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by Nathaniel Hawthorne

About The Scarlet Letter

Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is considered Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous novel--and the first quintessentially American novel in style, theme, and language. Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, the novel centers around the travails of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a daughter Pearl after an adulterous affair. Hawthorne's novel is concerned with the effects of the affair rather than the affair itself, using Hester's public shaming as a springboard to explore the lingering taboos of Puritan New England in contemporary society.

The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the United States was still a relatively new society, less than one hundred years old at the time of the novel’s publication. Indeed, still tied to Britain in its cultural formation, Hawthorne's novel offered a uniquely American style, language, set of characters, and--most importantly--a uniquely American central dilemma. Besides entertainment, then, Hawthorne's novel had the possibility of goading change, since it addressed a topic that was still relatively controversial, even taboo. Certainly Puritan values had eased somewhat by 1850, but not enough to make the novel completely welcome. It was to some degree a career-threatening decision to center his novel around an adulterous affair (but compare the plot of Fielding's Tom Jones).

But Hawthorne was not concerned with a prurient affair here, though the novel’s characters are. Hawthorne chose to leave out the details of the adulterous rendezvous between Hester and Dimmesdale entirely. Instead, he was concerned with the aftermath of the affair--the shaming of Hester, the raising of a child borne of sin, and the values of a society that would allow a sin to continue to be punished long after it would seem reasonable. Hawthorne takes advantage of his greatest assets as a writer--the interiority of his writing, his exploration of thoughts and emotions--and uses them to humanize all the parties involved in the affair, as well as to demonize the thoughts that become consumed by it. Chillingworth, notably, becomes the embodiment of Puritan values, which led people to lynch and destroy in the name of God but motivated in large measure by the people’s own repressed sins of lust, greed, and envy.

The Scarlet Letter also became intensely popular upon publication because it had the good fortune of becoming one of America's first mass-published books. Before The Scarlet Letter, books in America usually were handmade, sold one by one in small numbers. But Hawthorne's novel benefited from a machine press, and its first run of 2,500 copies sold out immediately. As a result, then, The Scarlet Letter benefited not only from its implicit controversial subject matter but also from an unusually large available readership. Readers who agreed or disagreed with the book's choices, however subtly, could spread the word. The novel became the equivalent of a seminal political tract--and the subject of endless discussion and debate, no doubt influencing social change. The novel also benefited because of Hawthorne’s support and respect among New England's literary establishment (he would soon become good friends with Herman Melville). Thus, the novel became popular not only with the masses. It was heralded as “appropriate” reading despite its attention to adulterous love.

The Scarlet Letter has been adapted many times on film, on television, and on the stage. The first film was a 1917 black-and-white silent film, while the most recent--and much maligned--film version opened in 1995 starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman.

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