Reading Guide Directions: As you read each night, pay special attention to these questions/ comments. Be prepared to discuss these issues during class. You should keep notes to aid you in your reading and understanding of the novel


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The Scarlet Letter Reading Guide

Directions: As you read each night, pay special attention to these questions/ comments. Be prepared to discuss these issues during class. You should keep notes to aid you in your reading and understanding of the novel. Focus on reading the chapters closely and using the following items to illuminate events that may be difficult to understand at first. I recognize that this is higher level reading, but I urge you to do as much as you can with the novel independently – push yourself. The reading becomes easier as you adapt to Hawthorne’s language and style.
Chapter 1

  1. Hawthorne establishes a contrast between the darkness of the Puritans and the beauty of the rose. Examine the descriptions of the Puritans, the prison, and the prison door. What does Hawthorne imply about the nature of human beings by his emphasis on the early establishment of a prison and a cemetery in this new American colony? What does the ancient wood door (in this colony only twenty years old) symbolize?

    1. Sad-colored garments, grey steeple-crowned hate. Wooden door with spike

    2. Death and Sin. This is not the garden of Eden. Prison signifies the law and order of civilization, Rose bush natural order vs. human order, nature can still overcome thrive despite man’s order. Evil and death are unavoidable.

    3. The door symbolizes the effect of sin, the fate of those locked away.

  2. What is signified by the description of the weeds? The rose? Ann Hutchinson was a Quaker who maintained her right to her own conscience. What is Hawthorne’s attitude toward her? How does he connect her to Hester?
    1. The weeds might represent the condescending and choking attitude of the community members. The rose may symbolize Hester’s true beauty or the prisoners’ last glimpse of hope. The rose can represent moral blossoming. The ability for the natural world to thrive next to the civilized world.

    2. He has admiration b/c of the term “sainted.” She might have been a previous rose. She is a glimpse of hope/beauty before we hear the dark tale of Hester.

  3. What effect is created by Hawthorne’s inclusion of historical references? What is the time and place of this opening scene?

    1. It allows the reader to understand the harsh/uncompromising beliefs of the Puritans. Massachusetts, 1630’s

  4. What connection is there between the rose and the scarlet letter?

    1. Red. Delicate…offers hope to others condemned

Chapter 2

  1. Compare the attitudes of the women in the market place towards Hester’s punishment. Do the men treat her too kindly with their punishment?

    1. They believe her judgment is too light. Although she is not condemned, she is still embarrassed.

  2. In what ways does Hawthorne signify that the town beadle represents male authority? What view of the Puritans does Hawthorne develop in this chapter? What motivates their strict adherence to law and their harsh punishments?

    1. He is a black shadow, grim and gristly. Represents the severity of the Puritanic code of law. He thanks the community and blesses them for dragging the iniquity out into the sunshine.

    2. They are hypocritical, obsessed with other’s crimes. Hester is their scapegoat. By observing the punishment of others, individuals will be scared into good actions. Consequence of sin is death and hell.

  3. What is Hawthorne’s point when he compares Hester to the image of “Divine Maternity”? What details contribute to Hawthorne’s sympathetic presentation of Hester?
    1. Puritans separated from Church of England and Catholic Church which viewed Virgin Mary as saint to be prayed to. Most likely, a Catholic would not have been so quick to condemn a woman and baby child because of their respect for Mary.

    2. Details: bosom, beautiful, picturesque, infant, yet contrasted with darker, mixture of awe, spectacle of guilt. Disgrace, deepest sin

  4. What feelings and memories does Hester experience as she stands on the scaffold?

    1. Childhood memories, sports, gravest memories. She was able to see the tract of her life, native village in England, father, mother, pale and deformed man, tall houses and cathedrals, Puritan town

  5. Keep track of the people involved in the scaffold scene. There will be two more scaffold scenes in the novel. Keep track of when these scenes occur.

Chapter 3

  1. What person does Hester recognize? What details about him are presented through Hester’s memories in the preceding chapter?

    1. Chillingworth, her previous husband. He was the pale/deformed man, a scholar, old, able to read the human soul. This chapter: horror like a snake once he realizes it his wife

  2. What new information is revealed about Hester and this man who recognizes her in this chapter?

    1. She was the wife of this learned man. She came over first, but he never arrived

  3. Examine the physical positions of the two ministers in relation to Hester. In what ways are they “above” her in the community? What do they command her to do?

    1. They are above her looking down. They command her to tell the name of the man involved despite who he might be or out of fear.

  4. Why does Hester refuse to name her lover? She says the letter is already too deeply branded and cannot be taken off. She would endure his agony if she could. Her child will only know a heavenly father.

Chapter 4

  1. Chillingworth is an alchemist who assumes the role of physician in the story. What is alchemy?

    1. Practice of combining chemistry and philosophy…investigation of nature and spiritualism. Attempted to turn other metals into gold

  2. What positive use does Chillingworth’s medicine have in this scene? What does this act imply about his character? His relation to Pearl?

    1. Calms the child and calms her nerves. He seems to have a bit of compassion but it is easily accompanied with bitterness. He has no father/daughter relationship with her, but says it would be good enough for his child. He would do no better for his own child.

  3. Why does Chillingworth pass over Hester’s sin and focus his revenge on her lover? Is his attitude logical? In what way is he a guilty party to Hester’s sin?

    1. He says he has no need to kill her because then he would not know the name. He wants her to live with the doom. He is guilty by marrying her young in a loveless marriage and sending her overseas alone.

  4. What promise does Chillingworth elicit from Hester?

    1. The name and position of the man involved

Chapter 5

  1. Why does Hester stay in the Puritan settlement? Please note that the narrator suggests more than one possibility.

    1. Her roots, human nature to stay where traumatic events occur, triumph, she was stained no place would be perfect

  2. Describe Hester’s home, using at least two adjectives. Why do you believe Hester chooses this dwelling? What is the symbolic meaning of the location of her house?

    1. Small thatched cottage, abandoned by earlier settler, not close to anyone else, edge of society, looks at the sea (God). Not have to deal with criticism.

  3. How do the Puritan children behave around Hester’s home? Why?

    1. Run away, creep up to it.

  4. Hester’s needlework is a very significant occupation for Hawthorne to give her. The work is specifically “women’s work” and was one of the few kinds of work for economic gain women were allowed. Hawthorne, however, uses Hester’s needlework symbolically. Examine the appearance of the needlework Hester does, who she sews for, and who she is not permitted to sew for. How does her needlework allow her to work her way back into the community?

    1. High officials, public ceremonies, , officers, funerals, babies…not brides. Governor, the poor. It is expression…woman’s voice.

  5. Describe the contrast between Hester’s clothes and Pearl’s clothes. What do you suppose is the deeper meaning to the clothing choices, hinted at on page 77?

    1. Hester’s clothes are plain, but the child’s is fanciful. She wants to heighten the airy charm from an early age.

  6. How does the scarlet letter affect Hester’s day-to-day life? How does she feel each time someone looks upon the letter? Do you believe the punishment is successful?

    1. She feels banished, doesn’t belong. The poor and rich looked down upon her. She prays for her enemies.

  7. On page 80 is the sentence, “But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, she felt an eye – a human eye – upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half her agony were shared.” What could this mean?

    1. Others have sinned, also the man who sinned with her is still in the community

  8. What is the proof that Hester is not completely corrupt?

    1. Gives to poor

Chapter 6

  1. What is the symbolic meaning of Pearl’s name?

    1. She is her treasure

  2. Why does Hester sometimes look at her daughter with dread and fear?

    1. She expected to see something dark and wild, a seed of her sin

  3. Use three adjectives to describe Pearl.

    1. Native grace, rich attire, magnificent, passionate, radiance, wild moods, imp of evil

  4. How does Pearl react to the Puritan children? Why does this reaction make Hester tremble?

    1. She would not speak to them, fling stones. Her mother trembled because the cries echoed a witch’s screams

  5. Why is it significant that Pearl never creates friends to play with, but only enemies?

    1. Mother and daughter are both secluded from society. She is so young but already recognizes the division of the world.

  6. How does Pearl react to and treat the scarlet letter?

    1. She smiles and grasps for it.

  7. What does Pearl do that prompts Hester’s question, “Child, what art thou?” (91)?

    1. She was throwing wild flowers at the Scarlet Letter and cheering when they hit the target.

  8. Where does Hester say Pearl comes from? Why is Pearl’s reaction significant?

    1. Hester says that the heavenly father sent her. Pearl says she has no heavenly father. It is significant because Hester already fears that Pearl is a seed of sin.

Chapter 7

  1. Why does Hester go to Governor Bellingham’s mansion?

    1. To give him gloves she made and to ask to keep Pearl in her custody.

  2. How is Pearl dressed for the trip to the Governor’s house?
    1. Crimson velvet dress with gold thread; resembles embodiment of scarlet letter

  3. What does Hester’s insistence to see the Governor – despite resistance from the bondservant – demonstrate about her character?

    1. She is independent and courageous

  4. Hester and Pearl looking in the mirror of the armored breastplate

    1. The scarlet letter is exaggerated in proportion

  5. Repetition of words like “elf,” “naughty,” and “imp” to describe Pearl’s character

    1. Shows fears of Hester regarding Pearl

  6. Pearl’s desire for a rose

    1. She screams with a spooky/eerie sound when she is refused the rose

Chapter 8

  1. Who are the four men in the “custody” scene?

    1. Governor, Mr. Wilson, Dimmesdale, Chillingsworth

  2. Hawthorne’s use of light and shadow (pay attention to the placement of characters)

    1. Hester is concealed by the shadow, light surrounds Pearl

  3. Reactions to Pearl’s scarlet outfit

    1. They say she is a scarlet bird, a naughty elf or fairy, wild tropical bird

  4. Arguments against Hester having custody of Pearl

    1. Should an immortal soul guide a child from the pitfalls of the world

    2. Hester says she can teach Pearl to avoid sins that she has made

  5. Pearl’s perversity when questioned about Christianity

    1. Hester had repeatedly told her who made her (God), she says she was plucked by her mother off of the bush of wild roses by the prison door

  6. How has Chillingworth’s appearance changed since Hester last saw him?

    1. Uglier, darker complexion, figure more misshapen

  7. Who does Hester ask to support her argument for custody?

    1. Dimmesdale (her “pastor” who knows her better than any other)

  8. How has Dimmesdale’s appearance changed?

    1. Pale, hand over his heart, emaciated, large dark eyes

  9. Dimmesdale’s arguments for Hester

    1. God gave her the child, you should not break the natural union; Pearl is a blessing. Pearl is Hester’s salvation to keep her from sinking darker in sin. Remind her of her fall.

  10. Pearl’s interaction with Dimmesdale

    1. Softly takes his hand and laid her cheek against it. Dimmesdale kisses Pearl’s brow. She then laughs and runs away.

  11. Chillingworth’s comments about Pearl’s nature/ unknown father

    1. She is strange. He wants to analyze the child’s nature to find the father

  12. Who is Mistress Hibbins? Why is her interaction with Hester significant?

    1. She is the governor’s sister who was later executed as a witch. She invites Hester to come to the forest and dance with the “Black Man.” Hester says if she did not have Pearl to take care of, she would go and gladly sign her name in his book. The narrator says that is an example of how Pearl keeps her mother from sin.

Chapter 9

  1. According to the narrator, who/what did Chillingworth expect to find upon his release from the natives?

    1. Hester as an embodiment of warmth and cheerfulness of home.

  2. Why are there so few physicians in the colonies? They seldom had the religious zeal to come across the sea.

    1. With their study of the body, they lost their spiritual view of existence.

  3. Describe the “illness” of Dimmesdale
    1. Pale, he fasts, form grew emaciated, melancholy and soft voice, hand over heart over any excitement

  4. What gesture does Dimmesdale make when in pain? What may be the significance of this movement?

    1. Hand over his heart. This is where Hester’s Scarlet Letter also is.

  5. Why does Chillingworth initiate contact with Dimmesdale? What aspects of Dimmesdale’s character does he want to examine?

    1. He seeks to win a friendly regard and confidence from Dimmesdale. He wants to “help” his sickly frame. Chillingsworth examines Dimmesdale’s principles, recollections, seeks for a secret to be revealed.

  6. Reread the paragraph that starts with “Thus Roger Chillingworth scrutinized his patient carefully… Consider the significance of this paragraph and the characterization of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and secrecy.

    1. Chillingsworth attempts to create a relationship of “trust” between doctor and patient continually mentioning the “healing power” of bearing one’s soul. Dimmesdale does not yet reveal any truth, but the narrator hints that it is a dangerous condition

  7. Living situation of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth

    1. It seems to be a “paternal” relationship toward Dimmesdale. Graveyard on one side, Dimmesdale has front apartment with sunny exposure, Walls have scenes from Bible with David and Bathsheba, many religious books. Chillingsworth’s is decorated as a study and laboratory/Science

  8. Describe the townspeople’s reaction to Chillingworth’s changed appearance. How do they react to the continued relationship between the two men (what do they suspect)?

    1. Someone testified that they had seen Chillingsworth had a practice in black art. They believed Chillingsworth to be a man sent from Satan to haunt Dimmesdale. To burrow against his soul and plot against it.

Chapter 10

  1. What is the simile/extended metaphor used to describe Chillingworth’s scrutiny of Dimmesdale?

    1. Leech and patient, minor searching for gold, gravedigger for jewel

  2. Mention of intuition/intuitive (twice) in paragraph beginning with “Then, after long search into the minister’s dim interior…”

    1. Mr. Dimmesdale’s spiritual intuition lets him know something is off with Chillingsworth while Chillingsworth’s intuition picks up on Dimmesdale’s nervous eyes, he gives a warm/pleasant look

  3. Symbolism of weeds on/near grave

    1. Chillingsworth says that the weeds came out of the heart of the man buried (sin never confessed)

  4. Dimmesdale’s argument for why men may hold secrets in their hearts

    1. Some men desire it but can’t. Some men are waiting until Judgment day. They are men of God and if they expose their evil deeds, others will not confess their sins.

  5. Pearl’s inappropriate dance

    1. She dances upon the grave

  6. Burrs on the scarlet letter and thrown at Dimmesdale

    1. Grabs prickly burrs from weed that grew beside the tomb, decorated mother’s scarlet letter. Throws at Dimmesdale and he acts as if it were a missile.

  7. Reread the paragraph which starts with “The child probably overheard their voices; for, looking up to the window…” Why/how may this paragraph be significant? What do you know about the characters at this point?

    1. Dimmesdale seems to show obvious signs that he is the father. Pearl says that Hester should run away because the black man/devil (Chillingsworth) has already taken hold of the minister, but he will never grab her.

  8. Discussion of whether Hester is better off than the father

    1. At least Hester can show her pain while the husband cannot.
  9. The “fight” between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth

    1. Chillingsworth asks Dimmesdale if all of his soul has been revealed. D says yes. C says D’s sickness is a sign of inner spiritual sickness. D says he will not reveal to an earthly physician and only to God.

  10. Chillingworth’s discovery. What do you think he finds? Why do you think that? How does he react? How do you react?

    1. Some type of painful Scarlet letter on his chest. D always grabs for his chest. Chillingsworth is ecstatic.

Chapter 11

  1. Why does Chillingworth anticipate “a more intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy” ?

    1. He will continue to act as a trustworthy friend and let the sin destroy D. He can play with D’s emotions.

  2. How does it make sense that Chillingworth is “more wretched than his victim”?

    1. The idea of revenge has become an obsession and eats away at his soul

  3. Dimmesdale’s sympathy with the sinful

    1. Because of his sin, his heart vibrates in unison with those that have sinned. He seems to be the mouthpiece for wisdom, rebuke, and love.

  4. Instances of shadow/dark and light

    1. Dimmesdale feels as if a shadow

  5. Dimmesdale’s false confessions on the pulpit

    1. He says he is the worst of sinners and if they could see his true character, they would throw him from the pulpit. He never fully confesses any truth of his sin.

  6. Consider the “practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome” . What do you think Dimmesdale does to himself?

    1. Physically harms himself (DaVinci Code)

  7. Dimmesdale’s hallucinations
    1. He sees demons, angels, dead friends of his youth, dead father, ghost of mother, Hester, Pearl, scarlet letter

  8. What keeps Dimmesdale alive? How does this contrast with Hester’s purpose in life?

    1. The anguish in his soul is what keeps him alive, the sorrow

    2. Hester’s is to raise Pearl.

Chapter 12

  1. Where does Dimmesdale go during the night? What is the significance of this place?

    1. The scaffold. This is the place where Hester had to first display her letter and refused to name the man.

  2. Evaluate the following statement from page chapter 12: “Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once!” How is Dimmesdale characterized?

    1. Feeble and sensitive, weak

  3. Reread the third paragraph of ch. 12, which starts with, “And thus, while standing on the scaffold…” Think about the imagery of this paragraph and the language Hawthorne uses. What purpose do these literary techniques serve?

    1. It allows the reader to know that there is a physical pain of a “Scarlet letter” on his breast.

  4. Mistress Hibbins appears at the window

    1. She is a ‘witch’ and assumes the cry is the call of the demons

  5. Passerby on the dark street coming from the death chamber of Governor Winthrop – who are the different people that are out during the night?

    1. Mr. Wilson, Hester Prynne, Pearl, Chillingsworth

  6. What is Pearl’s demand of Dimmesdale, which he denies?

    1. To stand there tomorrow with them at noon

  7. “’A moment longer, my child!’ said he”

    1. He wants the “dark” moment hidden in shadows to last longer.

  8. Natural occurrences in the night-sky

    1. Dimmesdale says that by the light of the sky he will not stand with them again until it is judgment day, but the meteor illuminates the sky as if daybreak; the letter A is revealed.

  9. Dimmesdale’s reaction to Chillingworth

    1. He is overcome with terror and asks Hester who he is

  10. Why is Pearl angry with Dimmesdale?

    1. He would not promise to hold their hands in daylight

  11. How do the townspeople react to finding Dimmesdale’s glove on the scaffold? What is their interpretation of the “sign” in the sky?

    1. Satan dropped it; a pure hand does not need a glove. He needs to handle Satan with gloves from this point on. They see the A as an angel for Governor Winthrop who passed.

  12. Compare this scaffold scene with the earlier one in chapter 2.

    1. It was dark, no one was there. He finally stood beside her.


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