Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

by Leland Ryken

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We’ve all heard about the classics and assume they’re great. Some of us have even read them on our own. But for those of us who remain a bit intimidated or simply want to get more out of our reading, Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics are here to help.

In these short guidebooks, popular professor, author, and literary expert Leland Ryken takes you through some of the greatest literature in history while answering your questions along the way.

Each book:

  • Includes an introduction to the author and work
  • Explains the cultural context
  • Incorporates published criticism
  • Contains discussion questions at the end of each unit of the text
  • Defines key literary terms
  • Lists resources for further study
  • Evaluates the classic text from a Christian worldview

This particular guide opens up the signature book of American literature, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and unpacks its universal themes of sin, guilt, and redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433526114
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 02/28/2013
Series: Christian Guides to the Classics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 937,024
File size: 437 KB

About the Author

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Read an Excerpt


The Prison-Door

Plot Summary

The two-page opening chapter whisks us away to an imagined world that on the surface is remote from our own time and place. The story begins with a crowd scene, and the brief description of the men's steeple-crowned hats and the women's hoods is our first clue that we have stepped into seventeenth-century Puritan Boston.

The focus of the chapter is not on the crowd, however, but rather the place where the early action of the story will occur. The crowd has assembled in front of the town prison. The prison is only the launching pad, as the narrator immediately takes a wide-angle view and names the ingredients that made up any typical village in Puritan New England — a church, a surrounding cemetery, and a prison. Then, in a surprise maneuver, Hawthorne gives the most space of all to a wild rosebush beside the prison. It is hard to imagine a simpler introduction to the complex story that will follow.

The opening sentences of any story are one of the biggest challenges facing a storyteller. All storytellers need an irresistible hook that will entice a reader to keep reading. Hawthorne reached into the available bag of tricks and cast his lot with description of place or setting as the thing that would draw his readers into the story.

Whenever we read or listen to a story, we enter a whole world of the imagination. We enter that unfamiliar world much as we enter a real-life place that we are visiting for the first time. Gradually we become familiar with the details and assumptions of the imagined world of the story. A literary critic once remarked that the world of prison, cemetery, and church that we meet at the outset of The Scarlet Letter epitomizes the Puritan drama of sin, death, and salvation.


The simple portal through which we enter Hawthorne's masterpiece is a carefully orchestrated introduction to the book as a whole. While seeming merely to describe a physical setting, Hawthorne actually establishes his famous technique of symbolic reality. The prison, the church, the graveyard, and the rosebush are literal properties of the scene, but each one functions as a symbol of an important aspect of Hawthorne's imagined world. The prison symbolizes the evil that is part of human nature and society. The church represents salvation as Christians experience it. The cemetery symbolizes death, and the rosebush embodies the principle of nature and natural feeling or emotion.

While the technique of symbolic reality is something that any careful reader can see by looking closely at the text, another technique is one that we do not fully realize until the end of the story. It is the technique of the guilty reader. Hawthorne uses evaluative terms that on a first reading evoke a negative picture of society and Puritanism and a positive picture of natural sentiment (as symbolized by the rosebush). This might mislead us into thinking that the book is an attack on Christianity. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the book itself accepts evil and its punishment as inevitable aspects of human existence, not something foisted on it by Christianity.

Hawthorne's use of symbolism extends to characters' names. Hester is a version of Esther, an Old Testament heroine noted for her beauty, strength, and courage.

The Scarlet Letter sets the Christian and Romantic worldviews into conflict and lets them fight it out until the end of the story. The Romantic worldview elevates feeling and nature to the highest value and disparages human civilization or society as being confining to the human spirit. It is part of Hawthorne's technique of the guilty reader initially to get us to feel sympathetically toward the Romantic elevation of nature and feeling.

For Reflection or Discussion

A good preliminary question to ask of any episode in a story is, What draws me into the action? What evokes my interest? Secondly, Hawthorne uses heavily evaluative terms as he describes the details that he puts before us, and these function as a lens through which we look at such phenomena as the prison and the rosebush. This prompts us to ask, How does Hawthorne initially get us to view such dichotomies as civilization and nature, society and the individual, Christianity and Romanticisim? What specific things characterize the two halves of these dichotomies?

Despite the opening portrayal of society as rigid and nature as warm and sympathetic, it is important not to foreclose on which worldview Hawthorne ultimately favors. The Scarlet Letter is built around a surprise ending that reverses our opening impressions.


The Market-Place

Plot Summary

A crowd of spectators stands outside the prison in the town of Boston. Townspeople are speaking condemningly about a notorious adulteress in their midst. In a moment of high drama, the prison door is flung open and a young woman steps into the sunlight. Her name is Hester Prynne. She is an unmarried mother and carries an infant in her arms. A red letter A is embroidered on the front of her blouse, symbolizing adultery. After Hester steps into public gaze, the onlookers continue to utter a stream of judgmental condemnation of Hester as they talk among themselves.

In this chapter Hawthorne reenacts what Romantic literature of his era repeatedly portrayed. It is the spectacle of the solitary person victimized by a hostile society.

Hawthorne labeled the kind of stories that he wrote "romances," and this means that they are not novels. Novels are realistic and lifelike in their surface details. Romances move beyond the strictly realistic. The extreme idealization of Hester and satiric portrayal of the Puritans illustrate this. The technique is that of caricature, not realism. No woman is as perfect as Hester is portrayed as being, and probably no society has ever been as single-mindedly judgmental as the Puritans of Hawthorne's story.


As this chapter unfolds in the same leisurely pace that characterized the opening chapter, it becomes apparent that Hawthorne has no interest whatever in a fast-paced narrative style that keeps us on the edge of our seats with an abundance of external action. Hawthorne has not written an "action story" that makes us wonder what happens next. Instead he has written a story that casts the focus on two other things — the description of people and settings and the interior action of what happens inside people's minds and hearts.

The key to interpreting this chapter is to view it as an expansion of the conflict that was latent in the first chapter. Hester is the engaging and sympathetic figure as she endures the shame of her punishment as a victim of social prejudice. She represents nineteenth-century Romanticism, in the specific form of the ostracized individual set over against a hostile society. Storytelling is an affective art in which the storyteller gets us to feel a certain way toward characters and actions. Initially The Scarlet Letter gets us to feel sympathetically toward Hester as Romantic heroine.

Set over against Hester is the Puritan community. They are "a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical." We need to keep the issues clear at this point. The Puritan community does not represent Christianity. Puritan behavior as portrayed in Hawthorne's story is less than Christian, knowing nothing of the spirit of Galatians 6:1–2: "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. ... Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." As the story unfolds, we will see with increasing clarity the wedge that Hawthorne drives between Puritan behavior and Christian doctrine. In the early stages of the book, only two worldviews are evident — the Romantic, which elevates feeling, and the Puritan, which makes law the central fact of life. We need to keep reading before the Christian worldview gradually emerges.

Of course the technique of symbolism is alive and well in the second chapter. Images of light and darkness, of rigidity like iron and seasoned wood, and of solitary suffering versus societal judgmentalism pervade the pages of this chapter.

World making is one of Hawthorne's greatest gifts. Instead of reading to catch the plotline, we need to relish Hawthorne's ability to describe scenes and people.

A literary critic described Henry James's technique of the guilty reader this way: "James managed to seduce all but the most attentive readers into identifying initially with a point of view which seems sensible and ... sympathetic. It is only with the unfolding of the action that we ... come to understand that the original point of view was stupid, unimaginative, shabby, and evil." — Joseph Summers, The Muse's Method

Hawthorne plants the seeds of his eventual exposure of Hester already in this chapter. Having compared Hester to the Madonna (Mary and Jesus), the narrator notes unobtrusively that here, in contrast to Mary, "there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life." He also calls the scene that is unfolding in this chapter "the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature" (that is, Hester). The narrator is our ally against the difficulties of reading Hawthorne's story, in this case giving us hints that Hester is not a completely sympathetic figure.

For Reflection or Discussion

The focus of interpretive attention for this chapter needs to be on characterization. Hester is the sympathetic central character in this chapter, so the first thing to do is go through the chapter and compile a portrait of Hester. By what techniques and evaluative vocabulary does the storyteller get us to sympathize with Hester? Additionally, what things make Hester a Romantic heroine in the nineteenth-century sense of that word? Secondarily, we need to compile a portrait of the Puritan community. What is the essential identity of the Puritans? Specifically, how do they represent a legalistic worldview that elevates law to the highest value? Having done justice to characterization, we should note the patterns of imagery and symbolism by which Hawthorne presents the solitary sufferer and the tormenting community in which she lives.

Literature is the voice of authentic human experience. In this chapter Hawthorne paints a moving picture of suffering humanity and the individual's rejection by a self-righteous society. The picture of social prejudice in Hawthorne's story is as up-to-date as the daily news.


The Recognition

Plot Summary

Hawthorne structured the opening chapters of his book on a progressive principle in which readers are introduced to various characters in a carefully orchestrated sequence. The opening chapter described the village where the main action will occur. The second chapter introduced two mighty antagonists — Hester and the Puritan society. Chapter 3 now adds two more leading characters.

We are first introduced to someone whose name we learn in a later chapter. He is Roger Chillingworth, the husband of Hester who was delayed in joining his wife in the new world. The other person who is added to the cast of characters in this chapter is Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the local minister and father of Hester Prynne's daughter. We do not learn a lot about either character in this chapter, but they are now on our radar screen as actors in the central drama.

The main action of chapter 3 is Hester's refusal to name the father of her child. That refusal is made in the face of tremendous attempts to force disclosure of the father's name. The first attempt at coercion is made by Rev. John Wilson. That is followed by Rev. Dimmesdale's appeal to Hester in an emotion-packed scene.

Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale are introduced to us in the same chapter. That is no coincidence. Although Dimmesdale does not know it until late in the action, Chillingworth becomes his archenemy — a demonic figure who tries to destroy Dimmesdale's soul. Their names are symbolic. Chillingworth combines the suggestions of coldheartedness with a once-worthy aspect of character. Arthur evokes the idealized associations of the Arthurian legend, but Dimmesdale — "dim as a dale" — highlights both evil and concealment of truth.


The Scarlet Letter starts out simply and then becomes progressively more complicated and subtle. Chapter 3 makes greater demands on us than the first two chapters did.

The deeper meanings of this chapter are embodied in the dramatic irony that Hawthorne decided to highlight. This irony starts with the opening conversation between a townsman and Roger Chillingworth, husband of Hester. The townsman offers the opinion that Chillingworth must be glad to see justice so rigorously enforced in the town at which he has arrived, and Chillingworth inquires, seemingly innocuously, whether the father of Hester's child is known. As readers we sense, as the townsman does not, the hidden significance of Chillingworth's question.

But that is only a warm-up to the irony that swirls about Rev. Dimmesdale. Rev. Wilson prevails on Dimmesdale to implore Hester to reveal the father's name because as Hester's pastor he knows her "natural temper better than I." When Dimmesdale appeals to Hester, he asks in a question dripping with irony, "What can thy silence do for him [the father of the child], except it tempt him — yea, compel him, as it were — to add hypocrisy to sin?" Of course the spectators do not sense the significance of that statement, but it is in fact the main plotline of the story that follows. Equally ironic is Dimmesdale's parting shot, "Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!"

But the greatest irony lies at a deeper level. On the surface, Hester has acted heroically in not implicating her partner in adultery. She is all heart. She wishes she "could endure his agony, as well as mine." On a first reading, we are inclined to think, "How noble." What irony, therefore, when we stop to consider that we have witnessed a moral crime in Hester's apparent selflessness, as she herself will later admit to Dimmesdale.

As always in this story, we must distinguish between Puritan behavior and Christian doctrine. There are numerous hints of the Christian worldview in this chapter, even though it has not fully emerged as a combatant to Hester's Romantic worldview. Chillingworth, for example, offers the opinion that the guilty father might stand silently, "forgetting that God sees him." The narrator calls Hester's infant "a sinborn infant in her arms." Hester's heart is said to be "an erring woman's heart," entangled by a "mesh of good and evil."

Storytellers can scarcely ply their trade without resorting to dramatic irony, but The Scarlet Letter is unsurpassed in the technique. Dramatic irony arises when readers know more than what some of the characters in the story know. The concealment of Dimmesdale's status as Hester's partner in adultery is the main source of irony in The Scarlet Letter, but other notable instances are present as well.

Hawthorne continues to use the technique of caricature in his portrayal of the Puritan community in this chapter. Rev. Wilson is so accustomed to the darkness of his study that he blinks as he stands in the sunlight, with his "grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap." Governor Bellinghamis of course dressed in black. And so forth.

Hawthorne's love of symbolism largely recedes in this chapter, with one notable exception. After Hester refuses to disclose who the infant's father is, Dimmesdale emits a long sigh "with his hand upon his heart." This is the first instance of a symbolic gesture that will come to dominate the middle of the story. The pain in Dimmesdale's heart is a symbol of his guilty conscience and soul.

For Reflection or Discussion

As already intimated, Hawthorne raises the bar of difficulty with this chapter. The first thing to trace is the continuation and amplification of Hester's Romantic outlook, with its elevation of feeling as the highest value. As an extension of that, we need to note how Hawthorne gives us repeated opportunities to be guilty readers, sympathizing with Hester in ways that the book will eventually condemn. Additionally, we need to explore the dramatic irony that pervades the chapter, along the lines suggested above. This irony is not present just for the narrative voltage that it supplies, though we need to be receptive of that voltage. The irony functions as part of the battle between Romantic and Christian worldviews that will eventually be fully established. Finally, what signposts begin to establish the Christian worldview as an alternative to Hester's Romantic elevation of feeling as the thing that should determine human behavior?


Excerpted from "Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Leland Ryken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Nature and Function of Literature,
Why the Classics Matter,
How to Read a Story,
The Scarlet Letter: The Book at a Glance,
The Author and His Faith,
1 The Prison-Door,
2 The Market-Place,
3 The Recognition,
4 The Interview,
5 Hester at Her Needle,
6 Pearl,
7 The Governor's Hall,
8 The Elf-Child and the Minister,
9 The Leech,
10 The Leech and His Patient,
11 The Interior of a Heart,
12 The Minister's Vigil,
13 Another View of Hester,
14 Hester and the Physician,
15 Hester and Pearl,
16 A Forest Walk,
17 The Pastor and His Parishioner,
18 A Flood of Sunshine,
19 The Child at the Brook-Side,
20 The Minister in a Maze,
21 The New England Holiday,
22 The Procession,
23 The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter,
24 Conclusion,
Further Resources,
Glossary of Literary Terms Used in This Book,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Ryken is a warm and welcoming guide to the classics of Western literature. The books in this series distill complex works into engaging and relevant commentaries, and help twenty-first-century readers understand what the classics are, how to read them, and why they continue to matter.”
Andrew Logemann, Chair, Department of English, Gordon College

“Students, teachers, homeschoolers, general readers, and even seasoned literature professors like me will find these Christian guides to classic works of literature invaluable. They demonstrate just what is so great about these ‘great books’ and illuminate their meanings in light of Christian truth. Reading these books along with the masterpieces they accompany is a literary education in itself, and there can be few better tutors and reading companions than Leland Ryken, a master Christian scholar and teacher.”
Gene Edward Veith Jr., Professor of Literature Emeritus, Patrick Henry College

“The Classics are peaks I’ve always wanted to climb, but never had the chutzpah to tackle. I often find myself, as a result, admiring these beauties from afar, wondering if I’ll ever dare an ascent and one day enjoy their views. That’s why I’m delighted to see the release of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics. Now, I’ve got a boost to my confidence, a feasible course in front of me, and a world-class guide to assist along the way. In fact, Dr. Leland Ryken could scale these peaks in his sleep, having, for decades now, guided hundreds of students to a greater appreciation for the Classics. Lee combines scholarly acumen and Christian faith with uncluttered thinking and crystal-clear style in a way that virtually guarantees no one will get tangled-up in woods or wander off trail. The Classics are now within reach! I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this series!”
Todd Wilson, Senior Pastor, Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park, Illinois; author, Real Christian and The Pastor Theologian

“In an age when many elite universities have moved away from the classics, this series will help re-focus students and teachers on the essential works of the canon. More importantly, it will help present the classics from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian worldview upon which the university was built. These guides offer exactly the kind of resources needed to empower high school and college students (whether in public, private, classical-Christian, or home schools) to connect with the Great Books and to ask the kinds of questions that we all must ask if we are to understand our full status as creatures made in the image of God who have fallen but who can be redeemed.”
Louis Markos, Professor of English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author, From Achilles to Christ and Literature: A Student’s Guide

“It is hard to imagine a better guide than Leland Ryken to help readers navigate the classics. In an age in desperate need of recovering the permanent things, I am thankful that Crossway and Ryken have teamed up to produce excellent guides to help Christians take up and read the books which have shaped the western intellectual tradition.”
Bradley G. Green, Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition, Union University; writer-in-residence, Tyndale House, Cambridge

“The Christian Guides to the Classics series by Leland Ryken will be a helpful addition to the library of anyone interested in a deeper understanding of classic literature. I can’t help but think that these guides will give us more pleasure and satisfaction from our reading than we would otherwise have. And best of all, we will be better equipped to successfully engage with the ideas and worldviews we come across in our reading. That’s a goal worth pursuing.”
Jonathan Lewis, Editor, Home School Enrichment, Inc.

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Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
HomeSchoolBookReview More than 1 year ago
The Scarlet Letter from a Biblical worldview Nearly every college-bound reading list for high school students contains The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Interestingly enough, I was never required to read it in either high school or college. I did read Hawthorne’s other great novel, The House of Seven Gables, for American Literature in my junior year of high school, but I decided to read The Scarlet Letter as an adult. Personally, I didn’t think all that much of it. In my review of it, I quoted a couple of friends. Dave Pratte wrote, “Classic story of a woman guilty of adultery and the torment she and others suffer as a result. Teaches the consequences of sin and the need for confession and forgiveness. Contains denominational error and uses difficult language and symbolism. Not for young children.” And Dale Smelser wrote, “Given the penchant of teachers for assigning The Scarlet Letter, we know that there is Trouble in River City. While [it] in the right circumstances may teach tempered judgment, in the milieu of today’s classroom it may simply make adultery seem less than bad.” Therefore, parents who are trying to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord could use a guide to the book that discusses it from a Biblical worldview, if a young person is required to read the book, and that is exactly what Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter by Leland Ryken, who has a PhD, from the University of Oregon and served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years, intends to be. After some introductory matter about the nature and function of literature, why the classics matter, how to read a story, the book at a glance, and the author and his faith, every chapter in The Scarlet Letter has a corresponding chapter in the guide with a plot summary, commentary, and “For Reflection or Discussion” sections, along with other side notes. Ryken argues that the foundation of the book is the conflict between the Romantic worldview symbolized by adulteress Hester Prynne and the Christian worldview represented by her partner, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale. He says that the theme is not Hester’s adultery but “the progress of Dimmesdale toward salvation.” Ryken concludes, “Upon reflection here at the end of the story, we cannot help but feel deeply that all the sadness portrayed in the book was the result of an adulterous encounter and/or relationship. As we reach the close of the story, we cannot help but feel great regret that Hester and Dimmesdale committed adultery.” Therefore, if teenagers, or even adults, are going to read The Scarlet Letter, this guide by Leland Ryken from Crossway should prove very helpful. Other books in the series include Milton's Paradise Lost, Homer's The Odyssey, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Dickens’s Great Expectations. I have one more comment. Ryken says, “The Scarlet Letter is probably the signature book of American literature.” I am sure that this is true, but while not wishing to negate anything Ryken says in the guide, I still believe that Christians should not necessarily feel any compulsion to read a book just because the people of this world consider it a “classic.”