The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Scarlet Letter (1850)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and was published in 1850. Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the two or three most important American writers of fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the early days of the Massachusetts Colony a young woman, Hester Prynne, is condemned to wear on the breast of her gown The Scarlet Letter “A,” for adulterer. She stands on the stocks for three hours, alone but for her infant daughter Pearl, for all of Boston to see her. No one knows who fathered Pearl, only that it was not Hester’s husband, who is thought to be dead, and Hester will not give up his name. While Hester is standing there an old, nearly deformed man appears from out of the forest, and he later visits her in jail. Although he calls himself Roger Chillingworth, he is actually Hester’s husband, but she refuses to tell him who fathered Pearl. He tells her not to divulge his true identity, and that he will spend the rest of his days trying to identify Pearl’s father.

Hester takes a house on the outskirts of town and lives the life of a scandalous exile from society, patiently bearing the slights and gibes of the other Puritans. Chillingworth meanwhile moves in with Arthur Dimmesdale, the local reverend, and tends to Dimmesdale’s health. Chillingworth perceives that there is some secret that Dimmesdale is hiding, but Dimmesdale, when he tells his parishioners that he is a sinner, is only the more highly thought of by them. Chillingworth begins to suspect that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, and one night, when Dimmesdale joins Hester and Pearl on the pillory, Chillingworth sees them together. Hester begs Chillingworth to be merciful to Dimmesdale, but Chillingworth refuses. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest and agree to leave America for Europe together after Dimmesdale preaches his sermon on Election Day. But on Election Day, when Dimmesdale publicly takes Hester and Pearl’s hand, he is obviously extremely ill, and after confessing his guilt to the public he dies—but as he does, he exposes his breast, where witnesses say that a scarlet A was imprinted on the flesh there. Chillingworth, robbed of his vengeance, dies within the year, and Hester and Pearl leave the colony, although Hester eventually returns there to live out her days.

The Scarlet Letter is historically important. It is generally regarded as the first great American novel, and some critics describe it as one of the ten best American novels ever. Even if the latter is not so, it is true that The Scarlet Letter is a work of cumulative power.

The Scarlet Letter’s place in history remains assured. It was the first American best- seller and the first American masterpiece, and creates, in Hester Prynne, what Harold Bloom calls “the American Eve”:

For Hester is, in many ways, the American Eve, the Emersonian vision that atones for our lack of any adequate representation of the American Adam. Like Milton’s own Eve, Hester is far superior to her fate, and imaginatively preferable to Adam’s (and Milton’s) God. Hawthorne subtly conveys Hester’s sexual power to us, with far less ambivalence than Milton manifests in celebrating Eve’s sexual strength. Sensual and tragic, Hester is larger than her book and her world, because her greatness of spirit, like her heroic sexuality, is ill served by the terrible alternatives of the Satanic Chillingworth (Iago’s understudy) and the timid Dimmesdale, an absurdly inadequate adulterous lover for the sublime Hester.

As critic Daniel S. Burt says, The Scarlet Letter anticipates the later quest for the Great American Novel, departing from the British and European realist mode to create something more mythic and American in nature. The novel’s setting was not new—there were enough novels set in Puritan Massachusetts that there was a veritable sub- genre of them by the time Scarlet Letter was published—but Hawthorne brought a new depth of symbolism, historical detail, and a sophisticated portrayal of character psychology as well as a depth of understanding about the nature of sin and repentance. And its style was an advance on that of Hawthorne’s contemporaries.

As with many Victorian novels, of course, the elements that make The Scarlet Letter great do not necessarily make it readable. Fortunately for students, The Scarlet Letter gains power as it goes, and if its style is not as smooth as, say, Bleak House—published only two years later—The Scarlet Letter is still quite readable.

The Scarlet Letter is by no means without flaws. The opening section, “The Custom- House,” has only the slightest bearing on the central story, and practically can be skipped by students. Hawthorne’s style in the novel is on the older side, thicker, more verbose and descriptive, in the mode of (though an infinity better than) James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans, and not necessarily the easiest to read. Hawthorne’s dialogue, in its historical recreation of how the Puritans actually spoke to each other, is similarly tough sledding:

“I pray you, good Sir,” said he, “who is this woman?–and wherefore is she here set up to public shame?”

“You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend.”

But the plot does move relatively quickly. Hawthorne maintains a tight focus on the four main characters. And the mysteries of the novel mount as time progresses, lending the story forward momentum.

The symbolism of the novel is deep, from the A on Hester’s breast to the dark forest around the colony, and as numerous critics have pointed out they all do “double duty” as symbols, from small to large. The themes are numerous and not particularly obscure: the attacks on Puritan hypocrisy and blind conformity, the effects of sin on the individual and on society, the “hidden recesses of human nature, the consequences of moral transgressions, the conflicts between authority and personal freedom and responsibility,” “the ambiguity of sin, the conflict between head and heart, the corrosive power of guilt,” all are worked out openly and skillfully.

And there are the Gothic elements, from the hunchbacked grotesque Chillingworth, a late-period Hero-Villain, to Pearl, the elf-child out of the German kunstmärchen, to the mysterious yellow parchment mentioned in “The Custom- House,” to the ominous meteor writing an “A” across the sky. The supernatural atmosphere in the novel begins early and is skillfully manipulated and increased, so that by novel’s end The Scarlet Letter seems to be as much a supernatural thriller or horror story as a symbolic romance.

Recommended Edition

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

For Further Research

Bloom, Harold. “Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter.” Novelists and Novels (Chelsea House, 2005).

Buckner, Sally. “The Scarlet Letter.” Masterplots Fourth Edition (Dec. 2010).

Burt, Daniel S. “The Scarlet Letter.” The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novels of All Time (Checkmark Books, 2010).

Harding, Brian. “Introduction.” The Scarlet Letter (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Sweets, Sparky. “The Scarlet Letter – Book Summary & Analysis.”