versus Day
Hawthorne emphasizes the dichotomy between sunlight and darkness.
Evocative Names
The names in this novel often seem to beg to be interpreted symbolically. Think about what each
name makes you think of and what it may represent.
Summer Reading SHHS
English 3 Honors
Ms. J Denis
Symbols (objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or
The Scarlet Letter
The scarlet letter is meant to be a symbol of shame, but instead it becomes a powerful symbol of
something else. The letter’s meaning shifts as time passes and the novel continues. The instability of the
letter’s apparent meaning calls into question society’s ability to use symbols for repression.
The Meteor
In Chapter XII, a meteor traces out an “A” in the night sky. Different members of the community
interpret the meteor differently.
Although Pearl is a complex character, her main function within the novel is as a symbol. A pearl is
a rare find, something unattainable or extremely hard to find which is symbolic of Dimmesdale and
Hester’s relationship.
The Rosebush Next to the Prison Door
The narrator chooses to begin his story with the image of the rosebush beside the prison door. The
rosebush functions as a paradoxical symbol-it simultaneously represents two opposing abstract
Themes (Fundamental and often universal central ideas):
Identity and society
Hawthorne portrays the difficulties of developing a strong and independent self within a community-the
conflict between individual needs and societal norms. The novel conveys the contrast between Puritan
morality and passion and individualism and the contrast between Puritan morality and cruelty and pain.
Sin, knowledge and the human condition
The characters contemplate their own sin and guilt on a daily basis. The Puritan community views sin
as a threat to the community that should be punished and suppressed. Characters’ responses to sin
reveal their true personalities.
The Nature of Evil
Hawthorne portrays the destructive power of human characteristics like revenge, selfishness,
arrogance, and possession of another versus the healing power of love, humility and forgiveness. What
is the cause of evil? What is evil? Which character’s actions reflect evil the most?
After You Read - Activities
Quick review – Who said it?
“It irks me nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her
side. But he will be known!-he will be known! - he will be known!” Ch. 3
“O wise and pious friend, that a false show can be better-can be more for God’s glory, or man’s
welfare-than God’s own truth? Trust me, such men deceive themselves.” Ch. 10
Summer Reading SHHS
English 3 Honors
Ms. J Denis
“God gave me the child!....She is my happiness!-she is my torture, none the less!....Ye shall not take
her! I will die first!” Ch. 8
“Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely we have ransomed one another, with all
this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?”
Ch. 23
“If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more
effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!” Ch.
“Mother..the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something
on your bosom.” Ch. 16
Study questions – you may want to read the questions before reading.
Questions may appear on a quiz or exam the first few weeks of school.
Discuss the increasing irony of Dimmesdale’s position throughout the novel. Why is the community’s
view of him ironic? Use concrete details, including quotes and events.
What does Hester and her needlework come to represent to her community? Describe her interactions
with others in this community and especially with Pearl.
Why might Pearl respond to Dimmesdale as she does, and how does he respond to her?
Revenge becomes Chillingworth’s primary reason to exist. Analyze two key ways this devastates him as
a human being.
The setting assumes crucial importance symbolically in Chapter 18. Explain how setting impacts the
story here.
AP Practice
Plays and novels frequently argue the issue of the freedom of the individual will as opposed to the
controlling pressures of the environment or the public world. Choose a play or novel in which this
theme is prominent. Write an essay in which you discuss a character that represents this issue, analyzing
the nature of the conflict, its effect upon the character, and the meaning of its resolution at the end of
the work.
Write concrete details as precisely as possible and comment on them. Try to use the terms given in
this study guide.
Ask questions; write them down.
Re-read passages you don’t understand.
Paraphrase (put in your own words) passages you still don’t understand.
Summer Reading SHHS
English 3 Honors
Ms. J Denis
Approximate test date: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Note: I will not collect answers or definitions to this novel, but you will be given a test that includes
these and other activities, so start thinking.