Decoding Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. The Author

3. What is The Scarlet Letter about?

4. What we want to explore

5. Puritans

6. Hawthorne and the Puritans

7. The letter 'A'

8. Through the eyes of Hester

9. Pearl

10. Hidden punishment for Arthur Dimmesdale

11. Chillingworth's scarlet revenge

12. Conclusion

13. Literature used


The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne was his first novel published under his own name (his first novel 'Fanshawe' was published anonymously1 ). Also it is considered to be his best and/or most famous piece of work. It was written in the 19th century and until today still knows how to capture the readers attention.

But why does this book still appeal to many readers and is now being published in its 66th edition, although one might think that it's topics might be a little outdated by now and modern readers would lack the possibility to relate?2 - To answer this question we will have to take a closer look Hawthorne, his book and the themes therein.

The Author:

The author was born on July 4th, 1804 as Nathanial Hathorne in Salem Massachusetts. After graduating from college he added an 'w' to his name to distinguish himself from some relatives , who participated vividly in the Salem witch trials.3

Due to his personal experiences of growing up in New England, the former puritan communities, most of his stories are located there.4

From 1825 Hawthorne worked as an journalist and his first novel called 'Fanshawe' was published in 1828, although it omitted his name and was published anonymously.

In the 1840s he joined the transcendentalist movement, although he did not share the same amount of enthusiasm as for instance Henry

David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He married the transcendentalist artist, Sophia Peabody5 and befriended Herman Melville, with whom he shared a close friendship. Melville even dedicated his most famous novel 'Moby-Dick' to his friend Nathanial Hawthorne.

Hawthorne wrote 'The Scarlet Letter' in 1849 and published it one year later.6 The novel was “warmly received here and abroad”7, although Hawthorne did not live to see how successful it would turn out after his dead in 1864. Hawthorne died believing that his apprehension about 'The Scarlet Letter' never being popular or successful, as he stated in 1850, would be nothing but the truth.8

What is The Scarlet Letter about?:

The novel can characterized as an epic story of love, guilt, sin and redemption.9 The first edition of Hawthorne's book even included a subheading to The Scarlet Letter on the front cover of the book. It reads “A ROMANCE”10 in capital letters and even though later editions did not feature this any longer, it seems to put the story in a nutshell.

The story is set in 17th century in New England, America. In the puritan town of Boston, Massachusetts. The protagonist is called Hester Prynne and she has somewhat a problematic history. She is forced to live her life alone for her husband is lost at sea. This alone can be considered as problematic, but the fact that has given birth to illegitimate child presents her with the problem of being guilty of having committed one of the capital sins. This could easily be punished with death in a puritan society, but is modified into a longer punishment. He is forced to wear a sign of her sin on her all the time and has to live with the shame that everyone will be able to see that she did commit adultery. Therefore big, red, 'A' has to be put on her dress for everyone to see.

Anyhow, she does not reveal who the father is and does not rest her head in shame of the sin she committed, because she has her child, a beautiful daughter called Pearl to show for that it could not have been against god's will.

But things get more complicated when her husband returns and is seeking his revenge and the man that made Hester commit her sin, unknowing that in fact the town priest, called Dimmesdale is the child's father and is very much in love with Hester.11

What we want to explore:

One might say that the letter did not have the effect on her as it was intended and as the novel progresses the letter 'A' seems of alter his meaning to certain people Hester interacts with. That is why I want to have a closer look at this famous scarlet letter, his different and how this is able to change throughout the novel. Especially the context of a puritan society has to be taken into account, or as Richard H.

Millington noted:

“Culture is a structure of meaning that is not ‘natural' or automatic but locally variable, historically changing and thus both inescapable and humanly révisable - as the changing meaning of Hester's letter within the Puritan community makes clear.“12

It might be that people living in our world today could not be able to relate to the problematic for Hester Prynne. Day in, day out there are people committing adultery and give birth to illegitimate children. But there is no real consequences for the adulterer or women living alone with child.

We have to consider the context of the story to be able to understand the conflicts and sheer catastrophic events which build the start for Hawthorne's novel. Hester Prynne's story is a story of conflict with her society, the puritan society. Therefore we will have to take a brief look at the Puritans, then we will progress with the relation between them and Hawthorne impaled in his novel and lastly we will explore the meaning of the letter itself:


The Puritans can be best described as a group of religious fanatics who had came from England to America to escape religious persecution. They landed in New England, the Massachusetts Bay area, where they settled in little communities consisting almost completely of Puritans. 13

Puritans followed strictly the tenet of Calvin, called Calvinism. 14 It followed five points for a guideline:

“The Five Points of Calvinism (often remembered through the acronym T U L I P)

1. Total depravity. Man is naturally unable to exercise free will, since through Adam's fall he has suffered hereditary corruption. Evil was a palpable presence in the Puritans' world, and it was often symbolized by the struggle between light and darkness. In this system, it was impossible to find disillusioned Puritans, for they believed that there was no horror that man could not commit.
2. Unconditional election. Election manifests itself through God's wisdom to elect those to be saved, despite their inability to perform saving works. Only a chosen few are so elected, and simply being a church member did not necessarily signify election.
3. Limited atonement. Man's hereditary corruption is partially atoned for by Christ, and this atonement is provided to the elect through the Holy Spirit. This limited atonement gives them the power to attempt to obey God's will as revealed through the Bible.
4. Irresistible and prevenient grace, made only to the elect. Grace was a "motion of the heart" that was God's gift to the elect- unconditional, irresistible, and inexorable. It came to each directly and could not be taken away. It promised "ecstatic intimacy with the divine" or "soul liberty." When Winthrop talks about liberty, this is the sort that he counts on his audience recalling.
5. Perseverance of saints. Those who are predetermined as elect inevitably persevere in the path of holiness.”15

They chose the name 'Puritan' for their model of society, because their main aim should be to be ‘pure' or aims at 'purity'.16 And by naming the society in the self same way, everyone would be able to realize it from the start.

One major importance in Puritan belief is a very strict position towards open sexuality.17 Only in marriage sexuality is legitimated, what explains why Hester Prynne is forced to live the life of an outcast, when she gives birth to her daughter.

Hawthorne and the Puritans:

Knowing about the Puritans, it seems understandable why Hester Prynne gets into immense problems, when people realize she is with child and opens up several clues why Nathanial Hawthorne might have chosen this setting for his story.

These somewhat cruel and suppressing surroundings deliver not only a stronger contrast to Hester's individualism than a normal one would, it can also be seen as Hawthorne's way of giving a homage to the area he grew up in, after all he was born in Salem, Massachusetts. 16 17

But what is his standing towards Puritanism? - Although his novel is set in it, it is hard to make out, what he is really saying.

Hawthorne is very much aware of the past and clearly has put much thought in setting his story there. When we take a closer look at the text, we are able to realize that he is not strictly against Puritanism, although he considers it a bit old-fashioned; Puritanism is an utopia.18

This means: Circumstances that might look and work perfectly in theory, but are simply not transcribe able to reality.19 It is the exact same thing as with communism, which can never be played out as originally intended, due to greed and mistrust among the people.


1 Van Kirk, On Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, p. 3.

2 Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, p.0.

3 McFarland, Hawthorne in Concord, p. 18.

4 Bell, Hawthorne and the historical Romance of New England, p. 173.

5 McFarland, Hawthorne in Concord, p. 83.

6 Miller, Salem is my dwelling Place: The Life of Nathanial Hawthorne, p. 300.

7 Van Kirk, On Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, p. 4.

8 Miller, Salem is my dwelling Place: A Life of Nathanial Hawthorne, p. 299.

9 Van Kirk, On Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, p. 91f.

10, Title Page for The Scarlet Letter, (accessed November 17, 2009)

11 SparkNotes Editors, SparkNote on The Scarlet Letter, (accessed November 17, 2009).

12 Millington, Romance as Revision: The Scarlet Letter, In: Practicing Romance, p. 69.

13 Gardiner, Puritan Revolution, p. 10f.

14 Benedict, Christ’s churches purely reformed, p. 3f.

15 Goldman, Anarchism and other Essays, p. 173fff.

16 West, Drinking with Calvin and Luther, p. 68ff.

17 Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, p. 0.

18 Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, p. 45.

19 Catholic encyclopedia, Utopia, (accessed November 17, 2009).

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Decoding Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Amerikanistik)
Life and Letters in the 19th Century
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decoding, nathaniel, hawthorne, scarlet, letter
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Niklas Bastian (Author), 2009, Decoding Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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