The Scarlet Letter

Common Sense Media says

Classic novel of American religion, morality, and hypocrisy.

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Quality(i)

 

What parents need to know

Educational value

The Scarlet Letter is one of the most celebrated novels in early American literature and is probably the magnum opus of its author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. It vividly depicts Puritan life in Massachusetts during the mid-1600s and explores issues of American morality, religion, and hypocrisy. Its use of symbolism can't be missed. The novel is frequently used in high school and early college literature classes and is a favorite example for discussion on AP tests and the like.

Positive messages

Differing views of morality and sin are what drive the narrative of The Scarlet Letter. Hester bears the public shame for her transgression, but there are others who suffer for it in secret. Hester's unwavering goodness ultimately restores some of her standing in the community. Redemption is available to those who work for it.

Positive role models

Although she has committed an act that offends the morals of all her neighbors, Hester remains resolute in her pledge not to reveal the father of her child or to disclose a secret concerning her long-absent husband. She is a tender and loving mother. She even does charitable work, which allows her eventually to return to the good graces of the townspeople.

Violence
Not applicable
Sex

Illicit sex is, of course, at the center of The Scarlet Letter's premise and plot. Hester is ostracized because she dares to raise a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father. She and others come to bear responsibility for their actions. But this being a 19th-century novel about 17th-century Puritans, Hester's affair is not described in any detail likely to offend modern sensibilities.

Language
Not applicable
Consumerism
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Scarlet Letter is a classic American novel that deals with adultery, sin, religion, and redemption. Hawthorne's prose is dense with irony and symbolism, but readers who persevere will be rewarded by his subtle humor and acute understanding of human foibles.

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What's the story?

Set in the mid-1600s in a Puritan village near Boston, MA, THE SCARLET LETTER chronicles the spiritual journey of Hester Prynne, a married woman who becomes a social outcast when she conceives a child out of wedlock during her husband's long absence. Forced by the outraged townspeople to wear a vivid letter "A" for adultery on the breast of her gown, Hester refuses to name her daughter's father and accepts a life set apart from nearly everyone she knows. Only the intervention of the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale keeps Hester and her impish daughter Pearl together. When Hester's missing husband secretly returns, posing as a doctor and calling himself Roger Chillingworth, the stage is set for a tumultuous story of sin, tragedy, and redemption.

Is it any good?

QUALITY
 

Written in the mid-1800s, The Scarlet Letter is one of the most acclaimed early America novels and is frequently assigned in upper-level high school and entry-level college English Literature classes. It examines issues of sin and redemption and paints a vivid portrait of Puritan life in the mid-1600s. Although Hawthorne's prose can seem complicated and perhaps stilted to modern ears, a careful reading reveals his delicious use of irony and symbolism to make his points about American morality and hypocrisy.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about how views about adultery and children born out of wedlock have changed over time.

  • What is it about Hester's attitude regarding her affair that so angers her fellow townspeople? Why doesn't the father of the child come forward?

  • Young Pearl is regarded by some of the villagers as a kind of demon-child. Does her behavior in the book strike you as normal for a child her age? Do you believe that the sins of a father or mother can be passed along to a child?

  • The Scarlet Letter is noted for Hawthorne's use of symbols. How is the letter "A" used as a symbol? What does it mean in different contexts?

  • This novel is considered a classic and is often required reading in school. Why do you think that is? 

Book details

Author:Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:History
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Simon & Brown
Publication date:January 1, 1850
Number of pages:208

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