Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter The Supernatural

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Supernatural

Chapter 2

It had the affect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and enclosing her in a sphere by herself. (2.11)

This is the scarlet letter: it's a "spell" that takes her out of the ordinary stuff of day-to-day life. But is Hester the only one under the letter's spell? And if Hester made the letter herself, who cast the spell?

It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. (2.1)

Nice, Hawthorne. But does he really believe that she's a witch—or is he just talking with the voice of the community, here?

Chapter 3

It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passageway of the interior. (3.33)

Okay, obviously the scarlet letter wasn't actually glowing. But this incident—and other supernatural type events—put us into a different world, one in which everyday natural events have supernatural meanings. To people who can see the supernatural where it doesn't exist, Hester's adultery would mean something very different.

Chapter 4
Hester Prynne

“Why dost thou smile so at me?” inquired Hester, troubled at the expression of his eyes. “Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?” (4.33)

You'd think that, if you sold your soul to the devil, you'd know about it—but here, Hester is trying to figure out if she actually did. Apparently, Chillingworth is so good as the whole creepy thing that he's actually being confused for the Devil.

Chapter 5

They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth tinged in an earthly dyepot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the nighttime. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit. (5.12)

Infernal fire, eh? That's a pretty hefty thing to have to carry around on your chest everyday. And yet, people seem to be more taken by its color and its glowing qualities than they are by what it represents (adultery, temptation, the Devil). We get a feeling that these townspeople are kind of in awe of the scarlet A and not for entirely negative reasons. It almost seems like the townspeople talk more about the A than they do about Hester's sin.

Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart, sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtile poison from ordinary trifles, and sometimes, also, by a courser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound. (5.8)

Alchemists were like (emphasis on the "like") scientists who were primarily concerned with (1) turning everyday metals into gold, and (2) concocting the elixir of life. Here, our narrator describes the coldness of the "elevated" ladies toward Hester. Their mean words are like those cool little sponges that, when dry, are the size of your pinky nail, and that, when wet, grow to be the size of your hand. That's where the alchemy comes in —these women say civil things to Hester, but these words have huge, hurtful meanings beneath them.

Chapter 6

The unlikeliest materials—a stick, a bunch of rags, a flower—were the puppets of Pearl’s witchcraft, and, without undergoing any outward change, became spiritually adapted to whatever drama occupied the stage of her inner world. (6.8)

Witchcraft, sure—or maybe just active imagination. But to the Puritan kids, who only know how to play at going to church and "scourging Quakers," this wild imagination probably does seem a lot like witchcraft.

Pearl would grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations that made her mother tremble because they had so much the sound of a witch’s anathemas in some unknown tongue. (6.6)

Before you start calling Pearl a little witch, take a look at her childhood: she was born in a prison, she lives with her mother in a tiny cottage far away from town, and kids say mean things to her all day long. We don't know about you, but we'd be cursing up a storm if we were in Pearl's position.

Chapter 8
Reverend John Wilson

“Art thou a Christian child – ha? Dost thou know thy catechism? Or art thou one of those naughty elves or fairies whom we thought to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in merry old England?” (8.5)

Gee, "merry old England" sounds a lot pleasanter than the strict Puritan world of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We get the sense that Mr. Wilson and his fellow government officials think of England as a place where frivolous things go down (things like dancing, parties, and eating good food). Apparently, England is also full of elves and fairies, and the Puritans had hoped to have a purely elfless and fairyless society. No supernatural here—unless it's prophetic meteors, of course.

Chapter 12

There was witchcraft in little Pearl’s eyes, and her face, as she glanced upward at the minister, wore that naughty smile which made its expression frequently so elvish. She withdrew her hand from Mr. Dimmesdale’s and pointed across the street. (12.31)

Not that we think Pearl is a witch or anything, but we do almost get the feeling that Pearl conjures Chillingworth up. Our narrator gives us no clues as to Chillingworth's whereabouts prior to this moment, and we don't even see or hear Chillingworth approach. It's only after Pearl points at something that we realize the doctor is even there. Spoooooooky.

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