Full title   The Scarlet Letter

Author  Nathaniel Hawthorne

Type of work  Novel

Genre  romance, historical novel

Language  English

Time and place written  Salem and Concord, Massachusetts; late 1840s

Date of first publication  1850

Publisher  Ticknor, Reed, and Fields

Narrator  The narrator is an unnamed customhouse surveyor who writes some two hundred years after the events he describes took place. He has much in common with Hawthorne but should not be taken as a direct mouthpiece for the author’s opinions.

Point of view  The narrator is omniscient, because he analyzes the characters and tells the story in a way that shows that he knows more about the characters than they know about themselves. Yet, he is also a subjective narrator, because he voices his own interpretations and opinions of things. He is clearly sympathetic to Hester and Dimmesdale.

Tone  Varies—contemplative and somewhat bitter in the introduction; thoughtful, fairly straightforward, yet occasionally tinged with irony in the body of the narrative

Tense  The narrator employs the past tense to recount events that happened some two hundred years before his time, but he occasionally uses the present tense when he addresses his audience.

Setting (time)  Middle of the seventeenth century

Setting (place)  Boston, Massachusetts

Protagonist  Hester Prynne

Major conflict Her husband having inexplicably failed to join her in Boston following their emigration from Europe, Hester Prynne engages in an extramarital affair with Arthur Dimmesdale. When she gives birth to a child, Hester invokes the condemnation of her community—a condemnation they manifest by forcing her to wear a letter “A” for “adulteror”—as well as the vengeful wrath of her husband, who has appeared just in time to witness her public shaming.

Rising action Dimmesdale stands by in silence as Hester suffers for the “sin” he helped to commit, though his conscience plagues him and affects his health. Hester’s husband, Chillingworth, hides his true identity and, posing as a doctor to the ailing minister, tests his suspicions that Dimmesdale is the father of his wife’s child, effectively exacerbating Dimmesdale’s feelings of shame and thus reaping revenge.

Climax There are at least two points in The Scarlet Letter that could be identified as the book’s “climax.” The first is in Chapter 12, at the exact center of the book. As Dimmesdale watches a meteor trace a letter “A” in the sky, he confronts his role in Hester’s sin and realizes that he can no longer deny his deed and its consequences. The key characters confront one another when Hester and Pearl join Dimmesdale in an “electric chain” as he holds his vigil on the marketplace scaffold, the location of Hester’s original public shaming. Chillingworth appears in this scene as well. The other climactic scene occurs in Chapter 23, at the end of the book. Here, the characters’ secrets are publicly exposed and their fates sealed. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth not only acknowledge their secrets to themselves and to each other; they push these revelations to such extremes that they all must leave the community in one way or another.

Falling action  Depending on one’s interpretation of which scene constitutes the book’s “climax,” the falling action is either the course of events that follow Chapter 12 or the final reports on Hester’s and Pearl’s lives after the deaths of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.

Themes  Sin, experience, and the human condition; the nature of evil; identity and society

Motifs  Civilization versus the wilderness; night versus day; evocative names

Symbols  The scarlet letter; the town scaffold; the meteor; Pearl; the rosebush next to the prison door

Foreshadowing  Foreshadowing is minimal, because the symbols tend to coincide temporally with events, enriching their meaning rather than anticipating their occurrence.