The Scarlet Letter at a Glance


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, adulteress Hester Prynne must wear a scarlet A to mark her shame. Her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remains unidentified and is wracked with guilt, while her husband, Roger Chillingworth, seeks revenge. The Scarlet Letter's symbolism helps create a powerful drama in Puritan Boston: a kiss, evil, sin, nature, the scarlet letter, and the punishing scaffold. Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece is a classic example of the human conflict between emotion and intellect.

Written by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Type of Work: novel

Genres: gothic romance; psychological romance (named by Hawthorne); Gothic literature; allegory

First Published: In 1850 by Ticknor, Reed & Fields

Setting: Starts in June 1642, in the Puritan town of Boston — story continues over several years.

Main Characters: Hester Prynne; Arthur Dimmesdale; Roger Chillingworth; Pearl

Major Thematic Topics: Puritan society; sin; guilt; conflict between emotions and intellect; nature of evil

Motifs: death; desires; doubling; dreams; education; fears; passion; resentment; revenge; violence

Major Symbols: the scarlet A; the punishing scaffold; a kiss; evil; sin; nature; Hawthorne's characters; light and darkness; color imagery; the settings of forest versus village

Movie Versions: The Scarlet Letter (1979); The Scarlet Letter (1995); Easy A (2010)

The three most important aspects of The Scarlet Letter:

  • The scarlet A worn by Hester Prynne stands for "adulterer." Because her daughter Pearl was born more than nine months after Hester left her husband in England to come to America, her fellow Puritans know that she was impregnated by someone to whom she was not married: a sin.
  • Much of the novel's introductory section, "The Custom House," is true, and is based on Hawthorne's employment in the building of that same name in Salem, Massachusetts. The part about finding a letter A made of cloth that has been wrapped in a parchment manuscript, however, is entirely fictional.
  • The Scarlet Letter is a gothic romance, not a historical novel. It takes place at a recognizable place and time, the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 17th century, but many of its details are fanciful rather than accurate. For example, the governor's house, as Hawthorne describes it, has a brilliantly decorated exterior, which would have been unlikely in Puritan Boston.