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The Scarlet Letter Suggested Essays

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. Is Hester truly penitent for her crime?

    Answer: Though Hester regrets the effect her crime has had on her child and on her position in society, she sees Chillingworth's betrayal of Dimmesdale as an even greater crime. Ultimately, Hester learns to forgive herself for her sins while Dimmesdale does not.

  2. Why does Dimmesdale intervene on Pearl's behalf when Governor Bellingham orders her removed from Hester's care?

    Answer: There are two possibilities: either he fears Hester revealing his name or he truly believes that Hester deserves to care for her daughter, since he is emotionally connected to Pearl as her father and wants Hester to raise her. Ultimately, we believe that it is guilt which motivates him most, since he comes to Hester's defense only after she looks at him with imploring eyes.

  3. What is the difference between how adultery is viewed now and how it was viewed by Puritan society? In other words, where does the blame lie?

    Answer: In modern society, adultery is seen as a breach of contract between two people and therefore a private matter. In Puritan society, adultery was seen as a breach of contract between two people and the community in which they lived.

  4. How is the Scarlet Letter embodied by Pearl?

    Answer: Pearl, in her wild, unrepressed passion, represents the adulterous passion of her parents, as does the scarlet letter. In her society, she is completely out of place, a child of illicit passion and a constant reminder, like the scarlet letter, of that passion.

  5. Why does Dimmesdale keep putting his hand over his heart?

    Answer: Pearl asks this question repeatedly of her mother, but Hester will not answer her. Over time, we understand that Dimmesdale has literally and figuratively inscribed his own scarlet letter into the flesh above his heart so that he can commune with Hester's guilt, shame, and public excommunication.

  6. Do people in the community believe Hester's punishment for adultery is too light or too strict?

    Answer: For the most part, they believe it is too lenient, and some advocate branding her with a hot iron or death, the sentence associated with the crime of adultery both in the New England statutes of the time and in the Bible. As time progresses, however, they loosen slightly in their attitudes, though not as much as Hester would expect. Those who acknowledge their own sinfulness are somewhat less quick to judge Hester and can see the case for a less strict punishment by the community.

  7. What are the purposes of the opening Custom-House essay?

    Answer: The Custom-House introduction does more than increase the length of the novel, which Hawthorne thought was too short. It also adds a frame story and a romantic sense of truth or non-fiction to the tale. It introduces themes and imagery that will appear later in the novel. And it adds weight to the story by suggesting that the actual fabric of the scarlet letter continues to hold power.

  8. Who is more racked by guilt, Hester or Dimmesdale?

    Answer: Dimmesdale has sinned according to his own system of beliefs, since as the town minister he has violated the values he has preached against for decades. He takes his guilt to heart and suffers mightily. Hester, meanwhile, has come to terms with her sin over time.

  9. What do Dimmesdale and Chillingworth share, other than Hester herself?

    Answer: Both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth conceal their relationships to the adulterous act, leaving Hester as the only person to take public responsibility for the affair. They continue to maintain prominent roles in society. Both men are ultimately destroyed by this secrecy as they become entangled in a parasitic relationship.

  10. Does Chillingworth ever forgive Hester?

    Answer: Chillingworth seems forgiving of Hester at the outset, and he seems to transfer his rage onto Dimmesdale, whom he pursues relentlessly. Indeed, he seems to understand that he shouldn't have married a woman who would never love him, but Dimmesdale must be punished for allowing Hester to indulge her passion. His sinister acts toward the end of the novel are ameliorated somewhat by his choice to leave his estate to Pearl.

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