Nathaniel Hawthorne's historical novel The Scarlet Letter explores guilt, revenge, and Read The Scarlet Letter alongside a modern English translation. No Fear Literature by SparkNotes features the complete edition of The Scarlet Letter side-by-side with an accessible, plain English translation. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself .
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From a general summary to chapter summaries to explanations of famous quotes , the SparkNotes The Scarlet Letter Study Guide has everything you need to. This PDF has been brought to you by The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne ©, by SparkNotes All rights reserved. No part of this publication may. to read it. ×. No sample available. Title details for The Scarlet Letter ( SparkNotes) by SparkNotes - Available SparkNotes - Author. Formats. PDF ebook.
It also aligns the novel with popular forms of narrative such as fairy tales. The Scarlet Letter The scarlet letter is meant to be a symbol of shame, but instead it becomes a powerful symbol of identity to Hester.
The child has been sent from God, or at least from nature, but the letter is merely a human contrivance. More often than not, a symbol becomes a focal point for critical analysis and debate. To Dimmesdale, the meteor implies that he should wear a mark of shame just as Hester does.
The Puritans commonly looked to symbols to confirm divine sentiments. In this narrative, however, symbols are taken to mean what the beholder wants them to mean. The incident with the meteor obviously highlights and exemplifies two different uses of symbols: Puritan and literary. Pearl Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is as a symbol.
She is the physical consequence of sexual sin and the indicator of a transgression. The Rosebush Next to the Prison Door The narrator chooses to begin his story with the image of the rosebush beside the prison door. Yet, paradoxically, it also symbolizes the futility of symbolic interpretation: the narrator mentions various significances that the rosebush might have, never affirming or denying them, never privileging one over the others.
What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? He finds the establishment to be a run-down place, situated on a rotting wharf in a half-finished building. His fellow workers mostly hold lifetime appointments secured by family connections. They are elderly and given to telling the same stories repeatedly.
The Scarlet Letter
The narrator finds them to be generally incompetent and innocuously corrupt. The narrator spends his days at the customhouse trying to amuse himself because few ships come to Salem anymore. He then reads the manuscript.
It is the work of one Jonathan Pue, who was a customs surveyor a hundred years earlier. The narrator has already mentioned his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing. It will not be factually precise, but he believes that it will be faithful to the spirit and general outline of the original. While working at the customhouse, surrounded by uninspiring men, the narrator finds himself unable to write.
Analysis This section introduces us to the narrator and establishes his desire to contribute to American culture. Although this narrator seems to have much in common with Nathaniel Hawthorne himself—Hawthorne also worked as a customs officer, lost his job due to political changes, and had Puritan ancestors whose legacy he considered both a blessing and a curse—it is important not to conflate the two storytellers.
The narrator is not just a stand-in for Hawthorne; he is carefully constructed to enhance the book aesthetically and philosophically.
The Scarlet Letter (SparkNotes)
Moreover, Hawthorne sets him up to parallel Hester Prynne in significant ways. Like Hester, the narrator spends his days surrounded by people from whom he feels alienated. In his case, it is his relative youth and vitality that separates him from the career customs officers.
The narrator points out the connection between Hester and himself when he notes that he will someday be reduced to a name on a custom stamp, much as she has been reduced to a pile of old papers and a scrap of cloth. First, he feels that his Puritan ancestors would find it frivolous, and indeed he is not able to write until he has been relieved of any real career responsibilities.
Second, he knows that his audience will be small, mostly because he is relating events that happened some two hundred years ago. His time spent in the company of the other customhouse men has taught the narrator that it will be difficult to write in such a way as to make his story accessible to all types of people—particularly to those no longer young at heart.
The narrator finds writing therapeutic. Yet Hawthorne, like the narrator, had to balance the need to establish a weighty past with the equally compelling need to write an interesting and relevant story. Americanness remains both a promise and a threat, just as the eagle over the customhouse door both offers shelter and appears ready to attack.
The tale of the scarlet letter may add to the legitimacy of American history and culture, but in order to do so it must transcend its Americanness and establish a universal appeal: only then can American culture hold its own in the world.
It is filtered first through John Pue and then through the narrator. Chapters I—II Summary—Chapter I: The Prison-Door This first chapter contains little in the way of action, instead setting the scene and introducing the first of many symbols that will come to dominate the story. A crowd of somber, dreary-looking people has gathered outside the door of a prison in seventeenth-century Boston.
No matter how optimistic the founders of new colonies may be, the narrator tells us, they invariably provide for a prison and a cemetery almost immediately. This is true of the citizens of Boston, who built their prison some twenty years earlier.
The one incongruity in the otherwise drab scene is the rosebush that grows next to the prison door. Summary—Chapter II: The Market-Place As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, a young woman holding an infant, emerges from the prison door and makes her way to a scaffold a raised platform , where she is to be publicly condemned. Children taunt her and adults stare. She regards her current fate with disbelief. Analysis—Chapters I—II These chapters introduce the reader to Hester Prynne and begin to explore the theme of sin, along with its connection to knowledge and social order.
This belief fits into the larger Puritan doctrine, which puts heavy emphasis on the idea of original sin—the notion that all people are born sinners because of the initial transgressions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
But the images of the chapters—the public gatherings at the prison and at the scaffold, both of which are located in central common spaces—also speak to another Puritan belief: the belief that sin not only permeates our world but that it should be actively sought out and exposed so that it can be punished publicly.
While exposing sin is meant to help the sinner and provide an example for others, such exposure does more than merely protect the community. Indeed, Hester becomes a scapegoat, and the public nature of her punishment makes her an object for voyeuristic contemplation; it also gives the townspeople, particularly the women, a chance to demonstrate—or convince themselves of— their own piety by condemning her as loudly as possible.
Rather than seeing their own potential sinfulness in Hester, the townspeople see her as someone whose transgressions outweigh and obliterate their own errors. The women of the town criticize her for embroidering the scarlet letter, the symbol of her shame, with such care and in such a flashy manner: its ornateness seems to declare that she is proud, rather than ashamed, of her sin.
Both the rosebush and Hester resist the kinds of fixed interpretation that the narrator associates with religion. The narrator offers multiple possibilities for the significance of the rosebush near the prison door, as he puzzles over its survival in his source manuscript. So, too, does the figure of Hester offer various options for interpretation. From this point forward, Hester will be formally, officially set apart from the rest of society; yet these opening chapters imply that, even before her acquisition of the scarlet letter, she had always been unique.
The text describes her appearance as more distinctive than conventionally beautiful: she is tall and radiates a natural nobility that sets her apart from the women of the town, with whom she is immediately juxtaposed. This is the first of three important scenes involving the scaffold.
From now on, Hester will stand outside, if still surrounded by, the Puritan order. Though he is dressed in a strange combination of traditional European clothing and Native American dress, she is struck by his wise countenance and recognizes his slightly deformed shoulders. The stranger tells him that Hester is the wife of a learned Englishman and had been living with him in Amsterdam when he decided to emigrate to America. The learned man sent Hester to America first and remained behind to settle his affairs, but he never joined Hester in Boston.
The stranger tells him that Hester refuses to reveal her fellow sinner. As punishment, she has been sentenced to three hours on the scaffold and a lifetime of wearing the scarlet letter on her chest. The narrator then introduces us to the town fathers who sit in judgment of Hester: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale.
Hester says that her child will seek a heavenly father and will never know an earthly one. Hester bears the sermon patiently, hushing Pearl when she begins to scream. At the conclusion of the sermon, Hester is led back into the prison. Summary—Chapter IV: The Interview Hester and her husband come face to face for the first time when he is called to her prison cell to provide medical assistance.
Hester knows his true identity—his gaze makes her shudder— and she initially refuses to drink his potion. She thinks that Chillingworth might be poisoning her, but he assures her that he wants her to live so that he can have his revenge. In the candid conversation that follows, he chastises himself for thinking that he, a misshapen bookworm, could keep a beautiful wife like Hester happy. He urges her to reveal the identity of her lover, telling her that he will surely detect signs of sympathy that will lead him to the guilty party.
When she refuses to tell her secret, he makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his own identity either.
Chillingworth replies that it is not the well-being of her soul that his presence jeopardizes, implying that he plans to seek out her unknown lover. He clearly has revenge on his mind.
Her punishment is expressed in violent terms. They know little of human nature and judge using overarching precepts rather than the specifics of an individual situation as their guides. He is compassionate toward Hester and is able to convince Bellingham and Wilson to spare her any harsher punishment.
The emerging portrait is not altogether positive. Although Dimmesdale displays compassion and a sense of justice, he also seems spineless and somewhat sinister.
The reader does not know why Dimmesdale declines to speak straightforwardly, but Hester does. When it is later revealed that Dimmesdale is the lover she seeks to protect, his speech becomes retrospectively ironic and terribly cruel.
In this way, The Scarlet Letter comes to resemble a detective story: things have meaning only in the context of later information. Chillingworth, too, begins to come into focus in these pages. The novel sets up a formal parallel between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth before the story makes clear the logical connection between the two characters. He admits that he was not the right husband for Hester and that he was remiss in not joining up with her sooner even though he seems to have been held captive.
Yet, he ultimately chooses to use his knowledge for vengeance. While he is less hypocritical than the Puritan fathers, who claim to want only the salvation of their followers, Chillingworth, as the name he takes suggests, is devoid of human warmth. His marriage to Hester—his one attempt at human contact—has led to disaster, and any compassion he may once have felt has now faded.
Bellingham, Wilson, and the rest of the Puritan leadership come across as bumbling, ignorant, and silly in their pageantry and ritual when compared with the intentionally malevolent Chillingworth, who seeks revenge, destruction, and sin.
After a few months, Hester is released from prison. Although she is free to leave Boston, she chooses not to do so. She settles in an abandoned cabin on a patch of infertile land at the edge of town. Hester remains alienated from everyone, including the town fathers, respected women, beggars, children, and even strangers. She serves as a walking example of a fallen woman, a cautionary tale for everyone to see. Although she is an outcast, Hester remains able to support herself due to her uncommon talent in needlework.
Her taste for the beautiful infuses her embroidery, rendering her work fit to be worn by the governor despite its shameful source. Despite her success, Hester feels lonely and is constantly aware of her alienation. As shame burns inside of her, she searches for companionship or sympathy, but to no avail. She devotes part of her time to charity work, but even this is more punishment than solace: those she helps frequently insult her, and making garments for the poor out of rough cloth insults her aesthetic sense.
Hester loves but worries about her child. The other children are particularly cruel because they can sense that something is not quite right about Hester and her child. Knowing that she is alone in this world, Pearl creates casts of characters in her imagination to keep her company.
Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter and at times seems to intentionally torture her mother by playing with it. Surprised at the impudence of a child so young Pearl is about three at the time , Hester wonders if Pearl might not be the demon-child that many of the townspeople believe her to be.
Analysis—Chapters V—VI Chapter V deals with one of the primary questions of the book: why does Hester choose to stay in Boston when she is free to leave?
The narrator offers several explanations. By staying and facing cruel taunts and alienation, Hester insists, paradoxically, upon her right to self-determination. Hester does not need to flee or to live a life of lies in order to resist the judgment against her. Each time she interacts with Pearl, Hester is forced to reconsider the life she has chosen for herself.
Pearl reminds Hester of her transgression, of the act that has left Hester in her current state of alienation. It is fitting that Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter, as the child and the emblem are read similarly by society. Like Pearl, the letter inspires a mixture of contempt and strange enchantment. Both also invite contemplation: people—even the narrator, some two hundred years later—feel compelled to tell the story behind the two relics.
The children of the townspeople are as cruel as their parents in their treatment of Hester and Pearl.
The Puritans-in-training make believe they are scalping Native Americans, they mimic the gestures of going to church, and they pretend to engage in witchcraft. They mirror the true preoccupations of their parents, just as Pearl reflects the complex state of her exiled mother.
As we will see later, the forest itself represents even greater freedom. Pearl seems to be a kind of changeling—a surreal, elfin creature who challenges reality and thrives on fantasy and strangeness. This world of near-magic is, of course, utterly un-Puritan. At times it seems almost un-human. By indulging in dream, imagination, beauty, and passion, one accesses a world that is more magically transcendent.
She has two intentions: to deliver a pair of ornate gloves she has made for the governor, and to find out if there is any truth to the rumors that Pearl, now three, may be taken from her.
Some of the townspeople, apparently including the governor, have come to suspect Pearl of being a sort of demon-child. On their way to see the governor, Hester and Pearl are attacked by a group of children, who try to fling mud at them. Pearl becomes angry and frightens the children off.
It is built in the style of the English aristocracy, complete with family portraits and a suit of armor, which the governor has worn in battles with the Native Americans. Pearl is fascinated by the armor. Pearl begins to scream for a rose from the bush outside the window, but she is quieted by the entrance of a group of men. They notice Pearl and begin to tease her by calling her a bird and a demon-child.
When the governor points out that Hester is also present, they ask her why she should be allowed to keep the child. She tells the men that she will be able to teach Pearl an important lesson—the lesson that she has learned from her shame. With nowhere else to turn, Hester begs Dimmesdale to speak for her and her child. He replies by reminding the men that God sent Pearl and that the child was seemingly meant to be both a blessing and a curse.
Swayed by his eloquence, Bellingham and Wilson agree not to separate mother and child. Strangely, Pearl has taken well to Dimmesdale. She goes to him and presses his hand to her cheek. Hester tells her that if she had not been able to keep Pearl, she would have gone willingly. Certainly her attitude toward it is not one of uniform regret, and she may even harbor pleasant associations with the deeds that the letter symbolizes.
They understand that both child and badge function as reminders of sin and as protections against further sin. Dimmesdale momentarily acknowledges this in his speech, but the purpose of his words is not to ponder ambiguities but rather to point to these ambiguities as proof of the futility of all interpretation. The garden, planted in the English ornamental style, is in a state of decay.
Cabbages, pumpkins, and a few rosebushes are all that has grown there.
The Scarlet Letter - SparkNotes
The English ornamental plants serve as symbols of the principles and ideals of the old world, which cannot be successfully transplanted to America. The decaying garden can also be read in other ways. Its need of maintenance suggests that Bellingham is not capable of nurturing things—including the society he is supposed to govern. The fertility of the cabbages and the pumpkins hints at the fundamental incompatibility of ideals with the necessities of life.
The garden was intended to provide a pleasing aesthetic experience, but it ends up serving only a practical purpose by growing food.
The one aesthetic object that does grow in the garden is a rosebush, which explicitly links ideals to pain—every rose, after all, has its thorn. It is suggestive of war and violence, but while describing the armor, the narrator takes the opportunity to mention that Bellingham trained as a lawyer.
Such a comparison suggests that Bellingham may be incompetent in his newly adopted careers, or at least that he has overextended himself. Something is clearly awry in a society that allows a woman who admittedly engages in satanic practices to remain a protected and acknowledged member of the community, while it forces Hester, who has erred but once, to live as an outcast and in danger of losing her child.
It is Pearl who points out many of these disturbing and significant images. In these scenes, she shows herself to be not only a spiritual help to her mother but also a kind of oracle of truth. Accurately sensing the sinister aura of the place, she tries to escape out a window.
Her impulse also reflects on the relative characters of the two men. Wilson, as she senses, is not to be trusted, while Dimmesdale, although he refuses to acknowledge his guilt, will ultimately remain loyal to her and her mother. He incorporates himself into society in the role of a doctor, and since the townsfolk have very little access to good medical care, he is welcomed and valued.
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The Scarlet Letter
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See all. Recent updates. No sample available. The Scarlet Letter SparkNotes. Description Details What do you get when a group of Harvard Students creates study guides for the 21st century? Better grades. Not long ago our writers were acing their classes. Now they're loading SparkNotes with concise critical analysis that won't yellow with age.
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SparkNotes -- the smarter, better, faster way to an "A. Summaries of every chapter with thorough Analysis.The main idea or message of the work—usually an abstract idea about people, society, or life in general. Pearl Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary function within the novel is as a symbol. Chillingworth devotes all of his time to his patient. Knowing that she is alone in this world, Pearl creates casts of characters in her imagination to keep her com- pany.
Here Pearl is assuming, as children often do, that her mother is representative of all adults.
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