Nathaniel Hawthorne may have died 152 years ago today, but his magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter, lives on as one of the most groundbreaking novels since its publication in 1850. In honor of Hawthorne, we’ve developed a Scarlet Letter infographic depicting the fateful journey of Hester Prynne, considered one of the most important female protagonists in American literature.
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The story follows Prynne in 17th-century Puritan society. After thinking her husband is lost at sea, she has an affair with minister Arthur Dimmesdale and becomes pregnant with his child. Needless to say, Prynne’s still-living husband, Roger Chillingworth, is none too pleased with her actions, and he becomes intent on psychologically torturing Prynne as revenge. The alienation Prynne endures as a result of her indiscretion gives her an outsider’s view of the strict Puritan world and a woman’s role within it.
Hawthorne’s idea for the story came from his own Puritan upbringing—which he loathed. When he discovered his great-great-grandfather was a judge at the Salem witch trials, he was so ashamed by his family that he changed his last name by adding a “w” to his birth name (Hathorne).
Nagged by the constant themes of temptation and guilt that plagued the Puritan community, Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter and created one of the first literary figures of the burgeoning feminist movement. In fact, just two years before the novel’s release, the country’s first women’s rights convention was held in New York.
Of Hawthorne’s protagonist, novelist John Updike once said that Prynne “is a mythic version of every woman’s attempt to integrate her sexuality with societal demands.” Indeed, the character of Hester Prynne continues to be an integral part of the cultural conversation and the feminist movement to this day. Learn more about this intricate character and the evolution of symbolism in the scarlet “A” in Course Hero’s Scarlet Letter infographic.