Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The Scarlet Letter”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

“What we did had a consecration of its own.”

So says Hester Prynne to Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. When I was 15 and reading the novel for the first time in my high school American literature class, I had no idea what Hester – she of the scarlet letter – meant. But as I got older, as I experienced my own deep connections with others, I came to understand Hester very well. In her view, her forest rendezvous with Dimmesdale was not lustful fornication but sacred, holy lovemaking, lovemaking that honored both of them.

If you read (or read about) The Scarlet Letter in high school and haven’t touched it since, I highly encourage you to give it another chance. I don’t think it is a book for teenagers, for they do not have nearly enough life experience to understand the bond between Hester and Dimmesdale. They can’t fathom what each gives up – or considers giving up – for the other. (Other teachers, however, report some success with teaching the complex moral novel in high school. See Brenda Wineapple’s essay The Scarlet Letter and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s America,” and David Denby’s piece “Is It Still Possible to Teach The Scarlet Letter in High School?”)

If you’re ready to read The Scarlet Letter for the first time or if you’re ready to read it again, you can read the book online for free or buy a hard copy for your collection. Don’t bother with any of the wretched film adaptations (especially the 1995 version starring Demi Moore as Hester). Just stick with the novel itself. Your own imagination will bring the book to life!

Once you’ve got the book in hand, it’s best to start with Hawthorne’s opening essay, “The Custom House.” Many readers skip it, wanting to move ahead to the story. But “The Custom House” is key to the novel in so many ways. It tells of Hawthorne’s years working as the chief executive officer of the Salem, Massachusetts, Custom House. Salem, of course, was the site of the heinous Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, the Puritans “pressed” one man to death and hung fourteen women and five men, all of them falsely convicted of witchcraft. Salem was Hawthorne’s hometown, his long-time ancestral home. In fact, one of his direct ancestors was Justice John Hathorne; he was the chief interrogator of the accused witches. So distressed and estranged was Hawthorne by his family’s participation in the Salem Witch Trials that he changed the spelling of his surname, thereby distancing himself from the family legacy.

In “The Custom House,” Hawthorne tells of his struggle to come to terms with his family’s past. He says,

This long connection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but instinct. . . . It is no matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the chillest of social atmospheres. . . . The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So has it been in my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home. . . . Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be severed.

Later in the essay, Hawthorne tells of poking around one day in the “heaped-up rubbish” of the Custom House and finding a beautifully embroidered, red letter A, “a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded.” It had been wrought,” Hawthorne says, “with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch . . . gives evidence of a now forgotten art.” While puzzling over the meaning of the scarlet letter, Hawthorne places it on his chest. “I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat,” he writes. “as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron.” Accompanying the scarlet letter, Hawthorne finds a “small roll of dingy paper,” which reveals that Hester Prynne had been the wearer of the letter. Hawthorne’s story of discovering the scarlet letter and finding out about Hester Prynne is completely fabricated as far as we know, but the reader is hooked. The novel that follows promises to tell the story of the infamous Hester Prynne and her even more infamous scarlet letter.

While the story of the scarlet letter may be a figment of Hawthorne’s imagination, what is real is the harsh legacy of the 17th-century Puritans and Hawthorne’s own Transcendentalist-touched life in the 19th century. In a surprising and quite interesting turn of events, it was the descendants of the 17th-century Puritans who became the Transcendentalists – those fervent free thinkers – in the 19th century. I always imagine that the Puritans would have rolled over in their graves had they known what their heirs espoused.

In fact, Hester can easily be seen as a Transcendentalist heroine set smack dab in a Puritan world. As Hawthorne created his heroine, he made her much more a product of the 19th century than the 17th century. As she “stand[s] alone in the world” and “cast[s] away the fragments of a broken chain,” she determines that “[t]he world’s law was no law for her mind.” Wearing her scarlet letter, “[i]n her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England.” In fact, says Hawthorne, “she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Anne Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess.” No wonder Hester is ostracized from her community: she was much too dangerous for the small community of Boston!

Ready to explore Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter further? Start with this overview of Hawthorne’s relationship to his ancestral hometown, created by one of my students at Shepherd University and illustrated with photos of our 2002 trip to Salem. “Hawthorne in Salem” is another great website that helps the scene and the context for Hawthorne’s writing of The Scarlet Letter.

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Listen:Listen as I read excerpts from the first three chapters of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. You’ll see Hester Prynne as she leaves the prison, walks to the scaffold to receive her punishment, and returns to her cell. This clip runs 36 minutes.

Image Credit: Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, public domain,