The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Questions
Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.
- Many of the townspeople seem to take active, vicious pleasure in gossiping about and scoffing at Hester Prynne, even though they eventually come to like Hester. What role does gossip play in developing Hester's character? Why are the characters in this novel so judgmental?
- If Hester Prynne could have changed one thing about Puritan society, what do you think it would have been?
- Is it possible to detect Puritan ethics, religious ideals, and cultural/social structures in modern-day America? If so, where do you see these ideals?
- Do you think the Puritans needed the strict rules and laws they set down upon first settling in America? Why or why not?
- In 1854 Hawthorne wrote, "it has often been a matter of regret for me, that I was shut out from the most peculiar field of American fiction, by an inability to see any romance, or poetry, or grandeur, or beauty in the Indian character" (source). The Native Americans who appear at the periphery of The Scarlet Letter are possibly of the Massachusetts or Pawtucket people. What does Hawthorne's attitude about Native Americans reveal to us about the relationships between America's first peoples and the Puritan colonists?
- Who is most at fault in this novel, if anyone? Why? What different forms of justice does the novel depict?
- Is religion ultimately depicted as a positive or a negative force in the novel? Who does it particularly seem to benefit? Does Reverend Dimmesdale seem authentically religious?
- The Puritans placed a strong emphasis on community, but they were also pretty fond of ostracizing and banishing community members who failed to conform to their standards—like Hester. Is the ability to banish community members key to forming strong communities? Does Hester's isolation strengthen or weaken the Puritan community?
- Seriously: why does Hester return to New England, even knowing that she'll have to wear that letter again? What does she get out of the community? And can we ever escape our hometowns?
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